Asia-based Overwatch League teams flying to Los Angeles amid coronavirus outbreak

So far this season, the Dragons, Chengdu Hunters, Guangzhou Charge, Hangzhou Spark and Seoul Dynasty haven’t played a match. The Overwatch League (OWL) has already canceled scheduled competitions in cities insides China and South Korea during the months of February and March because of the virus, covid-19. League officials have not yet announced how the schedule will change to make up for the canceled contests, which were scrapped to prioritize the health and safety of teams and fans set to attend live events.

The impossible-to-predict outbreak has placed a quarter of the league in limbo while other teams head into the fourth week of the season, with matches scheduled this weekend in Houston. Now it appears the league’s Asia-based teams could begin their seasons playing in matches held in North America. Players for Seoul Dynasty landed in Los Angeles last night. Charlie “Nero” Zwarg, an American player on the Guangzhou Charge, tweeted he’s flying back alone, while the rest of the team waits for visas.

The visa process will almost certainly be the complicating factor for any league decision. Airlines are threatening to cancel flights to areas hit the hardest and it can take weeks to obtain a U.S. visa, depending on the applicant’s country of origin.

Public health authorities are scrambling to contain the virus. There are confirmed cases in more than 30 countries around the world. Swiss authorities banned all events with more than 1,000 participants and global markets are dropping amid fears that the escalating outbreak could cripple economies.

After the initial outbreak in China’s central Hubei province, the Charge, Dragons and Spark all relocated some of their teams to South Korea, leaving behind training facilities and support staff in their home cities. League officials have been assessing options to rectify the start of the season, including the possibility of hosting matches in South Korea. On Sunday, the OWL canceled the next three weeks of scheduled matches in South Korea.

With the season entering its fourth week of competition, the urgency to get the Asian teams into action and away from harm appears to have overtaken the hope of waiting for the threat of the virus to simply subside in China or South Korea. The midseason tournament is steadily approaching and teams will need to make up for lost time to qualify. The four-team tournament in early May is based on the league records after the first nine matches of the season. There’s a bit of dark humor floating around Twitter about the Pacific east division being left behind.

The coronavirus outbreak is shaping up to be a stress test on the league’s lofty ambitions. Activision Blizzard created the Overwatch League to host the first truly international sports leagues with teams based in local markets across three continents. It’s a model built off traditional sports franchises and the plan was for this to be a “stretch” season. Teams moved out of sunny Los Angeles and created training facilities around North America and Asia. Each franchise was expected to host a series of weekend competitions, called homestands, in their city. The schedule meant months of planning, added costs and logistics to fly teams week-to-week but these are ant hills compared to the mountain of problems some teams are now facing in the face of the coronavirus.

The Overwatch League is not the only esports competition upended by the coronavirus. The Chinese League of Legends professional circuit announced it will resume play after a lengthy hiatus, but it will no longer be playing in packed arenas. The matches will be held online and the league is requiring players to complete a “14-day monitored quarantine” before they can participate.

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