Long flights, mirror metas and an uncertain 2020 for Overwatch League

Ben Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment

On Sept. 29, 2019, the San Francisco Shock swept the Vancouver Titans in front of a full house at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to win the second Overwatch League grand championship. At a glance, it was a successful ending to the year, a packed crowd on camera crowning the new world champions, league MVP Jay "Sinatraa" Won and his teammates hoisting the league trophy up for the world to see.

The problem was, behind the sleek graphics, gloss of the celebration and sold-out sports arena, the world wasn't really watching. Online, streamed exclusively on Twitch, the final peaked at 318k watchers, per viewership tracker website Esports Charts. In comparison to other major esports finals of the year in terms of viewership, the Overwatch League final was dwarfed, with games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, Dota 2 and others breaking the 1 million viewership mark with ease.

When the full ratings were released by Nielsen, it was a glass half empty or half full scenario. While numbers were up globally, an average of 1.12 million watching the Shock take home the Overwatch League title, it was a far cry from where Overwatch thought it would be when it was first announced at Blizzcon in 2016. Using the same metrics from Nielsen, League of Legends' most recent world championship final between Europe's G2 Esports and China's FunPlus Phoenix, averaged 21.8 million viewers worldwide.

Overwatch League's face of operations and commissioner, Nate Nanzer, left the position and company earlier in 2019 to join Fortnite's Epic Games. In recent weeks, some of OWL's most prominent faces on the broadcast side have announced they will not be returning to the league when it kicks off its 2020 season this upcoming February, including marquee casting duo Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist. The game's popularity on streaming sites has stagnated. One of the league's past players, previously suspended and ousted Félix "xQc" Lengyel, has become Twitch's most-subscribed streamer at the start of 2020 by playing almost everything that isn't Overwatch.

Following Overwatch League's first season, everything seemed to be on the rise. A slew of new franchises jumped into the fray leading into Season 2, and excitement for the future was palpable.

A year later, the script has flipped. Players are retiring. Numbers are down. Talent is not re-signing.

So what went wrong?

The elephant in the room

It all starts with the game itself. While I'll address the league's upcoming travel nightmare shortly, my train of thought kept coming back to the same thing each time I thought about what Activision Blizzard can do to renew fan interest.

For me, it's the lack of creativity inside the game. As someone who has covered esports for a decade and has been a traditional sports fan far longer than that, the best competitions always come down to the same thing: style. Style makes matchups. The Chicago Bulls of the '90s didn't play the same as the rough and tumble Pistons of the same era. In mixed martial arts, the most purchased PPV in history is between a crafty and charismatic slugger from Ireland in Conor McGregor versus Russia's bulldozing wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov.

In esports as well, the greats have their own identity. The 2019 League of Legends world champions FunPlus Phoenix have completely different styles from previous winners. If you took the nameplates off an FPX game in 2019, a fan of League of Legends esports would be able to identify them just from their champion selections and style.

Overwatch has a dire lack of creativity, and it's not the fault of the players. It all stems from the game they're playing. In League of Legends and Dota 2, players are only given a single canvas (map), but they have a wide array of colors (characters) to create a painting.

In comparison, it feels like Overwatch players are only given three colors to paint with, and the result is a slew of matches feeling the same as the last. League of Legends is about to introduce its 149th playable character. Dota 2 recently bolstered its ranks to 119. Overwatch, which has 12 players in a professional game compared to League and Dota's 10, has a whopping 31 selectable characters. During League's offseason between the world championship and the 2020 season, it is set to release three new champions. Overwatch didn't even release three champions over the course of an entire year. Since Overwatch League began in 2018, Overwatch has released only five new characters for players to select. In terms of maps, it has released four.

For a game that is already linear to begin with -- lead one cart from A to B or take control of this single objective -- it needs variety to create different styles for teams to deploy. Outside of some teams being more offensive (Vancouver) or defensive (New York), there is little difference in how teams play. If you took the nameplates and team colors off every team in the Overwatch League last season, the only team that would have had a distinct style to separate itself from the rest was the Chengdu Hunters, who played damage-dealing heroes in a meta that only catered to beefy tanks and supports. In a series of mirror matchups, the Hunters were the colorful and bombastic team that made the game their own.

That's not even possible anymore, with Overwatch adopting a role lock system that makes every match feature two damage dealers, two tanks and two supports fighting against one another. This system would be fine if there were many different characters, but for tanks and supports in particular, players only have a combined fifteen characters to choose from, and only a few of those characters are truly effective at any one time. This severely restricts creative freedom in compositions and creating unique styles for each team.

