By: Max Budowsky
There is no way around it, COVID-19 has been devastating for sports fans around the world. Some countries are having an easier time adapting sports to the COVID world, like Baseball in Korea and Soccer in Germany. However, there is one category of sport that has had a much easier time adjusting to a socially distanced society: E-Sports. While E-Sports have had an easier time making the pivot to socially distanced competition, it has by no means been seamless.
As with all sports, any major competitive league’s primary focus is ensuring that everybody is playing fair and has equal access to success. While some external factors like sports betting are placing pressure on E-Sports leagues and teams alike to ensure fair-play, internal changes will likely be the most effective. Prior to COVID, most E-Sports leagues hosted live events, with the largest leagues selling out arenas around the world. Most of these tournaments are “offline events,” which means that players, coaches, announcers, and fans are all together in person. This level of control ensures that players are not using cheating software such as “aim-bots,” something that is not inherently true of online play. Most leagues have prioritized fair play and effectively pivoted to online play by maintaining a fair degree of control over team communications and requiring anti-cheat proprietary tools on athletes’ computers. A great example of some of the fair play measures taken by E-Sports leagues are the steps taken by the League of Legends Championship Series (“LCS”). The LCS has required screen recordings of players, in-game communications to run through league-operated servers, and have begun broadcasting games on a delay so players can’t watch competition. Despite E-Sports leagues’ best efforts, surrendering any control over integrity will lead to accusations. A Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (“CS:GO”) recently found two of its teams enthralled in an “episode” when one team, MIBR, accused a player on Chaos Esports Club (“Chaos”) of cheating by using “aim-bots.” In response, BLAST Premier (“BLAST”), the league hosting MIBR and Chaos, has installed proprietary software that it claims is the “most effective anti-cheat tool” for CS:GO to ensure the integrity of its league.
Moreover, offline events provide less concern about anyone losing connection to the game servers and compromising the experience or legitimacy of the match. With COVID making in person tournaments difficult and unsafe for the athletes, one of the most important concerns for E-Sports leagues is how to deal with potential connectivity issues. In June, a major online CS:GO tournament, BLAST, ran in to a connection issue during a match between FURIA and MIBR, two Counter-Strike teams who were competing online. The stoppage in play should have resulted in MIBR, the team who had the technical issue, forfeiting the match. BLAST instead allowed the players to vote on whether the stoppage should result in a loss for MIBR or a replay of the match. The players chose to replay.
Thankfully, most leagues have been able to make simple logistical adjustments to solve bandwidth issues, and the drama of the FURIA/MIBR match was largely non-contentious for the players. The issues were not, however, free from controversy. Online allegations were levied against MIBR accusing them of purposefully sabotaging the connection. While there is largely no merit to that claim, it is something that E-Sports leagues should take note of. Ensuring that play is disrupted as minimally as possible will help boost the legitimacy of these online E-Sports matches.
A final major issue that nearly every E-Sports league is facing is how to continue normal schedules with players being unable to occupy the same space. The Toronto Ultra (“Toronto”), a professional Call of Duty League team based in Toronto, Canada, was preparing to open a brand-new practice facility prior to COVID which forced them to work remotely. Toronto was able to avoid any major problems because many of their players and staff live at the same apartment complex in the city. Unfortunately, not all teams are so lucky. Complexity Gaming (“Complexity”), an E-Sports organization owned by the Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, is facing difficulties with their CS:GO team as they are largely “spread out across Denmark, with one player currently based in Bulgaria.” While certainly a concern, players and staff being separated by COVID appears to be the most manageable issue that E-Sports leagues and teams are dealing with. Dominique Gelineau, the general manager for Toronto Ultra, says that “[t]he biggest challenge . . . has been . . . making sure [our young players are] supported and know they’re not alone in this.” Complexity’s COO echoed Gelineau’s concerns, placing players safety and “mental space” as its top priorities.
With that being said, it has not been all bad. E-Sports leagues have largely been the only sports leagues to not only survive, but thrive in the COVID world. The ESL Pro League, a CS:GO league, had it’s single most-watched broadcast day on its second day of online play, and the LCS has maintained a consistent level of viewership, with its Chinese counterpart seeing a 30% increase in viewership. However, while players and organizations are happy to see the increase in numbers, most still want the virus to go away, and to return to normal.