Potential Bubble System for LoL Worlds 2020 Championship

Riot Games is considering a bubble system for the League of Legends Worlds Championship 2020. The developer originally announced November 2019 that Worlds 2020 would take place in China, with the grand final in Shanghai. With the recent news that China is cancelling international sporting events, Riot will need to figure out an alternate plan if the company wants to proceed with Worlds this year.

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Potential Bubble System for LoL Worlds 2020 Championship

© LoL Esports

What Initiated This Thought Process?

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the General Administration of Sports (GAS) of China had announced that the country would not stage any international sports events for the rest of 2020. The only exceptions are trials for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in the cities of Beijing and Zhangjiakou.

This is most likely in response to the concerns with the ongoing global pandemic. With multiple sports leagues and tournaments put on hold or cancelled altogether, China is not taking any chances either.

In the LoL world, this included the transition to online play for all regions, with only the Chinese and Korean leagues recently returning to live in-person play (albeit without live audiences). COVID-19 also caused the postponing and later cancellation of the 2020 Mid-Season Invitational (MSI).

In the announcement of MSI’s cancellation on April 23, Riot Games’ Global Head of Esports, John Needham, said the following on Worlds 2020:

This decision also allows us to dedicate our global esports team and resources to planning for Worlds 2020. We are totally committed to delivering the biggest spectacle we’ve ever produced in China to celebrate our sport’s 10-year anniversary. While we must remain nimble with our plans, we are eager to celebrate everything that we love about League of Legends with a memorable Worlds 2020.

Worlds 2020 would mark the 10th international Riot-hosted LoL championship. As a celebration of a decade of professional LoL play, Worlds 2020 would likely have been a massive spectacle.

A similar example is The International 10 (TI 10), the tenth world championship for DOTA 2. Valve announced on April 30 that TI 10 would be postponed to 2021. Riot reportedly has other plans.

What is a Bubble System?

On July 9, ESPN reported that Riot Games is in talks to use a bubble system to hold Worlds. The bubble system is directly modeled after the ones proposed for sports leagues such as the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Instead of the originally-planned six-city event, Worlds 2020 would instead take place only in Shanghai. The bubble system is intended to minimize contact with outsiders to prevent contraction and spread of COVID-19. Riot would bring the 24 qualified teams to Shanghai weeks ahead of the tournament and quarantine them within the same hotel. From there, the teams could then compete in Worlds from a centralized location.

ESPN reports that Riot is operating under the understanding that League of Legends and esports do not fall under the sports designation in China, and thus is not under the above-mentioned restrictions imposed by the GAS.

ESPN also reports that the original six-city extravaganza planned for Worlds 2020 would instead take place for Worlds 2021. The original host country for Worlds 2021, the United States, would instead host Worlds 2022. It would seem that the bubble system is a temporary placeholder for a Worlds in China, and not its replacement.

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Potential Positives and Negatives of Riot’s Decision

The positives of continuing with the World Championship is obvious. It maintains the climactic event of the LoL calendar towards which the teams have worked, as well as appeasing fans and sponsors. It is also drawing more attention than normal as other international sports events, such as TI 10, have been cancelled or postponed.

The bubble system is a safety measure in place to bring the teams together so they can compete in controlled LAN environments, without external factors like ping or Internet stability affecting the competitive integrity.

On the other hand, the downsides are also very apparent. First and foremost is the health concerns. A bubble system reduces dangers, but it does not eliminate them. Continuing with Worlds 2020 is inarguably a bigger risk to health and safety than canceling the tournament altogether.

There is also the risk of delegitimizing esports from a legal perspective. According to ESPN’s report, Riot Games’ move is predicated on China not recognizing esports as sports. This could set precedents which may complicate or hamper development of the esports industry later down the line.

Riot Games and League of Legends have previously been involved in prominent cases surrounding esports’ legal legitimacy. In 2013, Riot acted to ensure that esports players were legally recognised by US immigration law as professional athletes. In 2016, there was a crackdown on players competing in LoL leagues on tourist visas to bypass immigration laws.

It would be unconscionable in light of those efforts to then attempt to wiggle around legal barriers to tournaments by predicating the defense on the perception that esports is not sports.

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