To make matters worse, this doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. At a time when Overwatch should be creating new characters and maps left and right to spice up the monotonous matchups, everything fresh seems to be pushed until the game's quasi-sequel, Overwatch 2, is released. Activision Blizzard teased new characters like Sojourn, but most won't be playable until Overwatch 2 comes out -- and when that is, only Activision Blizzard knows.

This stagnation creates metas that are built around the same six or seven characters without enough counterplay involved, most notably the triple-tank, triple-support meta known as "GOATS." Populated by a North American amateur team by the same name, the slow-building and methodical composition controlled the professional Overwatch meta from late 2018 to the end of Stage 3 in 2019.

Blizzard, like it did with "GOATS," will at some point fix the repetitive nature of the meta by switching up the game, but because there are only 31 characters, all the tinkering does is create a new unstoppable meta in which six or seven characters are the right way to play the game.

Moments like Daniel "Dafran" Francesca breaking out a completely new way to use a character are like shooting stars in the professional Overwatch world. You don't get to see them very often.


Dafran pulls off ridiculous Zarya play in Overwatch League

Atlanta Reign DPS Daniel "dafran" Francesca finds a way over the roof on Hollywood to drop a surprise Graviton Surge on the Paris Eternal.

Counterplay is the lifeblood of any good sport. Until Overwatch has more heroes and maps to open up the game for its players, the game isn't going to improve as a spectator sport or for the players, boxed into these constricting metas without any way to claw themselves out.

I know Blizzard cares about carefully crafting lore for each of its new characters and spacing their stories out, but that's not going to work if they want their game to survive as a competitive title. Overwatch needs new heroes, and unfortunately, it doesn't look like enough are coming anytime soon.

The great travel conundrum of 2020

Per Upcomer's Eric Doerr, the Boston Uprising will be traveling 71,460 miles this season. By comparison, the Los Angeles Lakers will be traveling around 40,000 miles for their 2019-2020 season.

I understand this had to happen. I understand that creating a truly global esport with exciting homestands was the entire point of the Overwatch League. I understand this is what was supposed to separate the Overwatch League and Activision Blizzard's esports competitions from all others, carving a path for a new future in which other esports and traditional sports would take their leagues global. I understand owners who have spent millions already on the Overwatch League need a way to make their money back by hosting their own home matches to create a revenue stream.

I understand it all.

But still, this is unsustainable.

For a league in which players have already dealt with burnout after living in Los Angeles for two years, global travel will be a huge challenge. In the NBA, teams have charter jets that equate to everyone on the team having a first-class seat with all the amenities in the word. Without any partnerships between a team and an airline, it would more than likely cost a franchise upwards of a million dollars to send entire crews around the world in business or first class for an entire season. That's not going to happen, which means players will be trekking to Asia, Europe and North America in coach, cramped in their seats and hoping that they at least have a suitable practice situation set up when they land in their new destination.

Travel is difficult and is something that takes years for some people to get used to, with jet lag and fatigue wearing on even frequent travelers. It's putting players, a lot of them in their teens and early 20s, who might have never even left the country before, on a schedule that has them globetrotting through China.

The concept of a global league where every team travels sounds great. Homestands in cities like Dallas and Atlanta were a hit last season. If Blizzard can multiply that and have the best teams traveling around the world to determine who really is the best Overwatch team on the planet, it will be a huge success. The owners can recoup some of the money they spent on owning the franchise by hosting their own events. Blizzard can grow its reach on the ground in these major cities, spreading awareness of the game from Guangzhou, China, to New York. The players get to experience new walks of life and experience places they would never have seen without Overwatch.

Think about it a little longer, though, and it all falls apart. And the more you think about the travel and the global league, the more ridiculous it sounds.

It's more than simply the travel. Teams need visas to get into certain countries. Beyond the jet lag and fatigue, there are cultural and language differences players won't be ready for when they start the season. Every city brings different challenges, from transportation to diet to having the right type of adapter so you can charge your phone.

For teams, translators and fixers will be a must when it comes to traveling around these cities. Players will need quality computer setups and good internet to actually practice for their jobs. Overwatch League has already seen a slew of players step away from the league due to burnout or a misunderstanding of how much work is required of a pro player, and that stress is only going to be multiplied by a figure too large to quantify.

