Esports one year into a socially distanced world

After more than a year of pandemic conditions, we look back at the evolving world of esports and peek at the industry as it moves into the future.


Esports is bigger than ever after facing unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns beginning in early 2020 around the world forced tournaments, conventions, and on-going leagues into unfamiliar online-only territory. Entire series formats for the biggest games in esports depended on locally networked computers for the most reliable competition and ever-expanding arenas to support the booming popularity of live gaming events. Those days came to an abrupt end in the face of the full understanding of COVID-19 last year.

Billions of dollars are expected to be spent on electronic sports in the coming years and the entire industry needed to pivot quickly. Let’s take a look back at this tumultuous time in a relatively new area of big video game business, at some of the casualties and success stories that are still emerging from the rubble, and how things might return to normal soon or stay changed forever.

The International was one of the largest esports events in the world.

COVID-19 caused quite the conundrum for electronic sports organizers and fans alike. Unprecedented numbers of gamers were stuck at home for the foreseeable future but had no live events to watch after hearing about cancellation after cancellation. Soon after lockdowns began, it became just a matter of time until the news would break of yet another high-profile gaming event or tournament getting axed, to the dismay of everyone involved. There would be no traditional E3, Tokyo Game Show, or Gamescom in 2020. Online representations would have to suffice or even become the standard moving forward.

Longstanding tournaments like The International, after continually breaking its own record for biggest cash prize in esports, were postponed with no news of a comeback since August, 2020. Other notable casualties include the Fortnite World Cup, CEO 2020, the Bandai Namco World Tour, and countless others. The writing was on the wall for big budget esports, but--much like the games they represent--with adversity comes strength and opportunity. If the gaming conventions could move into the online space and even find success, electronic sports would have to follow suit.

The largest fighting game tournament in the world, EVO, was last held in 2019.

When EVO 2020’s cancellation came, it didn’t surprise many. The United States had been in lockdown for almost three months, and the rest of the world for more than twice as long. What might have been a small but pleasant shock for some was the announcement of EVO Online. It seemed like things were looking up for fighting game fans and competitors alike, but that hope was dashed when EVO Online was also canned after sexual misconduct allegations regarding the former EVO CEO. With the fighting game and Smash Bros. communities rocked by controversy and the pandemic, it looked like the fans would have to resort to what they do best, supporting themselves with grassroots tournaments and homebrew solutions.

Fighting game tournaments have usually been an in-person affair due to the extremely precise nature of input required and the need for absolute zero latency between contestants. One solution to this problem is rollback netcode. Simply explained, it’s a system that predicts input and displays the next frame instead of waiting for the network. It gets the name by “rolling back” each player to a certain frame if inputs don’t match the expected prediction. This allows for smoother than usual online play if everything is working as intended, to the extent that players can feel like they are playing against someone locally. One team has taken this approach with one of the most enduring and popular fighting games ever, Super Smash Bros. Melee.

A project called Slippi, after the Team Starfox member that’s always in trouble, is an effort led by Jas ‘Fizzi’ Laferriere to bring SSB: Melee back to the forefront of online tournaments with rollback netcode, matchmaking, replays, and more. Melee has enjoyed almost two decades of competitive play featured at some of the biggest tournaments around the world but COVID-19 doesn't exactly lend itself to lugging CRT televisions around the country for in person events. The pandemic could have easily gutted this community further after struggling through demons of their own recently, and thanks to the efforts of Fizzi and the team working to rework a 20-year-old game into a capable online fighter, they can keep playing the game they love.

The community has embraced the project with open arms, much to the chagrin of Nintendo, which has shut down tournaments for its use. Nintendo didn’t achieve much, however, with the Slippi Champions League starting successfully in October, 2020. The league ran for four weeks and was capped off with Smash Summit 10 in November. With entrants like Mango, Zain, Hungrybox, Plup, Axe, Wizzrobe, and others; this series would appear no different than any other professional Smash tournament to the casual observer. Luckily for other esports like MOBAs and shooters, the transition to an online-only format wasn’t so difficult.

Activision Blizzard took the Overwatch League online in 2020 due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.

When it was clear that in-person events just weren’t going to happen in 2020, most of the big leagues transitioned to online games without much fuss. The Overwatch League and League Championship Series are just two examples that started seasons as usual and halted in March to pivot into networked matches over the internet. After losing millions on cancellations like the homestand events for the Overwatch League or the originally planned LCS Worlds 2020 in Shanghai, it was reassuring to see the seasons play out when other tournaments couldn't survive. The San Francisco Shock ended up cinching the OWL and Team Solo Mid took the LCS, with Blizzard and Riot safely sponsoring electronic sports through a pandemic.

Both companies decided to shake things up even further into 2021. Riot organized the LCS Lock-In Tournament to kick off its current season and Blizzard committed to remote play and a reworked format when the OWL resumes in April. One could argue that online leagues are thriving in some part due to lockdowns increasing the viewership for all forms of streaming entertainment. Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Valorant, Rainbow Six: Siege, Rocket League and many others are just a few examples of AAA esports that have on-going seasons with large fan bases. Electronic sports is getting undeniably more distant in a world decimated by COVID-19, but a “new normal” isn’t what everyone wants.

Live esports aren’t exactly a thing of the past just yet. The multi-billion dollar electronic sports industry didn’t balloon out of remote events and there is still vested interest in getting live audiences back into arenas. Even with the success it's found with League of Legends and Valorant pro circuits operating online, Riot has secured two live tournaments scheduled in May to take place in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Intel Extreme Masters Winter 2021 event is also still planned to be an in-person affair, but it’s not exactly set in stone. Riot has promised that a lengthy and strict quarantine procedure will ensure the safety of everyone involved for its foray into Iceland, and if followed properly, then we’ll get a taste of live arena esports soon.

There are a lot of paths for electronic sports to take in a world that was changed by global lockdown, but as the restrictions lift, so too will the burdens felt by an industry that thrives on spectacle. Digital only events like concerts in Fortnite or Pokémon Go, while not exactly esports focused, are helping bridge the gap between the arena and the living room. Viewership of electronic sports is skyrocketing for almost every major franchise, including games that were once the domain of the physical, like chess. Hopefully with the proliferation of new vaccines, live events will be feasible again. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that electronic sports can stand a shake-up and come through stronger than before.

Contributing Editor

From the test launch of the NES in New York to 4K gaming in his living room, Bryan Lefler has been immersed in video games his entire life. Battle tested in the arena shooters of the turn of the century yet kind to all animals that may cross him, Bryan enjoys a breadth of games but strives to be the best in any contest of digital skill. He is a former esports competitor and has been part of the Shacknews community for over 15 years. You can also catch him on skankcore64 streams on the Shacknews Twitch channel where he plays through the N64 library and follow him on Twitter @skankcore.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 15, 2021 1:00 PM

    Bryan Lefler posted a new article, Esports one year into a socially distanced world

    • rms legacy 10 years legacy 20 years mercury super mega
      March 15, 2021 1:14 PM

      What?! No mention of the Shacknews Stimulus Games?!? Great article despite that *glaring* omission, very informative

      • reply
        March 15, 2021 5:38 PM

        Thank you so much rms! I thought about that today and you’re absolutely right, I should have said something but I also didn’t want to self-advertise in the feature.

    • reply
      March 15, 2021 11:03 PM

      Street Fighter, while not having Rollback, already had people accustomed to online tournaments (in particular the South American tournies), so a bunch of the weeklies/monthlies just kinda continued their usual thing, but online. It's not AS good, of course, but they're working it as best as possible.

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