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Esports league plays to empty stadium

Teams come up with ways to keep audience engaged as coronavirus forces spring season to start without spectators

Seats at the esports arena LoL Park in Jongno, Seoul, remain empty Sunday. (Lim Jang-Won/The Korea Herald)
Seats at the esports arena LoL Park in Jongno, Seoul, remain empty Sunday. (Lim Jang-Won/The Korea Herald)

Two weeks have passed since the 2020 League of Legends Champions Korea Spring season started without spectators as a precaution against the spread of novel coronavirus.

At LoL Park in Jongno, Seoul, on Sunday, masks were distributed to players and staff entering the arena, as temperatures were measured and hands sanitized. Referees wore masks and gloves, while the 400 seats in the arena had posted notices prohibiting sitting.

Coaches did not shake hands after the pick-and-ban phase as had been customary, and the cheers of fans to start the matches could not be heard. Also gone were the winning team’s fan meetings outside the arena that typically follow the games.

Players, accustomed to giving interviews in front of hundreds of spectators after winning an MVP title for each game, gave their thoughts on playing in an empty stadium.

“In my case, I think having no audience cheering for me in the stadium makes the game less fun to play,” said Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the most celebrated player in LoL after beating Gen.G in an intense game Sunday.

That match would have been one of the most popular of the season, as the two best-known teams of the game clashed. But on Sunday, only the sounds of the players filled the large room.

However, the relative quiet could be to some players’ advantage, as noted bytop laner Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon of Damwon Gaming. “I think playing without audience is sad, but since my teammates get a lot of nerves on stage, having no audience is helping them perform better,” he said.

Sin “Nuclear” Jeong-hyun, the marksman for DWG, added, “I think having no one in the crowd relieves the pressure just a little. Not hearing the crowd when I play is the most noticeable change.”

In response to the unprecedented situation, teams have come up with measures to sustain fans’ interest in the games. Legends Champions Korea teams are promoting “jipgwan,” or watching from home. Griffin and Hanwha Life Esports, for example, posted on social media that select fans who post photos of themselves watching from home would have the chance to win gift cards and autographed photos of players.

Some teams, such as Damwon Gaming, Afreeca Freecs and T1, livestreamed online fan meetings after their wins.

“I am grateful for the organization letting us communicate with the fans in creative ways. It is fun,” said Nuguri after winning Sunday’s match.

Faker said, “We can’t have fan meetings in the arena, but since we have YouTube livestream after the game, I want to give joy to the fans who are cheering for us and hope that many people watch online.”
 
LCK posted on its Facebook page on Jan. 29, “To protect the players, audience and staff from the coronavirus issue, 2020 LCK Spring will take place without audience. There will be no tickets sales until further notice and fans will be notified as soon as possible depending on the mitigation of the issue. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Meanwhile, the League of Legends Pro League in China has also been indefinitely suspended, as has the new Pacific Championship Series that encompasses Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

“I don’t watch the LPL that much, but I heard and feel bad about the postponement, and I hope that everything gets better soon. I think having to play the games in a rush afterwards is not good for the Chinese teams,” Faker said.

Players in the LPL were unable to return to their teams after going home for the Lunar New Year as the Chinese government imposed a travel in an effort to stop the spread of novel coronavirus.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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