With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing around the globe, case counts have surged rapidly in South Korea in recent weeks, hitting hundred thousands of new cases per day. Unsurprisingly, the LCK teams haven’t been spared either by the coronavirus. In the past few weeks, many teams have had to field weakened rosters as key players caught COVID-19 and had to quarantine. But on Thursday, March 17, the LCK has put up new guidelines for Spring playoffs that would allow COVID-19 positive players to still compete with the rest of their team remotely.

Two years ago, when the pandemic was in its early stages, esports tournaments shifted to remote play, and it is only recently that leagues around the world have begun bringing players back to the stage. The LCK in particular, in part thanks to Korea having wrestled the virus under control back then, was one of the earliest to welcome players back to their studio—even allowing a live audience to witness the games unfold in-person.

But in the past few weeks, especially with the new variant, COVID-19 has ripped through Korea, reaching soaring case tallies on the daily. Even within the so-called bubble at LoL Park, LCK orgs could do little to stave off local transmission. Despite quarantine and isolation measures, the teams have witnessed first-hand how adept the virus is at spreading and infecting players and staff alike.

COVID-19 forces teams to field weakened rosters

Initially, the LCK’s COVID-19 guidelines had enforced that any players that test positive would have to self-isolate and would therefore not be able to compete with the rest of their team. At the start of the surge, no one predicted how bad it could get, and so the one-off absences didn’t appear to be too big of a disadvantage to deal with. Most teams and fans probably just saw it as an unlucky break, subbed in players from their Challenger squads, and had faith that their teams would bounce back later on—no big deal.

Unfortunately, the consequences proved to be much larger than that. Fredit Brion were forced to forfeit their match against Gen.G as both their starting roster and sub players had caught the virus, making them unable to field a suitable lineup against their opponents. For a team chasing a playoffs spot, the loss is like a death blow so late into the split. The decision to cancel the match received heavy backlash from the fans, as the latest in longstanding complaints about the LCK not opting to postpone games or not letting teams just play remotely.

Gen.G themselves have also been one of the hardest hit teams to suffer from the COVID-19 surge. Nearly all of their starting roster players have tested positive. The unfortunate thing about it is that the players didn’t catch the virus all at the same time, so their quarantine periods were at different weeks, meaning Gen.G was unable to go full strength for several games and had to adapt their strategies on the fly depending on which position had to be subbed.

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To make matters worse, it affected their two most crucial games against T1, who currently sit undefeated at the top of the standings. The top of the table clash was not only a very hype matchup for the fans, but also would have been very important ones for playoffs seeding as Gen.G was chasing T1 just a rank below them. In the end, the outcome may not have been different given how dominant T1 are right now, but you’d still feel for the players who were unable to truly test themselves against the team-to-beat at the moment. They’ll hope that the playoffs are kinder to them this time around to set up a proper finals clash.

LCK revises COVID-19 guidelines in time for Spring playoffs

While those games are now in the past, the LCK has tried to amend for the dissatisfaction brought by the previous guidelines and happenings with a new set of protocols for players who test positive for COVID-19. Announced on Thursday, the new health and safety rules will allow the COVID-positive player to play remotely while following quarantine measures. The other members of the team, however, will still be playing offline at LoL Park. These new guidelines will go into effect during the LCK Spring playoffs, which begin on March 23, 2022.

The self-isolating player will have to personally make and confirm the decision that they want to compete on the day, by sending an email to LCK officials. If, however, symptoms suddenly worsen in the lead-up to the game, emergency call-up substitutions can be made. At the same time, the LCK has instituted several measures to “ensure fairness and smooth gameplay.” The players must have their camera on and there will be metal detectors. They will also have to show their pockets and turn off their mobile phones. Referees will also continue to monitor player audio and video in real-time.

According to the statement, the LCK did not allow COVID-positive players to participate before because Korea’s quarantine guidelines would not allow a referee to be sent to the remote location to monitor the self-isolating individual. As such, they couldn’t enforce competitive integrity. Hence, the new measures introduced for playoffs are meant to very thoroughly check and ensure professional and honest play even in a remote environment.

But if you think about it, even the old guidelines to an extent ruined the competitiveness of the league. Unable to postpone the matches, teams could not field their best players and were forced into changing up strategies at the last minute, whether you’re the team with the COVID-positive player or not. They were unfortunately punished for a situation that wasn’t even under their control. Players were fully vaccinated and following health protocols to the extent that they could — but the reality is that an airborne virus can and will spread quickly once it enters. With teams living and playing in closed quarters, it’s no surprise that the case surge struck the LCK teams as hard as it did. The inflexibility of the league’s guidelines, for the sake of competitive integrity, hurt the teams and the level of competition more than it needed to.