In the past, for South African esports fans, the biggest competitive events were traditionally held at live events, with an audience in attendance. But as COVID hit and lockdown rules were implemented, LAN events immediately ceased. With a vaccine roll out plan now in the works for South Africans, and global esports events slowly returning to LAN events - when can South Africa’s esports scene expect a return to 'normal.'
The short answer? Not very soon. However, there is a longer answer that will also have to take into account how the world has changed. The chance of spectator-driven events returning any time soon are slim to none, but even just LAN events with players in attendance seem far off. While recent events in Europe had many players believing “normal” was on its way, that was quickly axed with decisions by major tournament organisers to outright cancel LAN events scheduled for the end of 2021. Electronic Arts and FIFA announced the cancellation of both the FIFAe World Cup and FIFAe Nations Cup Finals for 2021. Despite the event less than a month away, the World Cup was cancelled after it became apparent that travel restrictions, quarantine rules and the threat of super spreader events would make it impossible to continue as planned for the year.
Locally, the two big events each year were undoubtedly the rAge Expo held in September/October alongside Comic Con Africa. Both these events chose to go online in 2020, with the esports events usually hosted on stages at the expos being held in an online format. While the support from players was strong, the crowd aspect was missing. Comic Con Africa has announced that they will not be hosting a physical event this year. Rather choosing to focus on their 2022 event which, they’ve confirmed, will be live and hosted between 22 and 25 September next year. The event will take place at the Johannesburg Expo Centre. VS Gaming hosted one of the biggest esports competitions at Comic Con Africa and Wanda Mkhize who heads up executive content and VS Gaming at Telkom says that the cellular provider will “ensure our gamers and the esports fraternity continue to enjoy their favourite pastime from the comfort and safety of their homes, through our competitive offers.” While the VS Gaming Leagues continue to operate there has been no word on when the finals will take place and if a safe studio type broadcast will be utilised.
rAge Expo, which has been running for more than 18 years, was dealt a COVID blow when its home - The TicketPro Dome in South Africa - was sold to a company that plans to utilise it as a used car showroom. After more than a year without being able to hold events or exhibitions the sale made sense, but it does mean that rAge will likely have to find a new home. rAge Project Director Michael James says there are no plans for a LAN event in 2021:
“The very concept of a LAN is many people closely packed together for extended periods of time with three or maybe four bathrooms. With COVID still in the air, I doubt we’ll see a LAN until mid to late 2022, perhaps only 2023. It really is all dependent on COVID waves, vaccination rates and lockdown regulations for large scale events. Like the fans, I’m sad that this is the reality we’re all currently in - something went very wrong on the timeline (I’ve got my people looking into it). As for rAge in 2021: We are looking at hosting an online event again, but this is sponsor dependent. It’s not something we can do for free. An online event costs more than you’d think. Without a doubt when life is back to normal we’ll do rAge again - I’m just not exactly sure what it’ll look like after this whole pandemic is over and when it’ll be possible - guessing is dangerous. We do have a new venue in mind, given the announcement of The Dome being sold to a third party and no longer operating in the events space.”
Tournament Organiser Mettlestate echoed Michael James’ statement saying many tournament organisers are focused on the safety of players, spectators and production crews, first and foremost. Community Manager Carly Twaddle explains:
“Mettlestate has not planned any LAN events for the remainder of 2021. COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works for all sectors of the economy, and esports was not exempted from this. We were meant to host a LAN event at last year’s Rand Show. Competitions like the ROG Invitational II and III could have potentially been LAN events. However, the necessary precautions had to be put in place to ensure the health and safety of staff, competitors and fans. This is why we have committed to producing quality production and content to deliver live events in a safe way. We are just as eager as fans are to get back to live LAN events, but we need to be patient and allow for some normalcy to return to the world before we can. Luckily, Mettlestate has been able to keep up with the demand for esports competitive action on all levels by increasing the number of online competitions. We look forward to getting back to live events, but we will keep our competitions online until it is safe (and legal) to do so.”
While LAN events won’t be back any time soon, the number of online competitions across gaming titles for esports fans in South Africa has increased exponentially in the last few months. Most tournament organisers are running competitions weekly for players with a host of live streams to enjoy if fans need their local esports fix. Many streamers have begun to share competition gameplay as well, creating a community stream aspect that was missed pre-pandemic. So while there won’t be an opportunity to enjoy a live event with your friends physically, in 2021, there is definitely a host of opportunities to still support South African esports, safely and from home.