eSports filling sports void for some

It happened for them the same way it happened for everybody else: They first wondered whether the looming threat of the coronavirus would mean they would have to do events without an audience.

They were worried mostly about travel at first and making sure crowds were smaller than 250 people, as initial recommendations suggested.

The world of eSports was just like everyone else. For weeks, the realities of what COVID-19 might reap on the United States seemed inconceivable until reality crashed down on the entire United States - particularly the sports world - all at once.

"If you had asked me two weeks ago where there was a world where we would play fully online competitive matches for the LCS, I would've laughed at you," said Chris Greeley, commissioner of the League of Legends Championship Series, "but when your options become something that's bad and something that's worse, bad looks pretty good."

What was thought of as bad for the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) just 10 or so days ago is now an enviable position for most sports league to look longingly at. This weekend, the LCS and the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) will resume play from a series of remote locations after just a one-week hiatus for the coronavirus.

In the next few weeks, the Overwatch League (OWL) is set to return to action after a brief hiatus of its own, similarly playing from a series of remote sites across the world, including Boca Raton. The Call of Duty League, which also has a Boca Raton-based team, and the NBA 2K League also expect to resume play in upcoming weeks playing from remote sites after suspending play for COVID-19 concerns.

While the rest of the sports world sleeps for an increasingly uncertain length of time, eSports has been able to adapt to our new crowd-controlled, self-isolated way of life by taking its biggest games out of the arenas and to the place most of them originated: the internet.

"This is," said Ben Spoont, CEO of Boca Raton-based Misfits Gaming, "the beauty of eSports."

It was less than two weeks ago when Greeley told the LCS management team there was "no way" the league would play games away from the Riot Games studio in Los Angeles. Even when nearly every other sport was suspending play March 12, the LCS instead announced it would play its matches without fans in attendance. All 10 teams in the LCS are situated within about a three-mile radius of Riot, the developer of "League of Legends."

A day later, the LCS decided to suspend play, although Greeley quickly noted the league was already looking into remote play for the remainder of the spring schedule. It took just a week for the LCS to return to action.

"There's no pandemic playbook," Greeley said.

Although eSports are unique in their ability to hold remote play like the LCS will this weekend, there were no contingency plans in place for this to ever be necessary. Once the idea of playing games in an arena with no fans started to inch toward reality, the LCS started to think about how it could potentially take the whole league online if need be.

Initially, the plan was to have teams gather at their headquarters and for Riot to send referees to monitor each team. The teams could be together in small groups to communicate without much significant contact with the outside world.

In the last day or two, those plans changed, too. Instead, players will play from their own homes and broadcasters will broadcast from theirs. Everyone will log in to Riot-authorized Discord servers to communicate and matches will broadcast on a delay to prevent cheating. At least this weekend, there won't be any remote interviews or video of team celebrations. "It's going to look like League of Legends circa 2012," Greeley joked.

"We can't live in a world where we're telling players you have to go sit in a room next to someone to play. We need to protect their health," Greeley said. "That gives us the freedom to let people do their job from home, so if you're an LCS pro sitting in an apartment, you can still compete in your competitive matches."

The Overwatch League and Call of Duty League - including the Florida Mayhem and Florida Mutineers - will operate similarly. While concrete plans have not been put in place for the Mutineers of the Call of Duty League, the Mayhem will gather at Misfits' Boca Raton headquarters once its schedule resumes March 28 with a game against the Washington Justice.

OWL and Call of Duty League (CDL) both stream matches exclusively on league YouTube channels, while the LCS and LEC stream matches on Twitch.

Activision Blizzard had an ambitious idea when it announced the OWL in 2016: It would use a traditional sports model with franchises representing individual cities and states. The idea was, at least partly, to create a more familiar gateway into eSports for fans overwhelmed by teams with names like Fnatic and Team Liquid. With the NBA, NHL and MLB all suspended, Activision Blizzard's grand experiment will be put to the test.

"Nothing else is happening, so when you think about professional sports and who's representing Florida right now, it's the Mayhem and the Mutineers," Spoont said, "so we think it's a great chance for folks to learn about us, to learn who we are, to learn what we stand for."

It had only been about an hour since the Miami Heat played its final game before an indefinite hiatus when Meyers Leonard was back to work.

"Ladies and gentlemen, how are we doing? This COVID-19 stuff is absolutely crazy," the Heat post player said to his growing audience on Twitch as he booted up "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare." The NBA had just announced an unprecedented suspension of play after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. It's unclear when _ or even if _ the current season will resume.

"Somebody in my chat said you better not leave this stream for the next 10 months," Leonard joked.

In the nine days since the NBA suspended play, Leonard streamed himself playing "Call of Duty" on Twitch for more than 50 hours and he's not alone. Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker and New Orleans Pelicans wing Josh Hart are particularly active streamers, and Booker even learned the NBA was suspended live on Twitch. Leonard has teamed up with professional streamers and pro gamers throughout the hiatus, and took part in a pro-am competition hosted by FaZe Clan, an esports organization, on Sunday.

While Twitch has declined to provide any information in recent change of viewership numbers, Steam tells the story of where people's interests lie these days. At one point Sunday, the virtual store and application launcher for PC games had 20 million users concurrently logged in. "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," a first-person shooter popular in the eSports community, peaked with more than 1 million concurrent players.

"Now all of a sudden every basketball player is a professional gamer," Spoont joked. "It's definitely an interesting time for us."

Spoont, who grew up in Boca Raton and went to the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, co-founded Misfits in 2016 with fellow South Floridians Mitchell Rubenstein and Laurie Silvers. Initially, the organization was based out of the United Kingdom and its "League of Legends" team still competes in the LEC. In 2016, Misfits acquired an "Overwatch" team, which became the Mayhem in 2017.

In January, it debuted the Mutineers as a team in the CDL's inaugural season. The organization has moved its operations to Boca Raton and got the OK to build a permanent headquarters there in February, and the Mayhem even changed its jerseys and avatar skins to be "Vice" style this season _ pink and blue.

eSports has always been comfortable with its massive, niche audience. Without any sports alternatives, eSports has arrived at a chance for its biggest mainstream platform yet.

"That's kind of the void that we're looking to fill," Spoont said. "Obviously, this is very trying times for a lot of people and a lot of industries. We as an industry in gaming can do our part to fill a void, to provide entertainment in the safety and comfort of people's homes. It's pretty cool what we have the opportunity to do.

"People are going to be playing massive amounts of video games over the next months. ... We're very humble about the fact that we're going to provide a lot of entertainment for folks to consume, and we're excited to do that for South Florida and having the Mayhem and the Mutineers represent them."