The Potential Fall of the Overwatch League
The rise and (potential) fall of the Overwatch League has been quite a fascinating ride, paired with its own unique twists and turns. Heck, you could argue that the inception of the league itself made little sense and yet it kicked so many incredible things into motion. It’s also hard not to be taken aback when you remember that Blizzard first embarked on this grandiose, ambitious journey two and a half years ago. That’s quite a lot of time and yet it flew by in a flash.
So many people doubted the League’s long-term longevity, with an even larger number condemning Blizzard’s forced attempt to create an esport out of thin air. Still, even with such an abundance of skepticism around them, Blizzard found a way to succeed. Sure, they’ve made a slew of mistakes along the way (some more egregious than others), but that’s a natural part of the process. Such a large-scale undertaking was never going to happen without a few missteps and complications. What Blizzard has accomplished in such a short amount of time is nothing short of awe inspiring, and they deserve a ton of credit. The fact that most of it came as a result from their unrelenting pursuit of profit in no way diminishes their valiant effort; money aside, they wanted to create a sustainable esport that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2.
Still, even if we consider their first two years as somewhat successful, we have to highlight that they were “experiments” that barely survived, in no small part because of a ton of VC backing and insanely passionate fans. The Overwatch League found success but barely so, and it felt like it was often on the edge of the abyss. Blizzard was managing to survive by the skin of their teeth; any kind of separate, outside influence could’ve heavily affected their odds of survival, and sure enough, the tables have turned — in quite dramatic fashion.
Rough Times For OWL
Their T2 scene is in a state of complete disarray, with the Dallas Fuel disbanding their “Academy” team entirely. There’s no natural way for pros to climb the ranks and reach the pinnacle of competitive Overwatch — they’re locked in a state of perpetual limbo, so it should come as no surprise when many of them decide to seek greener pastures elsewhere after their career fails to “take off.”
Those who have the good luck of competing at the highest of levels are often complaining about the grueling schedule, the constant traveling, overwhelming training schedules, and so on. Hero pools — Blizzard’s attempt to introduce a fluid meta — also didn’t pan out as well as they had hoped. Instead, teams and players now constantly have to experiment, adding even more stress and burnout to the equation.
By the time the season concludes each year, an alarming number of pros end up calling it quits — they feel that playing Overwatch professionally isn’t worth the struggle.
League Structure Problems
The whole localization aspect only further complicates things. Blizzard never went back to the drawing board to find a solution, but had instead initiated yet another monumental undertaking just two years into the League’s lifespan: a city-based model akin to the NBA.
That’s not exactly an intelligent decision for a game that still has a price tag, isn’t even five years old, and has seen a noticeable decline in its playerbase. And sure, some homestands have the potential to be hugely successful, but that’s beside the point — organizing a curling viewing party in a city filled with curling enthusiasts is bound to generate interest and, at best, revenue. The problem is that there aren’t enough fans out there to make this a viable, long-term model. Not right now, at least. It’s like Blizzard wanted to jump five years into the future and force things into existence — yet again.
Still, once 2020 began and the homestands started rolling, they were a breath of fresh air, and even though the players suffered, thousands of roaring fans (both those who came in person and those watching from home) were satisfied. Crippling technical issues aside, it seemed as though Blizzard found a way to make it work, at least for the time being.
Then came a series of events that took the world by storm. One of them is a global epidemic that affected all facets of life; the other is a game that generated more online buzz than any other in recent history — the main reason why so many people started touting it as the “Overwatch killer.”
No one could’ve foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, and needless to say, it threw a wrench in Blizzard’s plans for 2020 (and the rest of the world, for that matter). What it showed, perhaps above all else, is that Blizzard’s localized model — as entertaining as it might be on paper — was simply too big of an undertaking. To be fair, a global epidemic is certainly not something anyone plans for, but it gave us a better look at the many debilitating flaws that are heavily affecting the growth of the Overwatch League. Heck, some of them are forcing the entire esport to regress and it’s quite depressing to watch.
First of all, it seems that a good number of professional players are treating competitive Overwatch as a one-off thing, as something that doesn’t have what it takes to weather the storm and exist over prolonged periods of time. This is just one of the many reasons why players retire on what feels like a weekly basis. They’re not in it for the long haul, and a surprising number of them switched to Overwatch after first competing in Team Fortress 2 — some of OWL’s biggest names aren’t endemic to the esport itself.
Being a professional esport player is no easy task, contrary to what some might believe. But playing in the Overwatch League, a fragile esport that was “created out of thin air” is an especially gargantuan challenge.
The Valorant Conundrum
Once news broke out that Riot intended to ship a tactical first-person shooter along the lines of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (paired with a pinch of Overwatch DNA), millions of players across the globe started watering at the mouth.
Valorant became a sensation and, by proxy, one of the most anticipated games of the year. Heck, it set many records on Twitch and quickly became the de facto game streamers streamed during its closed beta. Valorant brought in the most viewers, and everyone wanted to board the hype train.
The fact that Valorant obviously isn’t a “CS:GO/Overwatch killer” or anything similar doesn’t matter at this point — many legendary players immediately decided to retire from Overwatch and try their hand in a game that had no esports scene to speak of. That list included some of OWL’s best and brightest talent. The fact that their MVP, 2019 OWL and World Cup winner and poster child decided to abandon ship tells you all you need to know.
Valorant didn’t have to exist for these individuals to make the move — they were just waiting for something new to come along, something that would capture their attention and reignite their itch to compete. Overwatch, with all of its many underlying issues and innate flaws simply fails to entertain them any longer.
The issue of talent outflow is a tremendous one, and it’s only going to get worse if Blizzard doesn’t start fixing their nascent esport. One could even argue that it might be a bit too late. There are multiple threats to the Overwatch League and many believe that it’s going to fail sooner rather than later — whether that’s because of Valorant, some pandemic-related issue, or its own inherent flaws is basically irrelevant at this point in time.
Signs of Life
Blizzard, to their credit, isn’t the kind of company that’s going to wait on the sidelines and look at their oh-so-important cash cow burn to the ground (like the rest of us). They’ve tried their hardest to adapt and have made numerous proactive moves in an attempt to salvage things before it’s too late.
They’ve made huge changes to their 2020 season format and are now organizing monthly tournaments — a format that allows for a more lenient schedule. They’re also making changes to hero pools; yet another key adjustment that was made on the fly based on player and fan feedback. Going forward, hero pools will last for two weeks in professional play (instead of just one) and they’ve already been removed from the game itself seeing how they didn’t accomplish what Blizzard originally intended.
This is positive news for everyone involved, but it also feels like Blizzard is in full-blown panic mode. The alarm has been sounded and everything is in free-fall. They took numerous big hits and are trying their hardest to survive the year and go back to the drawing board once the current season comes to an end. The current state of the Overwatch League leaves a lot to be desired, and with it being one of the most expensive esports in the world (for the organizations that are competing), you can expect radical changes once 2021 comes along.
Make no mistake: Overwatch isn’t dead, but it’s dwindling as an esport and is facing a slew of challenges that aren’t being dealt with in the best and most optimal way. Luck is also a key factor and Blizzard had none of it throughout the last couple of months. It feels like for every good thing that happens, there’s always something negative waiting right around the corner.
One can only hope that Blizzard finds a way to correct course because at its best, competitive Overwatch is a unique beast and is one of the most exciting esports out there. The world needs it, even if it’s unpolished and heavily flawed.