The Washington Post · Mike Hume, Teddy Amenabar · TECHNOLOGY, ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS
The rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak in China is the latest and biggest logistical hurdle to the Overwatch League as it attempts to execute the next phase of its ambitious plan to mirror traditional sports, basing teams and competitions in 19 cities around the globe. The rapid spread of the virus, with now more than 6,000 cases reported in China, has spoiled the league's planned international debut set for Feb. 15 in the city of Shanghai, just over 500 miles from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan. The league features teams based in the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hangzhou, in addition to Shanghai. Guangzhou was set to host competitions the weekend of Feb. 22, followed by matches in Hangzhou the weekend of Feb. 29.
"We have decided to cancel our February and March matches in China in order to protect the health and safety of our players, fans and staff," the league wrote Wednesday night, noting that more information about the canceled matches would be forthcoming.
Two of the teams based in China, the Guangzhou Charge and Shanghai Dragons, had earlier announced on Twitter that they would temporarily relocate to South Korea. The Guangzhou Charge specifically noted that they would be relocating for the remainder of pre-season training. The Shanghai Dragons wrote early Wednesday that all players and coaches are relocating to South Korea "effective immediately," with no specific timeline set for their return.
The Chengdu Hunters will remain in China for the start of the season, according to a statement posted by the team on Twitter. The Hunters are the only Overwatch League team with an entire roster and coaching staff from China.
"We will strictly order our team members to follow the prevention procedures," the statement reads. "We will check both player and staff members' body temperature and full sanitize them."
Given the unpredictable situation and the potential for future travel restrictions on flights out of China, departing the country now may be the only way to assure that the Chinese teams can participate in any of the league's upcoming contests, as countries have begun taking measures to restrict the admittance of passengers on flights and other means of travel originating from China. Though it does not have an Overwatch team, Hong Kong has already announced measures to restrict people coming from the mainland, closing two railways, ferries and cross-border tour buses and reducing by half its flights to China. Individual visas to Chinese will no longer be issued by Hong Kong starting Thursday.
Several sporting organizations had already canceled previously scheduled events in China out of an abundance of caution. Wednesday morning, the International Ski Federation canceled its World Cup alpine skiing events scheduled to be held in Yanqing on Feb. 15 and 16. Earlier this week the country's League of Legends competitions scheduled for the coming weekend were postponed, as were WESG's Asia-Pacific finals, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive event scheduled to be held in Macao.
The league's decision to cancel the events comes less than two weeks before the opening of an ambitious, 27-week season with 20 teams preparing to compete in cities across three continents for the first time in league history. The 2020 season is seen as a pivotal one for the league, as it is the first in which its teams were scheduled to host live competitions from all 19 of the league's markets, which span Asia, North America and Europe. Previously all but a handful of the league's matches had been held in Burbank, California. The vision of the league's parent company, Activision Blizzard, is to create an international esports league that resembles the National Football League, tapping into both global and localized sponsorship dollars and developing loyalty among regional fans, much like traditional sports.
Front offices across the league have been preparing for the international travel - flights, visas and hotels - all while coordinating with vendors to host matches in their home regions.
Even before the threat of the coronavirus, the logistics of such a design had already proven challenging to the point of requiring compromise. The OWL's Paris-based franchise, the Eternal, will make its 2020 home in New Jersey to better accommodate the team's practice needs and a challenging travel schedule. The team's home matches will still be held in Paris.
Any aspirations for meeting Activision Blizzard's dream of a truly international league at the start of the 2020 season have now been tempered to respond to the pneumonia-like virus that has already spread to 14 countries outside of China, including the United States and South Korea - which both have franchises in the league.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its highest travel warning on Monday, urging U.S. citizens to avoid all nonessential travel to China because of the coronavirus outbreak. Several countries, including the United States, are preparing plans to evacuate citizens from the outbreak center in Wuhan, China.
China has quarantined nearly 55 million people in central China. So far, the mortality rate is less than the rate of other severe respiratory coronaviruses. More than 6,000 cases have been confirmed in China and the death toll has risen to 132 people as of Wednesday evening local time. There have been no reported fatalities outside of China.