How Shanghai Summoned the World’s Esports Athletes Amid COVID-19


After months of canceled events, elite sport has finally returned to Shanghai. But in a very 2020 twist, the athletes are competing exclusively via PCs inside a spectatorless arena.

The event? The League of Legends World Championship, a global esports tournament that pits teams of professional gamers from across the world against each other in tight, strategic battles filled with champions, spells, and monsters.

The annual tournament started Friday and will run for a month, with the grand final taking place Oct. 31. The winners will take home the prestigious 32-kilogram Summoner’s Cup, as well as prize money worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The return of the contest has been hotly anticipated in China, where the video game League of Legends is massively popular. The multiplayer online game — produced by Riot Games, an American firm owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent — features two teams of five players, each competing to destroy the other’s bases. 

Esports athletes compete during the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2020. Courtesy of Riot Games

Esports athletes compete during the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2020. Courtesy of Riot Games

The 2017 World Championship, the only previous iteration held in China, finished with a final at the National Stadium in Beijing with its seating capacity of 90,000. The event featured accompanying performances by pop star Jay Chou and an augmented reality-rendered dragon.

When a Chinese team won the event for the first time in 2018, it sparked raucous celebrations on college campuses across the country. Students howled from their dorms, lit fireworks, and even went streaking.

This year’s event promises to be more low-key, as most of the matches will be held behind the closed doors of an indoor arena. The only exception is the final, which will take place at the newly built Pudong Football Stadium. Local authorities have yet to confirm whether spectators will be allowed to attend.

The organizers, however, are delighted that the championship is going ahead at all.

Due to coronavirus concerns, China in July announced the cancelation of a string of high-profile sporting events set to be held in Shanghai — including the Rolex Shanghai Masters tennis tournament and the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions.

The esports contest is one of very few events that has managed to get the green light to proceed. This happened because the organizers planned the tournament with the virus in mind far in advance, Zeng Wensen, esports lead for Riot Games, told Sixth Tone by phone.

Under such difficult circumstances, all the athletes and clubs had the courage to trust the plan we’d come up with. I found this very moving.

Shanghai was also reluctant to cancel the event, given the city’s ambition to become a global capital for…



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