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Alec “Arcitys” Sanderson wasn’t feeling well in the lead up to Call of Duty League Champs. He had caught COVID-19 and was struggling to stay focused during practice.

“It was the most stressful week — the scrims were terrible,” Arcitys, the in-game leader for Atlanta FaZe said early in the tournament. “Trying to actually be positive and energetic during scrims was hard. We didn’t know if we were going to make it, we didn’t know if our whole team would be here.”

Arcitys wasn’t the only one.  McArthur “Cellium” Jovel and Tyler “aBeZy” Pharris caught the virus after the Stage 5 Major as well. Only Chris “Simp” Lehr continued to test negative in between the Major and the championship event. They had to push through online practice while feeling sick, praying they tested negative in time for them to make their Tuesday flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

“There was a four day span for me where my whole body was aching,” aBeZy said. “I had a really bad cough, and I still do cough every now and then. I’ve been coughing for a week and a half now and I hope it goes away soon. I had a high fever, chills. I woke up drenched at night just covered in sweat. It was a terrible experience.”

Atlanta FaZe Champs
A line to check vaccination cards and negative COVID-19 tests wrapped around the block on Championship Sunday | Provided by Atlanta FaZe

Luckily all members of FaZe tested negative in time for the event, paving the way for their run through New York, Dallas and Toronto. The grand final was a tough fight, but aBeZy and company pulled out the 5-3 win over Jamie “Insight” Craven and the rest of Toronto Ultra. They are the 2021 Call of Duty League champions.

“Even in some of our scrims when we were all feeling that bad, we were just smoking teams, which is hilarious,” aBeZy said. “The fact that we were able to overcome that and go on to win this event is just amazing.”

Call of Duty League Champs vs COVID-19

COVID-19 was an additional opponent a number of Call of Duty League teams faced off against before Champs. Aside from those Atlanta FaZe players, others from the Los Angeles Thieves and OpTic Chicago had tested positive for the virus but still fought through exhaustion, coughs and other symptoms in order to practice.

“[I] had COVID and was forcing myself to scrim. Got to LA and ran into problems with my tests, didn’t even know if I’d be eligible to play,” LA Thieves player Kenny “Kenny” Williams said in a tweet after losing to Minnesota. “First rounded at Champs.”

Galen Center Champs
Call of Duty League general manager Daniel Tsay said they chose Los Angeles because of the “bedrock” Call of Duty fanbase here | Photo by Aron Garst

Plaguing two years of Call of Duty

The scene at the Galen Center in Los Angeles was relatively quiet throughout most of the weekend, only picking up in the latter half of Saturday once Dallas took on Toronto to decide who would face Atlanta in the grand final.

Fans lined up outside as ushers checked vaccination cards at the door. Galen Center staff were increasingly strict inside the venue, pouncing on anyone who took their mask off for more than a few moments. The strict approach to event health protocols made every player feel at ease.

“As long as everyone’s safe and the things are going smooth, that’s all that matters,” Dallas Empire SMG Anthony “Shotzzy ” Cuevas-Castro said, clad in flip-flops, in the media room after beating Toronto. When asked if he has interacted with fans, he said, “Honestly, no, just because I’m scared.”

The Call of Duty League announced on Aug. 11 that attendees would need to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCG or antigen test within 72 hours of them attending the event. The Stage 4 and 5 Majors in Arlington were strict with masks but didn’t have similar requirements for attendees. League officials said they had to enact stricter rules in response to the highly contagious delta variant.

Atlanta faZe champs
Fans gathered near the stage whenever they got the chance to be close to Seth “Scump” Abner or Simp | Provided by Call of Duty League

Los Angeles County has faced a surge of COVID-19 cases since lockdowns ended despite the ready availability of vaccines. There were 2,781 new cases reported on championship Sunday alone, according to LA County Department of Public Health. The LA City Council ordered city attorneys to draft a law that would require citizens to have at least one shot of a vaccine before going to indoor venues. Specifics have yet to be announced and the council has not moved any further on the measure.

With the pandemic’s end nowhere in sight, organizations like the Call of Duty League were forced to take strict measures for in-person events.

“We looked at how we can meet or exceed local regulations and what’s going on with different sporting events,” said Call of Duty League general manager Daniel Tsay. “We spoke with our teams and generally every felt comfortable with what we decided to do.”

COVID-19 has plagued the league in 2021, heavily impacting teams like the London Royal Ravens and New York Subliners. Multiple players, like Marcus “Afro” Reid and Paco “HyDra” Rusiewiez couldn’t travel between the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Canada due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Yet, it wasn’t until several players attended an afterparty following the Stage 5 Major that multiple players tested positive for the virus, putting their chance to play in the championship tournament at risk. Luckily, everyone who tested positive was able to compete and make it to the biggest Call of Duty event that’s been held in nearly two years. That didn’t make the first LAN back in some time any less nerve wracking for everyone, though.

Galen Center Champs
The arena was relatively empty until Championship Sunday | Provided by Call of Duty League

“The very first time we walked out and saw the arena I got nervous, first time in a long time,” Call of Duty League caster Miles Ross said. “That was the wake up moment, everyone’s was like ‘do you remember how to do this?’ It’s the first time I’ve seen more than three people in a room in a year.”

Ross and his wife didn’t have a home when the pandemic hit, as they travelled around the country for events. However, Call of Duty League officials helped them find somewhere to live downtown. It was cramped, which meant Ross had to sleep next to his casting setup, but they eventually found a bigger apartment. Ross said his family’s whole journey is a testament to the league’s adaptability.

“Now one of our bedrooms is entirely a green screen wall,” he said. “There are three huge professional lighting setups. Camera, tripods, everything. It’s amazing that we can do it with so many other industries being stopped in their tracks by this pandemic.”

Keeping a closed bubble

The Toronto Ultra, who suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Røkkr at the Stage 5 Major, have been doing everything they can to avoid interacting with anyone outside their immediate group. Several of the teams that went furthest over the weekend — including the Ultra and Røkkr — had been putting in extra effort to get vaccinated and avoid taking any risks.

“We stay as a group, we don’t really travel,” Toronto Ultra assault rifle player Jamie “Insight” Craven said. “We’re feeling safe, we’re feeling good. The double vaccination certainly helps.”

100 Thieves and FaZe Clan held tailgates around the University of Southern California campus, but players opted to avoid as much fan interaction as possible in order to stay focused on the competition. Other teams, like Minnesota, opted to focus on handing out merchandise rather than have their players take photos with fans.

Toronto Ultra Champs
Toronto took special measures to avoid unnecessary interactions with people outside their bubble | Provided by Call of Duty League

“I’m definitely feeling comfortable,” Røkkr player Preston “Priestahh” Greiner said. “We’re not talking to many people, no interactions. We’re just staying in the zone.”

Other players competing at Champs, however, have said they haven’t wanted to put in the effort to get the two shots required in order to be fully vaccinated.

Regardless, now that the 2021 season is over, players are ready for a long offseason of grinding Warzone, getting acclimated to Call of Duty: Vanguard and relaxing however they can. Many said they are ready for a change, not just in the offseason but around every facet of the Call of Duty League. They want more teams within the franchising model, a better ranked mode in Call of Duty, an improved format for champs, and — most of all — an end to the pandemic.

“There’s so many cases, there still needs to be restrictions,” aBeZy said. “It would be great to have it on LAN next year but we’ll literally have to wait and see.”

With cases on the rise, players realize that caution is required with every step toward change.

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