It's been a strange year for all esports, but no esport has experienced more disruption than the Overwatch League. Its plan to thrill fans and generate hype by instituting a homestand system was a bold one, and early homestands were exciting and successful, but the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into things almost immediately, with homestands in Asia being postponed in the first few weeks and all homestands eventually canceled. The league resumed play online, with a new hero-pool system providing a changing meta each week, but the constant schedule changes led to many rematches, and a number of teams still have played only a few games.
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On top of that, the league received shocking news this week when Jay "sinatraa" Won, the reigning MVP and star DPS player for the San Francisco Shock, announced his retirement. It's unusual for someone of his stature to retire in the middle of the season, but the fact he immediately signed with a team in VALORANT -- a game that isn't even released yet and has no existing esports structure -- is unprecedented. Combine that with an exodus of Tier 2 teams from the scene, and it's a concerning time for fans of Overwatch and the Overwatch League.
Is the league really in trouble? Will Overwatch 2 rejuvenate the scene? Our writers sat down to hash things out.
Right now, what is the state of the Overwatch League?
Emily Rand: The Overwatch League has a really fervent and passionate fan base but struggles to leverage an audience large enough to justify franchise price points. It's particularly interesting that a lot of fans are not only fans of specific teams but also fans of the league itself -- which was never really leveraged properly in marketing and merchandising. Additionally, many of these fans were denigrated by other members of the league or team fan bases. Currently, a number of broadcast team members, casters and players are leaving the league or were released from the league before the season began. Putting everything else aside (the upcoming launch of VALORANT, in particular), when your MVP of last season announces midseason that he's jumping ship for a game that hasn't been released yet? Yeah, you have a major problem.
Arda Ocal: It has a passionate core audience that is invested in the league, but lapsed and casual fans are looking elsewhere for their entertainment. I think by now it is seen as an established league that people might check in on every now and then, but it won't be watched regularly by anyone other than the core. The online format hurt a bit, but that hurts every league. I don't think OWL will wither away and die, but I also don't think it will flourish under these conditions.
Tyler Erzberger: It feels disjointed with little consistency. I understand the current global pandemic has hurt the Overwatch League with the cancellations of homestands that seemed to be working in the early days, but it goes beyond that. There is a definite hardcore fanbase of Overwatch, similar to other competitive Blizzard titles like Heroes of the Storm and Starcraft, but it feels as if the higher-ups are constantly playing whack-a-mole with the league to try and find the root of what has caused its growth to stagnate.
Oh, the triple-tank, triple-support meta and the lack of exciting damage dealers are hurting the product, let's enforce two of each class at all times. Wait, teams still aren't diversifying their strategies and are continuing to just be a gigantic hivemind? Hero pools! That will drive teams into developing their own identities and compositions. What? The disconnect between the Overwatch League hero pools and the online ladder hero pools is making it difficult for the players to practice? Fine, we'll combine them so hero pools are universal!
... Huh, why isn't everyone happy?
What is the main cause of the league's current struggles?
Rand: This year has been a perfect storm of bad luck for the Overwatch League with several bad seeds sown by the league itself coming to fruition at the same time of a global pandemic.
Ideally, this was the year earmarked for a global takeover. If you're asking me whether it would have worked sans pandemic, I'd still be unsure. The only successful franchised esports league that is also geolocated with consistent travel is the League of Legends Pro League (LPL) in China, and there are a lot of other factors behind that success. Not all teams are geolocated, and most of them are still in Shanghai. By contrast, OWL was looking for players to travel to multiple continents (even with block scheduling) multiple times in the same season. Traveling six hours across just the eastern part of China is already taxing on a player -- just ask some of the LPL pros who have talked about it -- never mind having to fly to London, Paris, Chengdu or Seoul. Now they don't have to, but constant schedule delays as the virus spread led to a glut of games stacked every weekend, which is difficult for fans to keep up with.
