In the Quarantine Age, an indoor sport seizes center stage

Four men appeared on my television at 2 p.m. in neat rectangles. The backgrounds varied. Bare white walls in one, a few frames in another. A window, some furniture. They all had headphones. One was wearing a burgundy suit and tie. The others became more informal in the privacy of their home.

The meeting was similar to the Zoom video chats we’ve organized with colleagues and friends since the coronavirus outbreak shut down pretty much everything. But this setting was different from our virtual happy hours and everyday meetings.

It was the broadcast for the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS). League of Legends, an online multiplayer battle arena game developed by Riot Games and released in 2009, is the most popular esports title in the world with up to eight million gamers signing up daily to play on their computers. The LCS, which was created in 2011, is the highest competitive level of the game in North America.

It is also one of the few surviving live entertainment options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands watched the stream simultaneously, presented by a major regular advertiser, State Farm, on Twitch and YouTube. It was back online after a week-long hiatus and progressed when much of society had come to a standstill. The games, which were regularly held in West Los Angeles for several hundred fans, were kept at bay.

“We feel that we can withstand the storm quite well,” said LCS Commissioner Chris Greeley, “but of course, like everyone else, it is still a storm.”

I am a casual gamer. Stick and ball sports were my preference when growing up, although in recent years my time has been limited to playing shooters with friends online. It is a social activity and one of the few available since COVID-19 arrived. After downloading the game to my laptop, I tried to watch it along with the ad hoc broadcast, curious and confused. I didn’t know the rules or the point of the game, but, tucked away in my apartment, I welcomed the live game. The harvest has never been this thin on Saturday afternoon.

This should be one of the most exciting times on the sports calendar. The NCAA tournament goes crazy, the beginning of the baseball season, battles for playoff seeding in the NBA, the Masters around the next magnolia bush, even the XFL for a football fix if fake NFL draft wasn’t enough.

But those events were postponed, if not completely canceled, in the near future, making playing video games – and watching others playing them – as two of the limited choices left to satisfy our social and entertainment thirst. As stadiums and arenas become quiet, there is a growing noise in a corner of the landscape that has so far been largely drowned out by more traditional regular sports.

It comes from the more than 150 million Americans who identify as gamers, not just the influencers who have become rich stars: Ninja, PewDiePie, Preston, Markiplier. They are NBA stars who challenge each other for Call of Duty; teenagers playing Fortnite at 3 am on unlimited school leave; 9-to-5 employees sneak at home in FIFA games between Zoom meetings. It’s me, the casual gamer looking for a dose of sports on a weekend afternoon.

Esports are built for quarantine culture because isolation has always been part of its DNA to some degree. And with hundreds of millions locked up for now, an already robust community sees an opportunity.

This could be an esports moment.

The ‘game of the week’ between the misfits and the G2 in the League of Legends Championship Series.


“It’s an absolutely horrible thing that is happening all over the world,” said Ryan Friedman. “Clearly it’s a huge net negative, but with the cancellation of traditional sports, many people who would never have given esports a chance to at least take a look at it and that’s a good opportunity for esports to pull in a lot of new viewers. It’s one that esports, like this … entity, should take advantage of. “

Friedman is the chief of staff for Dignitas, an organization with teams in various esports that took over the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016. He is also the younger brother of Andrew Friedman, president of the Dodgers’ baseball operations. While Andrew’s team was inactive last week, wondering if Major League Baseball would have a 2020 season, Ryan’s franchise, one of 10 in the LCS, kept busy.

Esports – generally defined as professional competition using video games – had canceled several major events on the calendar, but most entities have been able to continue competition knowing a wider audience is available. Evidence of the opportunity can be found on Twitch, the go-to streaming platform for casual and professional gaming.

With the cancellation of traditional sports, many people who would never have given esports a chance will at least start watching.

Ryan Friedman, brother of Dodgers President Andrew Friedman

People stream and watch streams more than ever since the outbreak started to hold, according to and and, who follow Twitch audiences. The platform reached its all-time peak in daily peak active users (22.7 million), average concurrent viewers (1.6 million), and number of streamers (65,000) this month.

“In esports, the show can go on,” said esports attorney Bryce Blum. “We can go back to our roots.”

