League of Legends Worlds 2020: Tales from the bubble

Prevailing by a final margin of 3-1, DAMWON’s victory restores the championship to LoL Esports’ most elite league, LCK (Korea), whose teams have won five total titles, but none in the past two years.

Damwon’s win caps off a season drastically altered by the covid-19 pandemic. Riot Games, which owns and operates the 12 regional leagues of LoL Esports around the globe, managed to get all their leagues back into action by late March after shifting to remote, online-only operations. Despite the conditions, the company claims average viewership grew by 30 percent year over year.

Deciding to push ahead with their year-end live event, Riot implemented a series of safety protocols for the World Championship to conform with the Chinese government’s standards and decrease the chances of covid-19 spreading among the players and team support staff.

Unlike the NBA bubble, players were free to leave the hotel after a 14-day quarantine in a Chinese-government run facility, which was a converted hotel, and a 7-day quarantine in their hotel. To get a better sense of what it was like to compete at one of the world’s biggest esports events amid such circumstances and hear more about their time both inside and out of the Worlds bubble, The Washington Post spoke with several participants from the event’s group stage.

On their arrival in China and coping with the 14-day quarantine

Joshua “Jatt” Leesman, head coach of Team Liquid

Attended all previous Worlds events, except for the first one, as a caster.

Going through the airport was really unique experience with all the airport staff being in full protective equipment from head to toe.

It was really difficult to prepare [for the tournament]. You could tell Riot had put in a lot of effort to make sure we could prepare, but it was still not ideal because they had to get this gear into the hotel and they couldn’t bring in new gear after we got there, and they had to do it for all the teams.

We had a humidifier, weights, a circular desk, a monitor, computer and we brought our own keyboard and mouse. The Internet was serviceable but not great. It was not an ideal practice environment, but I told the team, it was at least a level playing field, everyone was experiencing the same thing.

It was really stressful, but that was due to practice reasons, less about the room. There were a few times I wanted to take a walk, but I just got on the phone or looked around. The worst part was the food delivery, because it was fixed at certain times and we adjusted our sleep schedule since our first match was at 10 p.m. A lot of times our food was cold or stale.

Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, Team Liquid player

Former World Champion (2017), two-time seasonal MVP with five straight Worlds appearances

It was pretty peaceful. No one was there, so I could just play League all the time. Actually, for personal practice, quarantine is kind of the best way to practice because I don’t need to think about the other things. But, I did miss seeing my teammates.

About the food, one good thing: I only ate instant ramen and I lost weight, so it’s not bad.

Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, TSM player/part-owner

Retired following Worlds to become coach/part-owner of TSM

When you’re in a competitive environment, emotions are always going to run high and it’s just a little bit hard to be connected as a team when you’re all sitting in your individual apartment, homes and also during the two week quarantine. It really hurt our progress and productivity as a team. That was definitely really hard on our team, though it is something that every team has to go through. So, you just have to be prepared for it and do your best under those circumstances. But, we are really fortunate to be able to work at all at this time.

Not being able to see your teammates, not being able to maintain a base level of health. It was a very different diet than we’re used to in North America. In [North America], we go to the gym together and [in China] we were just confined to this hotel room. We were pretty much inside for three weeks, which I think would affect anyone’s mental health. You never really know how someone is going to experience something like that.

The staff at the quarantine hotel were in full medical protection suits, we did temperature checks everyday. Once we got out of the quarantine, I felt pretty safe because of all the precautions they took.

On the transition from the quarantine to competition

We had to play our first match the next day after quarantine. It was pretty great because we won our first game. It was a thrill, a lot of positive endorphins flowing: it was the first time seeing the team not through a webcam. I think everyone got an emotional boost right before the game.

After the 14-day quarantine, it was a pretty normal experience, except for the fans and daily temperature checks.

At the venue, Riot had catering for their staff, but only had snacks for the teams, they told us to eat before.

I was really impressed by my team’s, and really every team’s, ability to just look though the stress of the quarantine and coronavirus and health protocols and look toward the tournament and really lock in. No team used quarantine as an excuse. I was really proud of everyone to have that level of maturity and just compete.

It was actually very bad. In the quarantine hotel, there were no proper desks, so the setup was different than how I play. The desk was rounded, so there was no place to put my keyboard and mouse properly. But, I found a way to fix this by stacking Coca Cola and ramen boxes to make extra space.

I don’t think the situation changed our performance.

Our first match after quarantine was over a week after, so we had quite some time to adjust to the new hotel and competition.

On what they missed the most from previous Worlds experiences

[The players] were able to maintain excitement. I’d say it was probably 90 percent of [the typical Worlds excitement level]. I think in terms of international travel, increased stress with practice environment, all of that was harder than it would have been in past years, but then a lot of these leagues in LCS, we were never playing across from the other team, so we were at least able to get back to that. It amplified things in that sense. It still really felt like Worlds even though the circumstances were different.

It’s still Worlds.

The biggest difference was there was no audience and no fans. That’s a huge part of professional sports. It’s still fun to win, but it’s not as fun as winning in front of our fans. Other than there’s no audience [for matches before the Finals], there was not a big difference. You kind of stay in the hotel every day. You can order food like before.

Playing without fans sucked. Of course it sucked. It felt like a level up from when we were in North America and we were just playing out of our office. It still felt good to be able to step on a stage and see the opponents on the other side of the stage. There was that extra level of intensity and competition that I really like, but the fans were sorely missed.

Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.

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