China’s state-run Global Times on Tuesday reported police arrested three people for organizing a video game viewing party with over 2,000 attendees in the city of Wuhan, in the midst of China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic.

The “crazy esports fans,” as the Global Times dubbed them, were not even playing video games. They packed a square on one of Wuhan’s main roads to watch a Chinese team play against a South Korean team in the online game League of Legends (LOL).

League of Legends is a tremendously popular esports game, in which two teams of five players battle for control of a fantasy game board using a vast selection of playable heroes. Launched in 2009, it was a pioneer of competitive esports play and “games as a service” – games that keep going forever with constant updates and additions of new content, and new opportunities for avid players to spend money purchasing the latest content. There are about 140 playable characters in total, but only a few are available for free to new players.

As one might guess from that description, LOL is very addictive for its dedicated players and has grown into a huge business for esports leagues. Publisher Riot Games reported 115 million active players worldwide in 2021. There are 117 teams currently competing in LOL’s esports league, with 22 of them advancing to the annual World Championship in pursuit of $2.2 million in prize money.

There are websites dedicated to watching LOL esports matches online, but it is also hugely popular as a mass spectator sport. LOL viewing parties have been known to fill sports arenas with thousands of paying customers. 

LOL is so popular in China that last August, a wanted fugitive could not resist playing a few rounds at an Internet cafe in Chongqing – and was promptly arrested by an off-duty police officer taking a LOL break at the same cafe. The fugitive was a highly-ranked player, so the cafe treated him like a celebrity and broadcast his user name over loudspeakers when he logged in. The cop heard the broadcast, rushed over as a video game fan to catch a glimpse of the famed esports competitor, and recognized his face from wanted posters.

Chinese livestreaming company Huya paid $310 million in April to become the exclusive broadcaster of Pro LOL events in China for five years; another Chinese company called Bilbili signed a three-year deal in 2020 to cover international events. Esports overall is a $15 billion industry in China.

LOL has also branched out into other media, most notably with a new Netflix animated series called Arcane that swiftly became one of the most popular shows on the streaming giant – it knocked the much-discussed Squid Games out of the top spot this week – and scored the highest ratings of any original series in Netflix history, from both regular viewers and professional critics. 

Arcane is a prequel to LOL that relates the backstory of some of its most popular characters. Its rave reviews praise its unique animation style, a blend of computer animation and watercolor painting, and its complex, extremely dark narrative, which leans more toward Game of Thrones than a Pixar animated film. It is not really suitable for young children, which means they are probably watching it in droves.

The incident in Wuhan on Saturday involved a viewing party for the 2021 LOL World Championship, which pitted China’s Edward Gaming team (EDG) against South Korea’s DK team, the defending 2020 champions. 

The Global Times exuberantly reported China’s 3-2 victory in the five-game series in a separate article that fawned over the “cheers of joy” from Chinese social media – even though the Chinese government is officially skeptical of online video games and strictly regulates the amount of time young people are allowed to play them.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) concerns about the “spiritual opium” of online games evaporated at the chance to celebrate EDG’s victory as another moment of Chinese nationalist triumph:

Chinese netizens congratulated the team, with topics about the victory trending on various social media platforms. The topic “EDG wins” had been viewed more than 2.63 billion times as of press time on Sina Weibo, ranking top for a long time.

The victory made fans’ blood boil. Photos that went viral on Chinese social media platforms showed hundreds of fans on the streets on a playground, crowding in front of a screen livestreaming the game at midnight.

Several fans of the EDG told the Global Times on Sunday that they didn’t sleep on Saturday night and were glued to their screens watching the final game, which took place from Saturday night to the early hours of Sunday morning. 

However, even in the hour of triumph, the Global Times clucked its tongue at a few “crazy fans” who “went a bit too far,” including a few who decided to hold a little victory parade in which no one was wearing any clothes.

The LOL fans who organized the 2,000-person viewing party in Wuhan really went too far, since China is currently struggling with its worst coronavirus outbreak since early 2020, and Wuhan is the city where it all began. 

The Global Times did not explicitly mention the coronavirus outbreak in its story about the arrests of the LOL organizers in Wuhan. They were officially charged with “holding the event without permission from the public security authorities, which caused security risks.”

One of the three viewing party organizers reportedly faces ten days in detention and less than $100 in fines for his infraction, a much less severe punishment than the penalties for violating coronavirus protocols during the height of the pandemic.

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