However, the rise was not as uniform for conventional esports events. A few esports have seen direct growth in viewers, such as Rocket League and the ESL Pro League, a 24-team Counter-Strike: Global Offensive match that has recently enjoyed the most watched broadcast day in history. Conversely, League of Legends has seen a year-on-year jump of about 20,000 viewers on Twitch this month, but has seen a dip since the LCS opened its spring season with great enthusiasm.

The industry is emerging but not new to consumers around the world. Money has poured into space over the past decade to fuel a thriving business that has overshadowed $ 1 billion worldwide. And much of that capital has been provided by leaders in traditional sports.

In 2016, Dodgers co-owner Peter Guber and Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals, led a group that bought a controlling stake in Team Liquid, recognized as the most successful esports organization in history . Dan Gilbert, owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, invested in an organization, and the Golden State Warriors founded one in 2017.

A member of Team OOB in action during the League of Legends World Finals at the Girl Gamer Esports Festival in Dubai in February.

(Christopher Pike / Getty Images)

A fan watches the last game of the 2018 League of Legends World Cup in South Korea.

A fan watches the last game of the 2018 League of Legends World Cup in South Korea.

(Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

The infusion accelerated the expansion of the industry. Live matches with a large audience became common. Events full of Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. Millions of dollars have been allocated to players in various games, and various players have career earnings in excess of $ 1 million.

In recent weeks, traditional sports entities with esports partnerships have turned to the virtual world after their schemes exploded abruptly. Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment Group recently began broadcasting an hour of video game simulations of previously planned Wizards and Capitals games on NBC Sports Washington. Formula 1 ran a race with professional drivers and gamers that was broadcast on Twitch. On Friday, MLB held a tournament with four major leaders on MLB: The Show 20 and steamed across platforms.

NASCAR aired a virtual version of the Dixie Vodka 150 two Sundays ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway on FOX, using remote racing simulators. The real NASCAR racers who participated weren’t rookies on the platform – racers have been using virtual simulators as practice tools for the real thing for years. The results were proof.

Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, drove retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. out for victory in a $ 40,000 iRacing setup at his home, cheering barefoot with his daughter behind him. NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon was one of three people to call up the 35-car race from a studio in Charlotte. The inaugural event drew over 900,000 viewers, making it the highest-rated esports television show in history.

NASCAR transition [to esports] has been most intriguing. ‘

On Sunday, Timmy Hill, a 27-year-old professional driver who has never won a NASCAR Cup Series race, won the second virtual race at Texas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR digital chief Tim Clark said the plan is to continue organizing virtual versions of his races on the usual schedule until the season resumes. In its current form, the season is suspended on the track until May 9.

For its part, the League of Legends Championship Series faced the outbreak of the corona virus like traditional sports leagues, and quickly realized that continuing as usual was irresponsible.

A day after announcing plans to continue without a studio audience, media, and nonessential staff, the league on March 13 completely postponed that weekend’s league. Four days later, the league announced that it would be going away in the foreseeable future.

Commissioner Greeley said the decision was not an easy one. Personal events not only provide better entertainment, but also better competition. Playing remotely can lead to slower connections, affecting gameplay. And players are less supervised, which provides opportunities for cheating. The league spent the following week devising a plan to mitigate network issues and rule breaking.

League of Legends players will participate in a live streaming event in Montpellier, France in September.

League of Legends players will participate in a live streaming event in Montpellier, France in September.

(Sylvain Thomas / AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, LCS announced that the rest of the season, including the finals, that were originally to be held at a 12,000-seat stadium at the Dallas Cowboys practice facility in Frisco, Texas, would take place online April 18-19.

“We can play from home,” said Steve Arhancet, co-owner and CEO of Team Liquid, the reigning LCS champions. “That makes us a much more resilient entertainment industry when it comes to competitive sports.”

The LCS of 10 teams returned from a week delay with five games. The battles consisted of week 8 of the spring split of the game. A team named Cloud 9 won both games, setting the league’s best record on the march to a prize pool of $ 200,000 in addition to the salaries of players earning more than $ 300,000 on average.


The four neat rectangles were again on my television after the last game on March 22. The host, top left, thanked everyone who made the event possible. He begged the audience to improve feedback. They were ready to return the following weekend. After another week without sports, I was too.

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