In a moment when other publishers and esports leagues have committed to online play and postponed live events — to the chagrin of seasoned professional players used to in-person competitions — Riot Games is gearing up to host its second in-person competitive event since the pandemic began. In May, Reykjavik, Iceland will be the site of two back-to-back competitions: the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational and the Valorant Champions Tour Masters.
“What we want to deliver to players and to our audience is peak competition, and competition is best delivered when we can gather all the teams together and let them play in an LAN environment where there’s no network disruption to inhibit their play in any way,” said Troop. “That really was the North Star for how we approached these events in Iceland.”
For “League of Legends,” the event is the beginning of a return to normalcy after the cancellation of last year’s Mid-Season Invitational and the recalibration of Worlds in Shanghai in light of covid. The stakes are higher for “Valorant,” which launched shortly after the beginning of the pandemic in the United States. The Iceland event will mark the first occasion of competition between teams from different regions; the strengths and weaknesses of respective regions has been a source of rampant speculation among professional players, coaches and analysts.
“We do hope one day that ‘Valorant’ is played and watched all over the world in similar numbers to ‘League of Legends,’” said Whalen Rozelle, senior director of Global Esports at Riot in a December interview. “We know the strategic depth, but we haven’t seen it yet. I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what pros can do.”
The promotional material announcing the location boasted of an “epic setting” for an “epic showdown,” cycling through footage of a vast, austere landscape: fjords, waterfalls and glaciers wrung through a filter of sooty greens and blues. The city, of course, was chosen out of more businesslike considerations, including the cooperation of local leaders and health officials and considerations around national covid policies.
To start, Riot worked in tandem with the risk management consultancy Marsh & McLennan to develop a list of weighted criteria for possible host cities. “We care more about covid efficacy, in terms of how it’s been managed and policies and case counts and things of that nature, than we do about fiber connectivity, as an example of another operational need,” Troop said. “They’re both important, but they have different levels of importance — covid, of course, taking priority.”
From there, the risk management firm drew up lists, over time whittling down the number of choices by removing outliers and markets which Riot likely wouldn’t consider. That work is subsequently passed along to another consultancy, which engages in dialogue with possible host cities and officials at the national and municipal levels, including, these days, officials at the country’s equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Department of Health.
The process, which began in September in Shanghai, and proceeded through December (“we worked through and across the holidays,” said Troop), yielded a shortlist in early January.
“That’s how we ended up in Iceland,” Troop said. “They were far and away the strongest partner from a covid management standpoint, and then their interest and appetite to work in concert with us to safely meet our needs was clear.” To date, there have been just 29 covid-related deaths in Iceland, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Troop declined to specify what other cities made the list.
The event required a certain synergy between Riot and the host governments. Riot would educate their partners within the Reykjavik and Icelandic governments on how many people they needed in specific rooms and what the flow of the show would look like. In turn, their municipal partners would advise on best practices, policies and the spaces and accommodations that best fit those needs, and safely.
Competitors arriving to the event will have to quarantine for six days — and their arrival at the country will be conditioned on a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of travel to Iceland. Much of the protocol set during the Shanghai competition in September will return in Iceland, including recurring testing.
Troop, who focuses on the “League of Legends” side of Riot’s events, noted that the publisher would cover the costs for a defined head count — starters, substitutes, a coach and manager — and handle airfare and hotel costs, though teams can bring additional individuals at their own cost.
“We want to make sure that everyone is on equal footing, and we want to make sure that there’s not an issue of big market teams being able to bring this massive apparatus because they can afford to and small market teams can’t,” Troop said.
The company will also provide food stipends as part of a flexible scheduling system, allowing teams to set their own times for practices, film review sessions and personal time. At Worlds, Team Liquid coach Joshua “Jatt” Leesman complained that teams had to plan around a fixed food delivery schedule. (On top of which, the food was often “cold or stale.”)
“We want this to be something where people don’t look back at the experience and say, ‘Well, it was worth it,’ in the sense that it offset sacrifices,” Troop said. “We want them to look back at the experience and say that they had a good time competing.”
As for the unusual coordination of the two events, Troop cautioned not to read into it, chalking it up to a question of operational efficiency. Will Riot host another back-to-back “League of Legends” and “Valorant” event? That depends entirely on what “we think feels good for our audience and for the sports,” Troop said.
Riot is still finalizing some aspects of its plan, including trying to get players access to a gym, if it is permissible by Iceland’s covid protocols. Similarly, Troop said Riot is declining to address additional details of the event until they are finalized.
“As you can imagine, it can be difficult to roll back misinformation in the space,” Troop said.