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Riot Games has been working on a dizzying array of tasks to respond to the coronavirus pandemic in recent months, and some of the fruits of its labor will be rewarded this weekend as League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and League of Legends European Championship (LEC) Spring Split action resumes online.
Riot was one of the first global sports/entertainment properties to see some of its operations upended by coronavirus when League of Legends Pro League (LPL) suspended its season in January, weeks before similar shutdowns in South Korea, Europe, and the U.S. LCS and LEC will join the LPL this weekend in re-starting online-only action, and many in esport are watching to see if the global coronavirus shutdown could lead to an uptick in viewership for properties like League of Legends.
In recent weeks, Riot has been addressing everything from sharing best practices among its regional leagues to scenario planning for the World Championship later this year in Shanghai. But Riot Games Global Head of Esports John Needham told The Esports Observer that while the company is pleased to be re-starting seasons with online events, it joins the broader sports world in wanting to get in-person events resumed and back to normal as soon as possible.
“Some have touted the fact that esports can thrive without fans in real life, but our players are fueled every week by the in-arena and stadium experiences. We are no different than traditional sports in feeling the pain of COVID-19,” Needham wrote in an email. “We want our fans in the studios and arenas with our players, and the community coming together for esports tournaments is very much a part of the experience. While we may be able to more quickly adjust in the face of the current situation as a digital-first sport, we join the NBA, FIFA, USOC, and others in eagerly anticipating a return to the days of venues packed with our passionate fans.”
With the major regional leagues just beginning only-online events, Needham said it’s too early to definitively say how big of an uptick League of Legends esports is seeing amid the pandemic. But he did note that after the LPL shut down in late January, the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) saw a massive influx of Chinese viewership that resulted in a 42% increase in hours consumed versus the prior comparable period last year. He also said that after the LPL resumed online, it saw unique viewers up 30% year over year.
Needham also said that Riot has been in constant contact with teams, sponsors, media partners, and other stakeholders to keep them apprised of schedule changes and the overall ongoing situation, with an eye toward restarting in-person events as soon as possible. The Mid-Season Invitational has been moved from May to July, and Needham said that the plan is still to hold Worlds at Shanghai Stadium at the end of the year, but that, “We are of course scenario planning.”
“Online play is one of the unique aspects of esports compared to traditional sports that allow our leagues to continue even in times of social distancing. This fast response was made possible through preparation and information sharing between our regional leagues,” Needham wrote. “Our global team continues to work towards identifying the best path for our major international events. At the scale of our global events, which see the participation of players from 12 different regions, there are a lot of challenges that will need to be evaluated and addressed.”
Adam Stern is a staff writer for Sports Business Journal.