With the outbreak of the Covid-19, esports, like the rest of the world, ground to a halt. Starting with IEM Katowice in 2020, hundreds of events were canceled, switched to online, had their crowds removed, or were otherwise changed in response to the coronavirus.
But even as the rest of the esports world was canceling and moving their biggest tournaments online, Riot Games managed to put on three enormous tournaments: Worlds 2020, Mid-Season Invitational 2021, and Worlds 2021. But how did Riot Games succeed where so many other tournaments, such as Dota 2’s The International and CS:GO’s Majors, were forced into cancellation?
The feat of Worlds 2020
Riot Games and their League of Legends competitive scene was not immediately immune to the cancellations that ripped through the esports world in the wake of Covid-19. With their leagues moved online, taken out of studios, and in some cases, postponed, competitive LoL and the newly revealed Valorant competitive scene suffered in early 2020.
Most notable was the cancellation of MSI 2020. The Mid Season Invitational 2020 was initially scheduled for May 2020. But after the outbreak of the Pandemic was canceled in April of that year. It looked like, in all likelihood, Worlds 2020 would share the same fate. After all, several massive international events like Worlds had to be canceled that same year.
But Riot had an ace up their sleeve: The backing of parent company Tencent. It’s impossible to know just how much sway the state-backed Tencent corporation pulled to ensure that League of Legends got its Worlds 2020. But suffice to say, Worlds 2020 was held in China, with a limited crowd for some days.
But beyond just greasing the gears with some corporate connections, the measures taken to ensure a safe environment were astronomical. Taking place on a closed set in the Shanghai Media Tech Studio, teams traveling to the event were all placed in the same hotel. Each squad was forced into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Employees faced similar strict restrictions. Ultimately there were no reported cases during the event.
Many would criticize Riot’s all-spanning control of the competitive scene for League of Legends. But when faced with needing to operate an international tournament in a bubble, it’s hard to fault the total control.
Iceland saved the day in 2021
With the Pandemic continuing into 2021, instead of the eight or 12-month crisis, many had initially predicted, more competitive events would have to be scaled down or canceled. With Riot’s newly launched VCT for Valorant and the new 2021 season of League of Legends starting, it looked like the continuing Pandemic would scupper it. But for several reasons, that wasn’t an option.
In many ways, Riot Games was snookered by its past decisions. To have held Worlds 2020 and set expectations of what could be achieved in a pandemic so high, only to scale things back in 2021, would be unthinkable. It would have sent two messages: Firstly, Worlds 2020 was a mistake; an event born of hubris and brute force (accurate on many accounts). And secondly that it was a one-off miracle and not something that could be replicated by Riot Games again. Especially not outside of China, without the influence of Tencent on its side.
Scouring the globe, the ideal venue for Riot Games 2021 events became clear. Iceland and its capital of Reykjavík was the perfect location. Nominally a European location, but with enough restrictions and a small population to have prevented huge numbers of coronavirus cases, Iceland was ideal for esports events.
Valorant Masters, MSI 2021, and Worlds 2021 were all hosted in Reykjavik in the Laugardalshöll arena under similar lockdown conditions to Worlds 2020. As a result, the three huge events were pulled off with no press, no audience, and just players and staff isolated in arenas.
Looking ahead to MSI South Korea
With all these successes, it’s no surprise Riot Games is again looking to hold an event during a global pandemic. This time it’s rumored to be in South Korea, with the League of Legends MSI 2022. What measures Riot Games will put in place remains to be seen. The company has operated well with strict measures, but the overall attitude to the Pandemic has changed over the past two years.
We live in a world where most competitors will be double or even triple vaccinated against the virus. The cases in South Korea have steadily increased over the past months, but so has testing. And in many cases, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 seems to have less severe symptoms, especially for the vaccinated. Under these conditions, Riot Games once again attempts to hold an international tournament. Over the past two years, they’ve proved they’re more than capable of doing so.