Tournament organizers play an essential role in the esports industry. Without them, the esports events we all enjoy watching simply wouldn’t happen. Over the past year, tournament organizers across the esports landscape were forced to adapt to unique and sudden limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many tournaments were cancelled, but there were some who worked diligently to move their competition to an online format, or to even host in-person format tournaments that properly protected competitors and production staff.
In this feature we look at three international esports events to take place this year: The Overwatch League’s Grand Finals, League of Legends Worlds championship, and VALORANT’s First Strike online kick-off tournament. These large events serve to illustrate how some esports tournament organizers managed to host international championships or even launch entire new esports during the most difficult year for esports ever.
The Overwatch League’s Online Pivot
The Overwatch League had big plans for the 2020 season. The teams finally moved to their home cities, and the league scheduled out numerous homestands which were set to take place in those cities throughout the season. Unfortunately, only a couple of homestands actually happened, before the rest had to be called off in response to the quickly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden collapse of their gameplan left the Overwatch League scrambling to respond.
Moving the regular season online
In mid-March, the Overwatch League took a couple of weeks off to plan out the rest of the season. At the end of the month, competition returned in an online format which took place in an Asian-Pacific region and a North American region, with seven teams in Asia and 13 in NA.
To be clear, we WILL be playing matches in March and April. We cancelled the events, not the matches (though we will have to move a few things around in the schedule to make this work). https://t.co/guxoTWLhMk
— Pete Vlastelica (@PeteVlastelica) March 11, 2020
Bringing back regular season competition so quickly was a significant accomplishment by itself. The organizers of the Overwatch League had to figure out how to move the entire broadcast online, including setting up in home studios for every commentator and desk analyst. Their production staff also had to work from home after the spring shutdown order locked down Blizzard’s main campus in California. On top of this, the Overwatch League had to essentially reschedule the entire year on very short notice, including dealing with teams who were in the midst of relocation (or implosion – in Vancouver’s case).
Not only did the Overwatch League continue its third season, they also introduced brand new tournaments during the 2020 regular season. After the cancellation of their homestand events, the Overwatch League tournament organizers wanted to replace them with something special. So they set about organizing three last minute, regional tournaments which took place over the summer: the May Melee, the Summer Showdown, and the Countdown Cup. These tournaments were hosted entirely online and offered an exciting spectacle to look forward to over the summer. They ended up being a huge hit, to the point that the Overwatch League has already announced that the midseason tournaments will return next year.
Hosting the Grand Finals Weekend on Korean servers
At the end of the year, the Overwatch League announced their extensive and detailed plans for the season; three playoffs which would feature the first competition between the NA and APAC regions all year. The event started with two online regional, double-elimination playoff tournaments to determine the top two teams in each region. The top two in each playoff then advanced to the Grand Finals Weekend, where they competed on Korean servers to determine a unified champion.
There were a lot of logistics to handle going into this Grand Finals tournament. The plan required the two teams based in North America do a strict two week quarantine once they arrived in Korea for the competition. The NA Teams also had to overcome the additional regulations around traveling during a pandemic, given the massive spike of the virus going on in the U.S. at the time. Luckily, both Philadelphia and San Francisco were able to bring all the players they needed without any major travel issues.
The Grand Final Weekend tournament went smoothly and organizers were even able to include notable host Soe Gschwind in the Grand Finals broadcast from Switzerland, where she was visiting her ailing father at the time. The show itself lacked some of the visually stunning production that you might expect from such a prestigious event, but at least the competition was able to take place. Although Byung-sun “Fleta” Kim earned the 2020 Season MVP award, the real MVPs of the 2020 season were all the folks behind the scenes who made the continuation of the 2020 season possible.
League of Legends’ in-person World Championship
The League of Legends Worlds Championship is regularly one of the most viewed events in all of esports every year. With every tournament, Worlds brings together competitors from 12 different regional leagues based around the world to determine the very best team. Hosting an event like that online would be impossible, since the player pings would be off the charts, so if Riot wanted to unify its title for 2020, they would need to bring every team together during a global pandemic. This year’s Worlds took place in September and was hosted in Shanghai, and turned out to be quite impressive, all things considered.
Gathering the best League of Legends teams in the world
Bringing teams from around the world together in Shanghai was no easy task. Riot’s goal was to build a LAN event during the pandemic. The event had to allow for a fair competition which provides a unique visual experience for viewers, without putting tournament staff, players, or coaches in danger.
Obviously the first priority of this year’s World Championship was safety. Throughout the event, players were tested weekly for the virus and given daily temperature checks for quick detection of COVID-19 symptoms. Players arriving from outside Shanghai were required to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel, inside a “bubble”. The Overwatch League instituted something similar for their Grand Finals Weekend, but Riot dealt with a much larger scale bubble at Worlds, since they were set to host 24 teams in group stages and a final bracket.
According to FlyQuest CEO Tricia Sugita, in an interview with ESPN, “The biggest challenge was visas. We’re in a very unprecedented time, and Riot has been an amazing partner, honestly, to make sure that we’re able to travel there and work with the Chinese government.”