All of that aside, the next part of this perfect storm is the fact they couldn't play in any of the Chinese cities or Seoul. Those Chinese homestands and the Seoul Dynasty homestand were looking like they would have been remarkably successful events, hopefully creating a new wave of interest in Overwatch itself. Blizzard absolutely needed this game to hit again in China, and their inability to hold homestands is beyond their control but also comes at the worst possible time because of ...
... the final factor: the game itself. When Overwatch first released, everyone was playing it. People will try to deny this now, or have just forgotten, but the fanfare around Overwatch was enormous. It topped League of Legends in South Korean PC bang play. When more than 300,000 people tuned in on Twitch to watch South Korea and the United States face each other in a World Cup match, people were already saying Overwatch was here to stay. Everyone wanted to play the game.
Since then, the game has stagnated. That initial player base has left. There is also a monetary barrier to entry, since Overwatch is not free to play. Blizzard has consistently gutted the Tier 2/Tier 3 Overwatch scene across multiple major competitive regions. This is now coming home to roost in the worst way, as it is having to focus on Overwatch 2 in a desperate attempt to bring back the player base it once had at launch. All of that excitement around the game has dwindled by season, all while would-be Overwatch pros have been siphoned off to other games and existing pros have retired.
And this is the short version of this answer.
Erzberger: There is no Tier 2 scene anymore. Every day there is an announcement of a North American or European organization pulling out from the scene and dissolving their minor league team. If that wasn't bad enough, Overwatch League franchises themselves are cutting their academy rosters, essentially agreeing that investing in upcoming talent (or lack thereof) is a waste of resources. Franchises nowadays just use the South Korean minor league scene as the global prospect pool, preferring to cherry pick from trusted organizations like Element Mystic and RunAway than to actually do it themselves.
The problem feels eerily similar to how Blizzard dealt with StarCraft II when it began losing some of its luster after being the biggest esport in the world for the first few years after its launch. As the release of the second expansion of the game, Hearth of the Swarm, was approaching, that became the full focus of the developers and the company itself. That left the original game in an awkward position where changes weren't being made when they needed to, leading to a rage-inducing meta that hurt viewership and excitement about the game. Although Heart of the Swarm brought back some fans and created new ones, Blizzard were never able to recapture the fervor and excitement that was lost by the end of the original SCII expansion.
Now, we have Overwatch, with the game in a purgatory (sans Echo) until Overwatch 2 comes along in hopes of injecting some much-needed enthusiasm back into the scene. As a spectator sport, Overwatch will never be a Rocket League or a Counter-Strike, but hopefully the upcoming release can help with the clutter that can turn a professional match into a mess of colors to the untrained eye.
Honestly, the one thing that Overwatch has going for it currently is its fans. While they don't dominate the online viewership, they do show up to homestands and live events in droves, with the game's family-friendly message working in markets like New York and Dallas. For Overwatch League to succeed, they need homestands to pierce markets in China, a country that has turned League of Legends into one of its biggest sports with players being featured on soda cans and chip bags.
In a year when capitalizing on the homestand model and drumming up interest in China was paramount, this is one area Blizzard can't take blame. They got unlucky at the worst possible time, similar to Vince McMahon's XFL, which went bankrupt following its inaugural season being canceled due to the pandemic.
Ocal: I firmly believe the state of the game, interest in the game and the league go hand in hand. If people enjoy the game, they will more likely be willing to enjoy top-level competition. This is true of all esports and sports, not just Overwatch League. The game is in a weird situation right now -- Overwatch 2 is about to come out, we have hero pools that have gone through a couple iterations, and VALORANT is drawing attention away from other FPS titles because it's new and fresh -- but the game VODs on YouTube seem to garner respectable viewership. OWL has its audience, but in this era of constant updates, games can get stale quickly. Overwatch 2, if rolled out correctly, has the best opportunity to rejuvenate the league among lapsed fans and casuals.
