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Plans for the Overwatch League to grow attendance in 2020 have stalled as organizers have shut it down amid growing coronavirus fears. The blockbuster title had big plans this year for its dedicated eSports league, rolling out a home game schedule aimed to foment regional enthusiasm.
Parent Activision Blizzard announced the cancellation for all March and April events, squelching plans for two teams in one of its largest markets. But the company says the matches will still happen, just not with live audiences.
The Los Angeles Valiant and the Los Angeles Gladiators — ranked 8th and 19th — had played just three matches between them.
The announcement comes after the league already cancelled events in China and South Korea.
"We are working hand-in-hand with our teams to see that all matches are played when it's safe and logistically feasible, staying as close to our originally planned schedule as possible," the league said in a statement posted to Twitter. "We are considering the various options available to esports in this effort, so that all teams — including those previously impacted by scheduling changes in China — can get back to doing what they do best."
The Valiant, who play all home games at the Novo located at 800 West Olympic Blvd in Los Angeles, announced refunds for all cancelled events.
Coronavirus threats have stalled or stopped events and gatherings nationwide. NCAA organizers have announced that March Madness games will be played without fans, and the NBA suspended its season "until further notice."
Attendance at eSports events has been steadily growing, with Riot Games packing 45,000 paid attendees into the Beijing National Stadium. The Overwatch League, in its third year, is still building its brand in an increasingly competitive environment.
According to numbers from ticket sales company StubHub, the number of eSports events increased 180% from 2015 to 2019. Average ticket prices, over the same time period, shot up 36%.
"Demand for eSports and the number of events have steadily risen over the last five years, with a huge spike in ticket sales," said Akshay Khanna, general manager of sports for StubHub. "If this trend continues, and with technology constantly evolving, it's likely that we'll continue to see growth in this space."
Event cancellations come at a particularly difficult time for the Call of Duty League, also run by Activision Blizzard. The league, like Overwatch, features a first person shooter and is in its inaugural season. And, with two teams based in Los Angeles, the league is still deciding how it will handle the threat.
Activision Blizzard said it is scrolling through options but insists that the games will go on.