Unfortunately, a couple teams did not end up making it at all, with both Team Flash and GAM Esports missing the tournament due to travel restrictions in Vietnam. However, 22 teams did make it, making Worlds one of the largest in-person international esports events to take place safely during the pandemic. Riot did a great job supporting the teams who did end up traveling for the event.
Putting on a show
After figuring out travel, quarantine, and visas for two dozen teams, the next challenge for the tournament organizers was facilitating an incredible and memorable broadcast. In the past, Worlds has featured stunning light shows and spectacles like no other in their opening ceremonies. For example, in 2019 they used holographic technology to create a unique concert experience.
Riot chose to attempt to achieve something similar this year, by adopting the AR broadcasting technology which made the Mandalorian possible. The tournament featured a unique viewer experience with carefully choreographed performances which utilized live AR technology on a massive stage featuring thousands of LED lights. They were able to transform their space using various pre-rendered scenes and animations which the live performers interacted with on their unique studio stage. It was an ambitious and innovative use of technology which went above and beyond viewer expectations, which is exactly what Worlds tries to accomplish every year.
“This is the most elaborate mixed reality stage in the world,” explained Michael Figg, creative director of POSSIBLE. “If you go to a store and pick up a 4k TV, that’s a pretty high resolution TV. This stage renders at 32k resolution. So it is, in terms of computational imagery, the most sophisticated in the world. The cameras we are using for our broadcast cameras are all tracked, and that data gets mapped to the LED screen behind us. Once the data is on the LED’s, we scenically extend it with augmented reality to make it look like the set goes on forever.”
The only major controversy with the broadcast was that Riot didn’t invite any of the LPL casters to commentate Worlds, even though the LPL broadcast team had a breakout year. This was because Riot accomplished their global representation at the event by having different studios take over each day, but as a result they couldn’t mix casters across regions. This, and a few observer issues with some broadcasts, were the only marks against the Worlds production this year.
This event overcame the most barriers of perhaps any other event in esports this year. They managed the large scale travel or many teams, carried out a COVID-safe bubble system, and managed to still produce a visually stunning broadcast. Riot Games outdid themselves for Worlds 2020.
The rise of VALORANT and the First Strike Tournament
On top of running Worlds for League of Legends in 2020, Riot also stepped up to the task of kicking off their latest esport VALORANT during the pandemic. Riot released VALORANT during the Summer of 2020. Even before the games’ full release, tournament organizers like Nerd St. Gaming and others ran a number of beta tournaments for the new first person shooter. After the game was fully released, Riot partnered with third party tournament organizers to run their Ignition Series of preliminary tournaments. During November and December, Riot finally ran their first official tournament for VALORANT called First Strike.
They hosted regional tournaments in 17 different regions all across the globe, with the main tournaments brackets all taking place during the first week of December. The tournaments ranged from small events like First Strike GCC and Iraq, which only saw three participants qualify to the semifinal bracket, to big events like First Strike North America or First Strike EU, both of which saw hundreds of teams attempt to qualify and full quarterfinal brackets for the tournament bracket. Across all regions, Riot put up nearly $600,000 in prize money for the various events. The sheer volume of tournaments, combined with a need to run all of them at the same time, was a hefty challenge to take on.
“Working on VALORANT esports has been a challenging journey having launched in the midst of a pandemic and we are proud of what we have accomplished this year,” explained Director of Esports EMEA Alberto Guerrero in a press release. “We are grateful to all of the teams, our partners, and production crews for their hard work and dedication to making First Strike Europe a success.”
Riot demonstrated a very impressive hands on approach to running these various tournaments. They carefully managed the needs of their players, teams, and the press throughout the weekend, and the tournaments came together pretty smoothly.
“Riot runs a really tight ship,” said TSM player Taylor “drone” Johnson in an interview. “They did a great job this weekend. Obviously, it’s their game, so they are pretty versed in it as far as broadcasting and making sure we have what we need. So far, [the First Strike] has been the best VALORANT tournament in regards to organization, ease of access, communication, and stuff like that.”
Although First Strike didn’t involve leaping over the hurdles of international travel like the previous events discussed in this article, it was an international effort in its own right. The tournament demonstrated the passion and dedication of Riot’s employees and of the many VALORANT teams themselves who participated in the First Strike qualifiers and the final brackets across the world. Considering how well the First Strike went, despite the limitations, the future of VALORANT events looks bright.
These three events only capture a small piece of the full breadth and scope of the challenges which esports organizations faced around the world, and the unique ways in which they have tackled those hurdles. Not just the tournament organizers themselves, but also all the teams, players, coaches, staff, and production crew, all faced tremendous adversity in the course of this pandemic. It can be easy to overlook these extraordinary efforts, but it is important to acknowledge the sacrifice, fortitude, and intelligence that went into allowing esports to safely continue during COVID-19 when so many other forms of entertainment were forced to stall.