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2020-09-27 09:41:41

After months of canceled events, elite sport has finally returned to Shanghai. But in a very 2020 twist, the athletes are competing exclusively via PCs inside a spectatorless arena.

The event? The League of Legends World Championship, a global esports tournament that pits teams of professional gamers from across the world against each other in tight, strategic battles filled with champions, spells, and monsters.

The annual tournament started Friday and will run for a month, with the grand final taking place Oct. 31. The winners will take home the prestigious 32-kilogram Summoner’s Cup, as well as prize money worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The return of the contest has been hotly anticipated in China, where the video game League of Legends is massively popular. The multiplayer online game — produced by Riot Games, an American firm owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent — features two teams of five players, each competing to destroy the other’s bases. 

Esports athletes compete during the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2020. Courtesy of Riot Games

Esports athletes compete during the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2020. Courtesy of Riot Games

The 2017 World Championship, the only previous iteration held in China, finished with a final at the National Stadium in Beijing with its seating capacity of 90,000. The event featured accompanying performances by pop star Jay Chou and an augmented reality-rendered dragon.

When a Chinese team won the event for the first time in 2018, it sparked raucous celebrations on college campuses across the country. Students howled from their dorms, lit fireworks, and even went streaking.

This year’s event promises to be more low-key, as most of the matches will be held behind the closed doors of an indoor arena. The only exception is the final, which will take place at the newly built Pudong Football Stadium. Local authorities have yet to confirm whether spectators will be allowed to attend.

The organizers, however, are delighted that the championship is going ahead at all.

Due to coronavirus concerns, China in July announced the cancelation of a string of high-profile sporting events set to be held in Shanghai — including the Rolex Shanghai Masters tennis tournament and the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions.

The esports contest is one of very few events that has managed to get the green light to proceed. This happened because the organizers planned the tournament with the virus in mind far in advance, Zeng Wensen, esports lead for Riot Games, told Sixth Tone by phone.

Under such difficult circumstances, all the athletes and clubs had the courage to trust the plan we’d come up with. I found this very moving.

Shanghai was also reluctant to cancel the event, given the city’s ambition to become a global capital for esports, according to Zeng. “Having an esports competition as prestigious as Worlds coming to Shanghai is a very important milestone on that journey,” he said.

According to Zeng, Riot Games was in close contact with the Shanghai government from February, after residents began self-isolating. It wasn’t until late June, after a protracted period with no locally transmitted infections, that the tournament was cleared to proceed, Zeng said.

That’s when the really hard work began. Over the next few months, Riot Games had to coordinate its plans with the local government to ensure that everything complied with virus-control measures, while also arranging entry visas, transport, and hotel quarantine for 22 teams from countries around the world — each with a different COVID-19 situation.

For Zeng and the other organizers, workdays sometimes lasted from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. the next morning, as the teams spanned different time zones, and checking every country’s COVID-19 infection data became a bedtime and wake-up ritual.

Builders in Shanghai have also been working overtime in preparation for the event. The Pudong Football Stadium was originally set to open in 2021, but construction was moved forward for the sake of the World Championship — the first event to be held at the new venue.

“It’s a huge honor that we can use the stadium,” said Zeng.

The first athletes began arriving in China in September. They spent their mandatory 14-day quarantine at a hotel that had been specially equipped with powerful PCs, so they could keep match-sharp for the tournament.

In the run-up to the championship, fans have enjoyed watching livestreams of the League of Legends athletes playing scrimmages against local Chinese players — who they would normally never have a chance to battle against because of servers being regional — from their hotel rooms.

Since they couldn’t leave their rooms, the esports athletes, who increasingly pay attention to physical training, ordered all manner of exercise equipment, from dumbbells to yoga mats and exercise bikes, Zeng said.

Not everything went according to plan, however. The Vietnamese squads Team Flash and GAM Esports couldn’t make the tournament because they wouldn’t be able to return to their home country after competing due to domestic entry restrictions, meaning the tournament had to change from a 24- to a 22-team format.

Another team, Europe-based Unicorns of Love, was also close to being denied entry — so close that the organizers called up a Russian replacement team, Gambit, which arrived in Shanghai earlier this month. At the last minute, however, the Unicorns of Love sorted out their visa issues, so the substitute team is returning home with a small portion of the prize pool as a thank-you.

Despite these logistical problems, the tournament has got off to a smooth start. On Friday, more than 300,000 people watched the opening games via livestreams on YouTube and Twitch.

Fans in Shanghai will be hoping one of the Chinese teams can prevail and win the trophy on their home turf for the first time. Zeng, however, said he has been particularly touched by the trust the foreign players have placed in the tournament’s travel and quarantine arrangements.

Many of the athletes have arrived from countries experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 infections. Several spent their entire flights in hazmat suits, without eating or drinking, as they traveled up to 30 hours due to long layovers.

“Under such difficult circumstances, all the athletes and clubs had the courage to trust the plan we’d come up with,” said Zeng. “I found this very moving — it was a global effort.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: An esports team huddles together during the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2020. Courtesy of Riot Games)