Esports in the shadow of COVID-19
The pandemic changed the way players celebrate, watch and play their favorite games
Indervir “iLLeY” Dhaliwal’s first year in the Call of Duty League didn’t go like he expected. As the clock hit zero during the championship match, iLLeY wasn’t surrounded by hundreds of fans or his teammates. He was alone in his bedroom at his parents’ house.
“I ran downstairs and just screamed at my parents,” he said of the moments after closing out the series against the Atlanta FaZe. “I just won a world championship.”
As a rookie, iLLeY had earned a role on the Dallas Empire in the inaugural season of the Call of Duty League. He had been playing Call of Duty since he was nine, but had never played through anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.
iLLeY had relocated back home to Toronto while the rest of the Empire were in Dallas midway through the season. He made the difficult decision to be with his family during a once-in-a-century pandemic that cancelled every in-person tournament and event he was supposed to be at in 2020. iLLeY didn’t get to hoist the trophy on stage like he wanted, but the surprise party his parents threw him after the match was an acceptable substitute.
“They got me a little cake and food and we just chilled,” he said. “Emotions were high. I would have loved to be with my team. All the hard work we put in — It was a rollercoaster of a year. I wanted to spend time with my team, since they are my family.”
The COVID-19 virus forced the entire league to go online, just like every other esport league and tournament. The pandemic has invaded every corner of the world since then, changing daily routines, celebrations, how people interact with each other and even how they play games.
“COVID hit right after we won the Los Angeles event,” iLLeY said. “I had just turned 18 and I was in Dallas by myself. It was a new city, a new country. It was hard being in my apartment alone.”
The pandemic didn’t just change how iLLeY celebrated his first ring, it changed how the rookie played the game everyday. The switch from offline to online made the game faster with a greater focus on SMGs rather than assault rifles. It actually helped the Empire gain steam and dominate the competition.
“The meta changes when you go from LAN to online, the latency is always going to cause the same thing,” Dallas Empire head coach Ray “Rambo” Lussier said. “SMGs are better at online. AR bullets don’t always connect.”
Rambo brought up the Minnesota RØKKR as an example of a team which slow played with their assault rifles, opening them up to more problems once teams moved online.
“It didn’t work out,” Rambo said. “As soon as we went online, their SMGs couldn’t match up.”
The impact was obvious as the RØKKR finished with a losing record and then cut their entire roster before the 2021 season. The switch to online affected every single esport, including everything from shooters like Rainbow 6 Siege and Call of Duty to fighting games like Dragon Ball FighterZ and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Empty rooms make for off events
Jestise “MVD” Negron was hesitant. He was road tripping from Miami to Orlando after flying in from Oklahoma to compete at CEO Dreamland. He didn’t know if the tournament would still happen since events were getting cancelled left and right in February due to COVID. He thought CEO would be his last chance to see his friends and play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in-person for a long while.
“Events are pretty magical,” MVD said. “The thrill of competition, the roars of the crowd, everything is perfect. Meeting fans, talking with them is amazing. It’s crazy that we can have such an impact on people and all we do is press buttons.”
The tournament MVD arrived at was different from previous ones he’s played in. It was emptier at the Wyndham Orlando Resort, and most people there were wearing masks and social distancing. He still felt the magic of a tournament, but it was “a little off.”
“COVID had just started being a scary thing and everyone was buying masks and using hand sanitizer and not really interacting as much,” MVD said. “So it was very different than most events. Instead of handshakes, fist bumps and hugs, it became elbow bumps and head nods.”
The real change didn’t set in until MVD began his journey home. Both airports were empty and the flights were strict about masks and distancing. He had left home for a tournament but returned to a different world.
“I’m big on family and being able to hug them and just be around them in general,” he said. “That’s definitely been the toughest thing for me. It’s the longest time I’ve gone without seeing my loved ones.”
MVD chose not to compete in the majority of online tournaments and went with an intense streaming schedule to help make up that lost income. He said he didn’t think it was worth it to spend as much time and effort practicing for a smaller amount of money in a tournament setting he didn’t think was fair.
“If online was no different than offline in terms of delay I’d have no issues with it,” he said. “The feel of offline is a bonus, but the core game as a whole is different. They don’t hold a candle to in-person events.”
Yet, online tournaments are starting to ramp up more in 2021 with the start of the Smash World Tour. MVD plans to compete in circuit events, but is still holding out hope that in-person events return sometime this year.
Isolating for esports
Joseph “Phozzo” Eisenmann was anxious. He needed to endure a short flight between Akron and Las Vegas during a pandemic. Every seat on the plane was filled, making him even more concerned about catching COVID. The destination was more than worth it though.
“I hate flying,” he said with a laugh. Phozzo was en route to his new team house, where he’d live while training for and competing in the Rainbow Six Pro League. The team would enter a bubble and would rarely be able to leave the house — a condition they gladly accepted in exchange for the chance to play their favorite game in an offline setting once again.
“They really encourage us to order everything online and use Instarcart for things like groceries,” Phozzo said, adding that he received some guidelines for what they can and can’t do. “It hasn’t been that bad yet. It’s been easy.”
When Phozzo’s team, Beastcoast, purchased Tempo Storm’s spot in the Rainbow Six Pro League, he learned he’d be entering the bubble for a full year at the end of 2020. Now he competes against other teams out of the Luxor hotel’s HyperX Arena. Phozzo and his team felt normal when the action kicked off on March 24 — something they rarely experienced over the last year.
The Beastcoast roster is still confined to their home in the same way Phozzo tried to stay home back in his parent’s basement in Ohio, but the chance to play on LAN again has brought a wave of hope to the five man team.
“I think every player has felt some sort of burnout,” he said. “There was a long break and not a lot to compete in. But now that we’re here, there is motivation building up.”
While other leagues have made moves to remain online for the foreseeable future, Ubisoft and FACEIT have taken steps to hold the first in-person tournaments since lockdown orders went out in mid-March.
“I think there’s a lot of luck to it,” Phozzo said. “Most esports are done all online. This is the first actual LAN league. It’s a big stepping stone to esports to get back to where they were.”
Phozzo said Ubisoft has been strict with their rules so far, but did agree that the possibility of visiting the casinos was enticing.
“Someone might mess up and screw everything up and not follow the rules,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone would risk their career for that.”
The Rainbow Six Pro League beginning without issue is a promising sign for the rest of the esports community. Everyone, from iLLeY to MVD, are hoping they can return to some sense of normalcy in 2021 and put the COVID-19 pandemic behind them. Besides MVD, they all have plans to get vaccinated as soon as possible. MVD is already ahead of the game.
“I miss doing things, I miss people,” MVD said. He’s received both doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. “We’re finally going back to some sense of normal. The future is finally looking bright.”