Optically, and I can't stress this enough, having the star of the league leave midseason for another game is an awful look. What kind of precedent does this set? Will more follow? How many players are burnt out from Overwatch like sinatraa was? How much greener are the pastures elsewhere, such as in VALORANT? This is terrible timing and also a black eye to the league. And I'll say it again: This happened MIDSEASON. It's not like sinatraa waited for his contract to expire, he just packed up and went to VALORANT city while his team was defending a championship. While I do think the Shock will be fine as a team even without Mr. 150k, the league will always have to answer questions about why its marquee talent made this jump at this time.
While the state of the game will always be a root cause for concern, the sinatraa exit will be the most talked about, for sure. And it won't end there.
What makes a game like VALORANT appealing to pros who've left?
Rand: I think VALORANT will be appealing from the get-go for a lot of players, but there are a lot of reasons why I don't think being a former Overwatch pro will translate to VALORANT, and this is before even beginning to get into how we still have no idea what a "pro" VALORANT scene will look like.
I agree with Riot Games' decision to allow VALORANT to grow organically. Yet, this means that esports organizations wanting to get in on the next big thing and see an immediate ROI are going to butt heads with what will likely be a lack of monetary support, depending on who sets up these third-party events. We don't yet know how much money teams will be willing to invest in players and VALORANT tournaments without an immediate pay-off, because of the way people approach investing in esports teams. Riot eventually took back its broadcasts from third-party organizers, which is fine, but it also means if I'm a third-party eyeing a tournament, there has to be something in it for me other than betting my monetary futures on running VALORANT tournaments. That avenue will likely go away within a year or two. Additionally, there's an ongoing global pandemic going on right now that doesn't affect VALORANT directly but does affect investment futures.
And this doesn't even touch upon how different of a game VALORANT is to Overwatch.
Ocal: The game is fun to play and watch, and it was created by Riot, which has a proven track record of esports success. If you're an esports pro and you have the skills to be able to make a run at VALORANT, you're thinking about seizing the opportunity. Let's say you make $70,000 as an Overwatch League pro, and you have the opportunity to make similar money in VALORANT by signing with an org. You're at least seriously considering that, because right now VALORANT feels like it could have longevity, and you may not know how long Overwatch will stick around. VALORANT has the vibe that it could be a League of Legends-type esport, where it's still top tier 10 years from now, and we haven't even seen an official esport structure for it yet from Riot, nor will we for another year or two. There is a lot of optimism right now surrounding it. So if you're a player, you see 1-2 years of content and tournaments you can play in, making maybe similar money to OWL, then the esport begins, and that's where things truly ramp up. But you were there on the ground floor and there's no catch up to play. Esports is a competitive space with high turnover, and this doesn't surprise me, especially if a player's skills are transferable.
Erzberger: VALORANT was created to appeal to the competitive gamer, and it's the opposite for Overwatch. The developers of VALORANT even said the casual audience might not like their game because it's slower-paced and isn't a run-n-gun style of game that appeals to the masses like Call of Duty. If you're an Overwatch League player who enjoys the grind and the competitive aspect of gaming, then those words are music to your ears.
Do you think Overwatch League players enjoy having heroes banned because players far worse than them are picking them on the ladder? Of course not. They want balance changes to fix overpowered things in the game, and Riot, as shown with League of Legends, is always active when it comes to tinkering its game, having a new patch every two weeks.
Riot has also displayed that it can create, nurture and grow a video game into a worldwide phenomenon with viewership numbers rising across the board. If you're a player with high-level aim, a strong work ethic and the passion to be the best at a game that directly rewards you for said passion, why wouldn't they take a glance at VALORANT? A majority of them won't succeed long-term, but these players are competitive and want to commit themselves to a game that gives back as much as they put into it.
What can the league do to fix things?
