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How the biggest gaming leagues are adapting to an online-only world

As sports leagues shut down, esports are filling that void

Photo by Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games

Almost every single major professional sports league across the globe is on indefinite hiatus due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. There’s no NBA, no Champions League, no Olympic Games. But an unlikely option has started to fill that void for viewers: competitive video games. For years, esports leagues have tried to emulate traditional sports to reach a larger and more mainstream audience. But with millions forced to stay at home, these leagues have had to adapt in a way that emphasizes their digital-first nature. “This is where our roots are,” says Dominique Gelineau, the general manager of the Call of Duty League’s Toronto Ultra.

Over the past few weeks, almost every major esports league in the world — including the CDL, Overwatch League, ESL Pro League, Flashpoint, and multiple League of Legends competitions — has shifted to an online format. Typically, these games are played offline in a studio or arena environment. Players take the stage, fans go wild, and casters keep up the energy with infectious commentary. Re-creating that when everyone, from the players to the event’s producers, is working from home creates its own unique set of challenges.

In late February, IEM Katowice 2020, one of the world’s premier Counter-Strike competitions, took place in an empty 11,000-seat stadium after the Polish government declared a ban on mass gatherings not long before the event was set to kick off. It was around this time that Craig Levine, global chief strategy officer for the CS:GO ESL Pro League, realized they were going to need to make some changes. The league originally planned to play out its regular season at a studio in Malta, with the finals slated for an event in Denver. The team went through a few options, including playing in a studio with no fans, but as the situation escalated, they settled on playing the entirety of the competition online.

Call of Duty League - Launch Weekend Photo by Hannah Foslien / Getty Images

This created some potential issues. For one, the competition was meant to be a global one, with teams from around the world competing. That was less viable as travel restrictions became more abundant, so the league reorganized with divisions specifically for Europe and the Americas. “We went from one global product, to essentially two continental products, to solve for latency which isn’t quite so good across the Atlantic yet,” says Levine.

There was also the question of actually producing the events. Unlike many leagues, the ESL is still operating a studio for a skeleton production crew, while the players compete from their homes or team facilities. Even still, they started small. The first online broadcast was relatively bare-bones; you couldn’t even see the players themselves. “The first day of Pro League was getting the Xs and Os down, the basics of it,” Levine says. “Then starting day two, day three, and every day thereafter we’ve started adding other production elements; more videos from players at other events, more player interviews from team facilities. We wanted to make sure that the show went on.”

Other leagues have gone fully remote. Like the ESL Pro League, the League of Legends Championship Series originally intended to continue its season in a studio with no fans present, but ultimately, they were forced to go online instead. “We realized that forcing everyone into the arena is probably something that we shouldn’t be doing,” says LCS commissioner Chris Greeley. But the LCS has also taken things a step further with a completely remote broadcast. Every person involved is working from home, which means viewers get to see things like commentator Josh Leesman’s shiba inu appear in a live broadcast. Greeley says that the production team created new tools to simulate the experience of being in a broadcast booth so that they can work from home “but in a way that feels like they’re all in the control room together.”

The league has also had to make some changes to ensure everyone plays fair. In a studio environment, everything is controlled; in the LCS, players aren’t even allowed to take their gaming peripherals out of the building. But that level of oversight isn’t possible online, so the LCS has instituted other measures. These include screen recording, running in-game communications through league-operated Discord servers, and broadcasting games on a delay so players can’t gain a significant advantage from watching the competition. Similarly, the ESL Pro League is utilizing proprietary anti-cheat tools during matches and also keeping tabs on players through webcams. These have an added benefit: not only can you ensure the person playing is who they say they are, but you also get extra footage for the broadcast.

Photo by Cato Cataldo / Houston Outlaws

There are, of course, some unexpected issues with such a big transition. For instance, some LCS broadcasters were seeing their internet throttled in the middle of a game because they were consuming so much bandwidth. It’s also been a significant logistics adjustment for the teams and players. For the Toronto Ultra, the team was just getting ready to open up a new practice facility when they were forced to work remotely. Thankfully, most of the players and staff live at the same apartment complex, so they’re still able to keep in touch.

Gelineau says that the team has maintained the same practice schedule as before in an attempt to keep a sense of normalcy. “The biggest challenge for us has been, these are young players, a lot of them have moved away for the first time, and so just making sure they’re supported and that they know they’re not alone in this,” she explains. While the CDL season hasn’t started back up again yet, she notes that the team will do something similar for game days, with players keeping their same pregame rituals — whether it’s a particular warmup playlist or pregame meal — to stay focused, which will be particularly important since they’re used to live events. “You don’t get the roar of the crowd,” she says, “or getting hyped from people around you.”

Other teams have different setups. Gen.g’s LA office — which houses its Fortnite, CS:GO, and NBA 2K teams — remains open; the team says it was designed to run with minimal staff. “This allows for our players to continue to come into a safe / clean environment where they can eat, practice, and compete in online tournaments safely,” says general manager Nathan Stanz, noting that all of the team’s players live within walking distance.

Some teams are more scattered. In the ESL Pro League, Complexity Gaming’s CS:GO squad is spread out across Denmark, with one player currently based in Bulgaria. It’s an awkward setup, but as Complexity COO Kyle Bautista notes, it also made a lot more sense than flying everyone back to the team’s home base in Texas. “We wanted to make sure that we were keeping our players safe and in a good mental space,” he says.

No matter the team or league, everyone is dealing with uncertain times and a situation that is constantly changing. As Greeley notes, “there is no pandemic playbook.” And with millions stuck at home looking for entertainment, esports are one of the only live options. The ESL Pro League says that its second day of online play was “the single most-watched broadcast day of an ESL Pro League season ever,” while the LCS maintained a fairly consistent level of viewership and its Chinese counterpart, the League of Legends Pro League, saw a 30 percent viewership jump year over year when it returned to online play.

“As other sports and entertainment have gone dark, we’ve probably inadvertently benefited,” says Levine.