Imagine being forced to spend two weeks alone in a hotel room ahead of the biggest competition of your life.
That was the scenario players of the 22 teams competing at this year’s League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai, China, faced before they were able to take part in the competition which culminates this weekend.
There had been fears the world’s biggest esports tournament wouldn’t go ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic, but teams from across the world were allowed to compete if they self-isolated for 14 days.
Players and coaches were confined to four walls for the entirety of the quarantine, only opening the room door to collect food, get tested for the virus and dispose of rubbish.
James MacCormack, head coach of European team MAD Lions – a team knocked out during the play-in stages – remembers feeling a little uncertain when he heard of what was in store.
“Our initial reaction was that it was going to suck but that, as professional gamers, it will be fine,” he tells CNN Sport.
“We are used to being indoors for long periods of time. We’d be busy, we’d be practicing. So in terms of that, it would be fine.”
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‘Really, really odd’
The reality of the situation became crystal clear as soon as the teams landed in Shangai.
Their belongings were sanitized and paperwork filled out before they were whisked off in a shuttle bus to a nearby hotel.
MacCormack says the procedure was meticulous and, after they reached the quarantine hotel, staff “popped” them into a room and “that was kind of it.”
The room, he says, was what you’d expect, but with a few tailored additions.
Organizers had equipped them with an exercise bike, a small desk, a gaming chair, and a computer to help with practice and preparation.
MacCormack was fortunate enough to have a vista of the coast. Many others, however, were stuck with a view of a wall.
He says the initial few days were difficult to deal with as players adjusted to their new settings and suffered from jet lag.
“The days were really, really odd because your sleep schedule is messed up and you’re out of contact with everyone else,” he says.
“You’re still getting used to it and you don’t have a good routine yet. So those couple of days were actually the hardest for me.”
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As coach, MacCormack felt extra responsibility to look after his players and created a daily routine for them all to follow.
It included waking up at the same time, eating meals together over video chat, and plenty of practice sessions before the start of the tournament.
However, he says the mental strain of working, sleeping and eating in one room was tough and got harder as the days went on.
“I felt really powerless to do anything about it. It’s really hard to know what to do in that situation,” he says.
“We had some really good things, like when our performance manager and our sports psychologist went round to all of our families and all of our friends, and they got them all to record videos.
“There were ways we had of taking the edge off.”
Josh Leesman, head Coach of North America’s Team Liquid, found it much harder to do his job in such demanding conditions.
“It’s just way less optimal than being in person because some of my strengths are just understanding the mood in the room or being able to empathize with the body language of a player,” he tells CNN Sport.
“During practice we didn’t have webcams on because the bandwidth in the hotel wasn’t good enough to support it.”
Team Liquid was knocked out in the group stages of the tournament and whilst Leesman says the preparation wasn’t ideal, he didn’t use it as an excuse for not progressing further. The final takes place on October 31 between SN Gaming and Damwon.
“I think we realized it was a level playing field. So all of the international teams that came in, we’re in the same quarantine hotel, eating the same food with the same computers and the same desk,” he says.
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Whilst working on tactics and practicing took up a lot of the day, players and coaches were left with plenty of spare time.
Some exercised, while others binge-watched Netflix. But all had one experience in common: the food.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at the same time every day by staff in full hazmat suits, with an option of either Western or local food.
“A lot of the time your food would arrive and it wouldn’t exactly be hot anymore, which was not pleasant,” MacCormack says.
“We had players that lost a lot of weight during the quarantine … because they just didn’t like the food.”
After being deprived of quality meals for two weeks, many of the players and coaches had one thing on their mind after they were finally transferred to new accommodation: the hotel buffet.
“It was honestly like seeing 100 kids on Christmas Day,” he says.
“I’m actually welling up a bit now because I remember sitting down with a full English breakfast and just thinking that I’ve never been so happy in my entire life to see a piece of bacon.”
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Once quarantine was over, teams were allowed to practice together but had little time to do so before the tournament began on September 25.
Nicolaj Jensen, a player for Team Liquid, had found two weeks alone challenging but said it was worth the hardship to compete on the live stage.
The competition is the most-viewed esports championship in the world, with over 100 million people watching the 2019 edition.
With a Chinese team once again in the final this year, viewership figures are expected to reach similar or higher levels at the weekend.
However, regulations dictated that fans would not be able to pack into the stadium to watch the gamers play live.
“When you hear the crowd get louder, you can feel it. If you make a great play and you notice the crowd, it gets into your head,” Jensen tells CNN Sport.
“It was obviously a bit less than ideal circumstances. I would have loved to play Worlds with a crowd because that’s what I look forward to the most.”
Like much in 2020, this year’s championship has represented a new normal and participants have made the best of extraordinary circumstances.
Despite the difficulties they faced, there are few regrets.
“Hopefully we don’t have to have another 14-day quarantine in 2021, but hopefully we’ll look back on this championship and think ‘wow, that was just a really unique experience’,” says Leesman.
“I think any time you share something like that with a group of people, it does bring you closer together.”