How should the 2020 season be weighted in the history books?
2019 was one of the most exciting years for League of Legends esports on a global scale. North America made history at the Mid-Season Invitational with Team Liquid’s earth-shattering upset against the reigning world champions Invictus Gaming. G2’s sketchy superteam quickly proved itself as the most dominant in western history, and came one series away from completing their golden road. South Korea’s promising rookies gave fans hope after a disappointing 2018, while China continued to assert themselves as the most powerful region.
With so many storylines and so many unanswered questions, 2020 was slated to be a year with the potential to tie everything together. Nobody was prepared for what was to come, however. As COVID-19’s affliction began to spread worldwide, the esports leagues responded in ways that prioritized the health of fans and players over profits. What started as cautionary delays and security measures slowly evolved into a completely online format and major event cancellations.
The global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned 2020 into the most stagnant year in League’s competitive history and will likely change the landscape of LoL esports for years to come. When put under a microscope, Season 10 will be considered an “asterisk year” by many, and they’d be right to do so.
How we got here
To best understand the COVID-19’s effect on Season 10 and the scene as a whole, league officials’ responses were broken up into a series of cancellations, safety precautions, and adaptations.
Officials of China’s League of Legends Pro League announced on January 26 that all professional matches would be suspended until further notice to ensure the safety of players. The hiatus lasted about a month until the LPL declared on February 26 that they would broadcast official team scrims. The rest of the LPL 2020 Spring Split wouldn’t pick up until March 9. All regular-season matches were played online and grand finals were held at the venue.
South Korea’s League of Legends Champions Korea was next on the list of long league hiatuses. While the LCK had been operating since February 5 without fans or press permitted onsite, the league took a break from March 2 to March 25.
Things didn’t just stop at league suspensions, though. Riot took it a step further and officially cancelled one of the two major international events held every year: MSI.
Riot’s new plan is to hold a special event called the Mid-Season Cup in which the top four teams from the LCK and LPL will face off against each other, similar to Rift Rivals. While the event is a nice placeholder for fans, it does little to add to the conversation of regional strength heading into the World Championship.
Cut to present time, we’re nearly halfway through the competitive season and the global effects of COVID-19 have already left a stain on the Spring Splits of the four major regions and eliminated the second-most important tournament of the year.
The loss of the one tournament made up exclusively of the world’s best-performing teams leaves a mark larger than a few skewed power rankings. Especially for teams that were incredibly dominant domestically, MSI is a crucial chance to validate the strength of a region's number one team outside of the confines of its regional opposition. Different strategies and metas are put to the test to shed some light on what these teams are doing right and what they can improve on for Worlds.
C9’s legendary sweep of the LCS in the 2020 Spring Split will be questioned heavily. Was C9 really that good, or was NA worse than it's ever been? It was obvious that C9 were playing at a tier or two above the next best team, FlyQuest, for the entirety of the split, but we didn’t get to see them challenged by their international counterparts. We won’t know how their strength holds up when pit against G2, JDG, or even GAM Esports of the Vietnam Championship Series.
G2 faces a similar situation in Europe, but the comparison is between the 2019 iteration that made it to the World Finals and the 2020 iteration with former mid Rasmus “Caps” Winther role-swapping with Luka “Perkz” Perković. The LEC had much more parity than the LCS, and G2 ended up on top once again. This is a team, however, that has its eyes set on winning Worlds. They already lost one best-of-five against MAD Lions; who’s to say they would have had the resilience to make it all the way at MSI?
To make the season even more complicated, Riot has yet to announce a western equivalent of Asia’s Mid-Season Cup and likely won’t due to server location issues and adherence to current social distancing practices.
Was it doomed from the start?
League officials prioritizing the health and safety of players and fans was absolutely the right thing to do. As it stands, Riot hasn’t announced any plans to cancel the 2020 World Championship which was sent to be held in China. Between online play and makeshift tournaments, Riot has explored multiple options to keep 2020 as competitive as possible, but was it ever going to be enough?
The biggest kicker in all of this is whether or not the players have already written off 2020. Between the trauma of a worldwide pandemic and potential fear for their livelihoods, it’s possible that in all of this craziness, some pros already made the decision to simply play their best and not worry as much about the results.
2020 will be known as a year full of “what ifs.” Teams will be playing differently in online matches, real international competition is scarce, and Riot’s plans remain fluid as situations in various countries develop. It’s a season that will have to be judged in a vacuum, within the specific context of these special circumstances.
Images via Cloud9 and Riot Games