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Dota 2

Covid-19 is Still Disrupting Dota Esports

Nikhil Kalro

It was as emphatic a statement as it can be from Valve, the organisers of Dota 2‘s The International 11 in Singapore. A statement that transgressions such as PSG.LGD’s – failing to promptly report a Covid-19 case in the camp – will not be tolerated, and will be subject to strict sanctions. Even if the person under question happens to just be part of the backroom staff, and not someone from the playing contingent. Push came to a shove earlier in the week when PSG. LGD’s general manager Pan Fei tested positive for Covid-19 a few days after the team arrived in Singapore for the tournament. With Valve allowing registrations only for eight members in the team’s official party, PSG.LGD didn’t report the case, as Fei wasn’t part of this small contingent. It proved to be a massive mistake that has the potential to cost them a major tournament win, and everything else that could accompany that win – points, financial windfall, growing audience, bigger sponsorship deals… you get the drift. While he began quarantining, the positive test wasn’t immediately reported to Valve. Coming on the back of how tough China and the lawmakers in the country have been towards Covid-19 and even just the slightest hint of such a possibility among people, especially those visiting the country, this was a massive mistake, even if it wasn’t going to spell doom for the tournament at large. The loser at the end of the day was PSG.LGD, who were severely penalised for their group stage games. This proved to be costly. They lost the first choice, priority pick for Radiant or Dire in their match-up against Royal Never Give Up. Then their spare pick and ban phase time against Boom Esports and Gaimin Gladiators were deducted. Unfortunate as it was for a team that was looking to pick up its pieces from a disappointing opening day, PSG.LGD took the blow sportingly, even if it left them at the time in danger of not making it through to the Upper Bracket of the TI playoffs. This wasn’t the blow they had envisioned. To PSG.LGD’s credit, they did comply with the organisers to take the punishment on their chin and move on from a genuine mistake. But you have to wonder how costly their decision of not reporting a case proved to be, especially in a post-pandemic world that is crawling back to normalcy after two years of lockdowns, severe restrictions and quarantines that have brought the esports world in several parts of the globe to a standstill.

ti11 psg lgd

Image Credit: Valve

Over the years, especially during the height of the pandemic, Valve has spent considerable time and energy to overcome travel and organisational hitches in countries where they’ve hosted major tournaments. For TI10 in 2020 in Stockholm, for example, they had to begin working with Sweden from as far back as 2019. And when the pandemic added to their list of logistical nightmares, they had to double up.

They ran into trouble because of their failure to get an exception to host, because a Dota 2 Championship seemingly didn’t qualify to be an “elite sporting event”, leaving the event in doldrums despite previous reassurances. This notification from the Swedish Sports Federation two weeks before the event was a bitter pill to swallow. To add insult to injury, they’d just passed a vote that esports won’t be accepted into the sports federation.

Valve officials then literally sat for hours together outside the office of Sweden’s Interior Minister to seek permission to reclassify TI10 as an elite sporting event. Those efforts failed too, as requests were immediately denied. It took the officials far longer to set up a meeting than it took for the government authorities to deny permission. The direct consequence of this was anyone attempting to procure a visa to travel to Sweden for TI10 – including players, talent and staff – would be denied.

This example is to merely highlight the kind of troubles Valve have had to overcome in the past because of the pandemic. Rules may change on the fly with regards to Covid-19 and its variants, but bureaucracies around the world are not flexible enough for change at short notice. Which is why PSG.LGD’s decision to not declare a Covid-19 case in the camp, even if that person wasn’t part of the main contingent, was a costly error.

Were they naive? Perhaps. Was it the lack of awareness? Perhaps. Can you blame them? Perhaps not entirely. Was the correction action taken? Possibly, yes. Only strict ruling of that magnitude would’ve possibly set an example for other teams going forward. It’s unlikely a reprimand would’ve had the same after-effects.

Sweden wasn’t, of course, the only instance of Covid-19 ruining international events. Earlier this year, the first Major of the 2021-2022 Dota Pro Circuit season was cancelled owing to growing concerns of new coronavirus strains that made the prospects of hosting an international LAN tournament near impossible. The spread of the Delta and Omicron variants put an end to any little hopes there may have been of conducting the tournament.

In its aftermath, there was widespread disappointment of the manner in which the entire saga played out. It wasn’t the decision to cancel that hurt, but the manner in which Valve handled the entire saga. In some cases, teams weren’t even communicated to about such a prospect until hours prior to the scheduled start. This led to several issues, not least being massive financial consequences for some of the smaller teams.

Then there were issues raised about the manner in which points distribution would change. Points that were meant to be distributed at the Winter Major were to be transferred to the second and third Majors later in the year to ensure the “balance of points” between regional and cross-regional remained. Some teams questioned Valve for not having proper SOPs in place. In short, the entire saga was a mess and played out entirely in public. It did a great disservice to the professionals who pour in hours and hours into training, dedicating their lives to the game, and the several others involved in planning and conducting these tournaments.

For far too long, between 2020 and earlier this year, organisers didn’t sell tickets, anticipating organisational hitches. Fans were denied an opportunity to watch their heroes in flesh and blood. The International, which was eventually moved from Stockholm to Bucharest last year, was to return with a Iive audience.

However, soaring Covid-19 cases put paid to those hopes because at that point, Romania had the second lowest vaccination rate in the European Union, just ahead of Bulgaria. Even a percentage as fractional as 8.28 per thousand new infections in the weeks leading into the tournament was seen as a threat big enough to hold crowds back from the event. In the same week, Evo’s in-person tournament, which was set to see 40 of the world’s best fighting game players compete in Las Vegas, was also called off due to Covid-19.

Sure, the positive impacts of Covid-19 on esports viewership through online streams can’t be understated, but the financial implications of cancellations have been massive. So massive that several countries like Vietnam, who have several teams that compete in League of Legends, have been denied for no fault of theirs.

Covid-19 also cut off funding for several outfits because some of the biggest corporate sponsors pulled out owing to a crunch. Companies like Monster, Red Bull, Intel and several betting firms, who make huge ad spends at live events, went into their shell and cancelled all sponsorships. This in turn threw a massive dagger into the hearts of several esports at large in terms of sponsorships. At the time, they were all forced to dig deep into their coffers to keep going.

What did help was people being rooted indoors found new ways to engage. And teams played to the gallery. More and more folks open up a web browser to watch streaming content. The likes of Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube Gaming became the big winners in the esports industry. This led to a turnaround in sponsor interest, leading to a massive spurt in viewership and money. It’s now entirely possible teams have gotten just a touch complacent now, with many believing the worst of the pandemic behind us.

True as that may be, it’s also important to remember the bigger picture. In a post-pandemic world, where some things have changed forever, it’s imperative for teams and players to abide by certain rules, not for their own safely and wellbeing but for the larger audience, many of whom are so fanatical in their support that they tend to blindly follow their heroes.

So teams making a statement through abiding the rules and following all the protocols are being ambassadors for the sport. Players owe this much to the fans and their own team owners, and management, on their part, must do everything possible within their powers to eliminate the slightest threat, pandemic or otherwise. It will make all stakeholders accountable beyond measure. And it can’t be a bad change.