Since the start of the League of Legends European Championship summer split, staff and talent have started to return to the LEC studios in Berlin after production went fully online midway through the spring split due to the coronavirus. Despite production moving back online July 3-4 as a result of LEC caster Trevor "Quickshot" Henry coming into contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, LEC commissioner Maximilian Peter Schmidt confirmed to ESPN that Week 4's online move was not a deterrent in moving forward with the studio's phased reopening plans.
Schmidt said the decision to go online for Week 4 was made out of an abundance of caution and care for the staff and talent. Henry's test came back negative, but by the time the results returned, the decision had already been made to go online.
"Once we learned of one of our talent, being in direct contact with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19, we decided to branch out into various decision-making paths," Schmidt said. "We wanted to make sure that safety and health is at the forefront of our decision-making. So we created two paths: One is saying, we need to make sure that we actually have negative test results from the people who were in direct, 'unprotected' and socially distanced contact with these potentially infected people before we would be comfortable having them actually again in [studio] exposing potentially somebody else. So we set ourselves a deadline, saying, if we don't have the test results back at that moment, we are not going to take any risk."
Schmidt said the plan is to bring casters back to the studio for Week 5, which takes place July 17-18, if it's safe to do so and no complications arise. It would mark a return to the LEC's plan to bring people back into the studio in phases.
Many protections have been put in place to ensure the health and safety of all staff and talent involved, including having just a limited crew of roughly 30% of maximum capacity on the premises, with the remainder of staff working from home. A mandatory 1.5 meter (roughly 5 feet) social-distancing edict is in place, with dedicated walkways within the studio. Wearing face masks is mandatory except for casters who are on the air, where casters are seen separated from each other by plexiglass. Upon entering the studio, all personnel fill out a symptoms checklist before they are permitted. Catering is also divided into phases. An on-site cleaning staff is frequently cleaning all high-risk surfaces, and a health and safety officer is present to ensure adherence to all guidelines.
So what about the players? At the start of the season, the LEC outlined a multi-phase plan that initially included a skeleton crew and talent in studio for Week 1. The next phase would be to bring back players without a crowd, if safe to do so. It's now the halfway point of the season, with the LEC on hiatus this weekend before play resumes July 17. Schmidt didn't confirm whether Week 5 was targeted for the players to return but admits it would have been ideal.
"Frankly, [it was] one of the potentials," Schmidt said. "Obviously looking at the [schedule] it would have been a nice thing. The first round robin we play online, the second round robin we play offline. But again, the priority will always be that we first and foremost protect the safety and health [of everyone involved]. So this is not something where we're saying this is a hard target. We're saying, 'Hey, these are potential options depending on how things go.' Obviously we are going to target to have everybody back at the studio at some point again, but we're not going to do it if it at all means jeopardising safety and health."
Schmidt also noted that before players potentially return to the studio, a trial run might take place with certain players in the studio that would be off broadcast. It would be a technical check with players invited to the studio to ensure that everything is working the way the LEC wants it to work and that there are no additional health and safety risks. Schmidt said the desire is to have everybody back in the studio but wouldn't confirm a specific date, saying only that it would happen "at a point where we feel comfortable."
In Berlin, where the LEC studios are located, there are 8,537 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 216 confirmed deaths as of Friday. A recent spike in cases in Berlin, as well as an outbreak in a meat processing plant in Gütersloh, have led to concerns of a second wave in the country and in other parts of Europe.
ESPN Daily newsletter: Sign up now!
Schmidt said he has been paying attention to other sports, such as German Bundesliga soccer, which returned to play with no crowd on May 16, but notes that the circumstances for the LEC differ.
"I think esports is in a very unique situation in this regard, that we are not in need of all the measurements that [the German Bundesliga] are introducing," Schmidt said. "We are not as heavily impacted regarding the execution of a competition. We are in a spot where we are comfortable with the standards that we've set for competitive integrity for our league. This was obviously a big stumbling block in spring when we had to introduce all these measurements on a week-to-week basis. Now that we have those implemented, though, we are comfortable with the league running online."
So ultimately, what boxes need to be checked in order for the next phase to be initiated and a test broadcast to be performed and players to return?
"We need to be in a spot where we feel the return to the studio is not a substantial risk factor when it comes to the top two priorities, which is, one, that anybody in the league could actually receive the virus from this new additional environment, and also not impacting the competition. We are going above and beyond when it comes to the protection of [all involved], simply because the risk is incredibly high, right?"