One way teams can combat these intense schedules if they don't have the luxury of hosting five homestands like the Guangzhou Charge or Washington Justice is to create two six-person teams that can rotate. When one six-person team is on the road, the other is at home practicing, and then they switch depending on the schedule, alleviating the stresses of travel.

The obvious negative would be that a team isn't always fielding its best-performing roster, and that could result in load management complaints similar to what the NBA experiences. If the Shock creates two six-person lineups and their championship-winning team stays home while they travel to Shanghai, it's going to disappoint a lot of fans.

It's too late to go back now. Teams have already rented the venues and started selling tickets to their homestands, so it's up to the franchises themselves at this point to navigate the travel concerns. I would consider it a massive success for the Overwatch League if fewer than 10 players retired due to burnout by the end of this season.

China calling

North America is waning on Overwatch. Europe's most famous team, Gigantti, closed its doors on Overwatch recently. South Korea, while supportive, isn't a large enough market to swing Overwatch's fortunes.

The one place that Overwatch League could count on is China. They added three new Chinese franchises in 2019 with the Hangzhou Spark, Guangzhou Charge and Chengdu Hunters, and all three found support in their home markets. The Shanghai Dragons evolved from winless laughingstock in the inaugural season to playoff contender in 2019.

China is the largest video game market in the world, and it's the one market that could hold up the others if properly engaged. China's League of Legends Pro League is the most successful esports league in the world by itself, housing 17 franchises with various thriving geolocated markets and a 25-team minor league system more vast than the entirety of Overwatch's flimsy secondary scene. China's League of Legends scene could function if every other country in the world stopped caring about the game. The players on the LPL's best teams are celebrities, featured in fashion magazines and on talk shows.

Currently in China, Overwatch has a significantly smaller fanbase than the LPL. The upcoming homestands might change things, however. If the live shows in Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and especially Guangzhou (who are hosting five events) can even scratch the monopoly LPL has created in China, then China will almost assuredly become the top market for Overwatch League.

Without China, Overwatch League's future looks grim. With it, there's hope.

The importance of talent

I've painted a grim picture so far of Overwatch League's third season, but there is one area in which it's extremely strong. Even with the exit of some big names, Overwatch League is rich in casting talent, and it needs to do more to let them shine in 2020.

During the earlier days of the Overwatch League, its companion show, Watchpoint, was some of the best supplementary content in esports. The production was sleek, the talent crafted storylines, and everything about the league felt important. As the league has progressed, the show has been stripped down, but the talent has still performed at a high level. This season, the league needs to give its talent the creative freedom it deserves. Use the production talent to unlock the rich storylines and characters hidden within the various teams that populate the league.

Brennon "Bren" Hook and Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson, recently promoted from the analyst desk to casting duo for the Overwatch League, are two of the more engaging and endearing personalities we have in all of esports. In another game like Counter-Strike or League of Legends, they'd be gigantic stars. The duo's weekly podcast "Plat Chat," a no-frills round table with fellow Overwatch League talent Jonathan "Reinforce" Larsson and Matt "Mr X" Morello is one of the best currently in esports and should be getting more than the roughly 20,000 views it gets on Twitter. Mitch "Uber" Leslie can go toe-to-toe with any of the best commentators in the space today. Soe Gschwind is a decade-plus veteran in the competitive gaming world and would flourish wherever she goes in esports.

Other games put their talent in positions to succeed. League of Legends has various podcasts and other side content that put their commentators front and center, filling a void for more discussion about the ongoing competitions and allowing their talent to shine in other mediums.

I want to see Sideshow and Bren experiencing different cultures as they travel around the world. Give me a weekly podcast where Soe, Reinforce and rotating guests from the league come on to discuss the hottest news and results. Let the talent throw some ideas at the wall and see if they stick. If not, no loss, but if it's something that actually gains traction and brings in excitement around the league, then it can only help the Overwatch League in the long run.

I can't force Blizzard to do what they really need to do to fix the Overwatch League by increasing character and map diversity, and I also can't get them to have every team fly in luxury. I can't even bring back MonteCristo and the other talent that has decided to move away from Overwatch in the upcoming year.

But I can suggest the one thing that won't take millions of dollars to do -- invest in the personalities that you have left. Let them have the creative freedom the players in the league don't have the option to wield. By letting them have their voice, they can share the voices of the players and franchises in the Overwatch League.

Maybe if Activision Blizzard can do that, the league can make it to the 2021 season, where the promise of Overwatch 2 could make the necessary changes the game as a whole desperately needs.