Rand: The recently-announced tournament format is a step in the right direction. I love the idea of tournaments over a league format, and think there's so much more room for interesting emotional narratives and statistical tracking from match to match. The actual homestands themselves, when they were able to be held in-person, seemed successful. Additionally, consider funneling some of that franchise money into actually building back up your player base and working on the game itself. I know dropping cash into the Tier 2/Tier 3 scene isn't sexy on paper, but neither is sinking millions of dollars into a franchise that tried everything from the top down, only to find out there was nothing holding it up underneath. Stop assaulting your own infrastructure.
Erzberger: Consistency. I like the tournament format the league will be running in May, and I'll give it the benefit of the doubt when it comes to scheduling due to the pandemic currently going on worldwide when this is a true global league. But I'm over with the constant changes to the format, the structure of the games and how everything is run. If you're a fan who lost interest during the triple-tank, triple-support meta and come watch the league now, you've missed like six changes to the game's structure.
Hero pools, bans, tournament format, league format, pick your poison. I just want to be sure from the start of the 2021 season to the end of it that I know what the format is and how it's all going to play out. The developers should obviously continue to aggressively balance, but I don't want to have the entire structure of what a game of Overwatch is halfway through the season when they implement a new system where any hero that starts with the letter "A" on a Friday is automatically barred from being chosen.
Ocal: This is where I give OWL and that team a lot of credit -- they are trying. Hero pools, the new May tournament structure, they are making big swings and hoping things stick for the benefits of fans and players. I like this May tourney format and it's definitely worth a try. Will it succeed? I think it just might. It's perhaps one of the best refreshers for this league. I can see this or a variation of this sticking around for the long haul. CDL (and CWL before it) did it well, so why not borrow from that playbook, if the format from the first two seasons isn't ideal anymore? People love tournaments. Especially in esports. We love crowning winners often. This allows that within OWL. The biggest thing from here? I'm with Emily on Tier 2 and 3. That needs to change. It needs to be viable.
What does Overwatch 2 need to introduce to win back fans and top-level players?
Ocal: Make it free to play, especially if it's not a totally new game and people will perceive it to be Overwatch 1.5 with nice updates but not a full release that one would expect from a sequel.
Rand: Free to play, first of all. You need to win future players, not necessarily people who are already jaded with the game. Additionally, Blizzard still needs to seriously invest in Tier 2/Tier 3 without expecting an immediate payout.
Erzberger: Free to play, invest in a Tier 2/Tier 3 scene and make the game's graphics feel less of a cluttered mess in all-out team fights. The game is beautiful, I won't deny that. The graphics put VALORANT's to shame. Thing is, though, VALORANT's streamlined, simplified aesthetic is perfect for esports. Overwatch's is not, and though it'll never be Counter-Strike with how straightforward the action is for a fan watching, I hope they can tweak a few things to make it easier on the eyes for a spectator.
Where do you see the Overwatch League in five years?
Rand: Honestly, I have no idea. A lot of it depends on how stubbornly Blizzard sticks to its gameplan, which has now been completely stymied by interest in other games, lack of a player base, and an inability to hold offline events. The latter is beyond their control, but the other two factors were not. The Overwatch League could be a perfectly healthy niche esport, but that's not what investors were pitched, and there's the crux of the issue.
Ocal: There are a ton of factors to consider here: What's the state of the game, what personnel are running the league, what have the prize pools become, what competition is out there? ... Five years from now we will likely have a well-established VALORANT esports ecosystem, with CS:GO still thriving, Call of Duty League marching along, Fortnite making a splash in competitive whenever it wants, and who knows what other new games that are in development or haven't even been thought of yet will be around.
Erzberger: Overwatch League was not created to be second-fiddle to another competition or simply "hang around" by its fingertips. The league was brought into life to be at the forefront of the esports revolution and to push forward this global, all-inclusive ideology that connects everyone in the competitive gaming space. If the league stays where it is currently and doesn't grow, there will not be an Overwatch League in five years. The game will go the way of Heroes of the Storm, where third-party tournaments and communal events are what bring the diehard fans together to celebrate their game.