The Overwatch League: Editorial + Pro Impressions
What is the Overwatch League?
Not much is known about Blizzard’s greatest gamble yet: the creation of a an never-before-seen esports league centered around Overwatch. More details will be forthcoming, but here is a quick list of what we know, as well as my personal editoral of what we know from Blizzard’s official announcement video and league official site, as well as an excellent interview from Nate Nanzer (Blizzard’s Head of Esports) by Polygon’s Phillip Kollar:
- The league will begin its trial run in Q3 of 2017
Such a late start adds even more stress to players who have put their life on hold to “go pro” in esports. This League, as groundbreaking as it is, will not even start its experimental season until nearly a year from now, and its first full season is slated to run in 2018. Many Pros have quit their jobs, taken leave of absences from their studies for what they thought was a sure thing. Now, their future is not so certain and this date looms on their horizons.
- Teams will be permanent: there will be no promotion or relegation. Spots in the league will have to be bought out to change
The concept of relegation in esports has always been a double-edged sword. If these initial, permanent spots must be purchased by teams with sufficient resources to do so, it seems like a net positive for both the players and the league as a whole. Blizzard and the players who will make up the league will know that the organizations involved are committed and their investment will bring stability. The negatives however, is that player-run organizations who have had noticeable success without the bankroll of a rich backer – Reunited is the best example here – will have no way to “come up through the minors” so to say.
- The League teams will be regional – tied to a city via a franchising system. Whether this means current teams must relocate to chosen cities is still unknown.
This is one of the bolder decisions made by Blizzard – drawing on examples from traditional sports to model their regional focus in team support. Given that esports in general are performed and grow on the internet, it seems strange to tie teams to a specific region. Online gaming has brought countries from across the world together, only to now split these teams up by specific regions. This may have been a decision made to make the League more enticing to outside investors: Philadelphia’s NBA team, the 76ers, famously made their presence known in the esports world by purchasing and merging Dignitas and Apex. Perhaps tying Overwatch League teams to cities will open the door to more movement from the NBA in particular. Andrew Miller – Owner of NRG and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings (another NBA team) added to the growing conversation:
“Lots of details to be fleshed out but heavy, heavy hitters from NBA and NFL here leaning in”
- The League will initially run only in the United States, with plans in work to expand globally
This makes sense from a business standpoint: Blizzard wants to work with a market they are familiar with in their trial run for the League. However, it opens a pandora’s box of questions. Are only US players allowed to try out for this league? What cities will be picked? How many teams will there be?
- League teams will be filled via a draft, featuring a “first-of-its-kind esports combine”. Per Nanzer, “We’re going to put players through tests that will determine if they’ll be an excellent Overwatch player. We think that’s a really cool way to give a very clear path.”
Nanzer would go on to to clarify that third party tournaments would be taken into consideration, played during the league’s lengthy offseason. This is perhaps the most surprising element of the League and a clear nod to traditional sports. Overwatch is not Battlefront, Overwatch is not Call of Duty – it is an extremely team-based game. We do not even know if evaluating a player on his or her individual talents is even meaningful data, much less holding an entire combine focused around it. However, in traditional sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, players are routinely drafted based on their individual skill and potential to grow within a team. Perhaps this “combine” will usher in a new age of esports coaching, which will skyrocket in importance with the drafting of raw, but skilled players. We are still unclear as to how this draft will proceed season to season – will teams completely re-shuffle each season? Or is there only one shot, one draft, one chance to make it big?
This also has huge implications for established teams. Heavy hitters like Rogue, C9, EnVyUs, FaZe, and NRG may have to disband in preparation for the “League Draft”, on top of independently bidding for the cities in which they wish to house their franchise. Disbanding teams for the purpose of running this inaugural draft is heartbreaking for teams that have played together since early beta, but Blizzard likely sees no other way to gain complete control over their League otherwise. In the long run – if the League succeeds – this will likely be a positive. In the meantime though…what would EnVyUs be without its current roster, one of Overwatch’s oldest?
- The League will feature a long off-season, from August’s World Championships to the following spring.
This off-season was chosen to allow the continued existence of third-party (and presumably, cross-region) tournaments to exist outside of the Overwatch League. These third-party tournaments will also have an impact in player-combine nominations, however it is still unknown how often these combines will occur.
I was able to track down Method’s Krawnnic and Exi, as well as Misfits’ Skipjack on the convention floor to get their reactions to the League announcement. Let’s see what they had to say:
CP: That announcement was a lot to take in! What were your first impressions of the Overwatch League – what did you expect, and what surprised you the most?
Krawnnic: I believe I expected most of these things – they had kind of been rumored around the community for a while now. The regional teams definitely surprised me the most, I think what is going to end up happening is the orgs are going to buy into the cities and they’re either going to keep that team or recruit out of the combine. I’m eager to see more information come out of it, to be honest.
Exi: I think coming into this, a lot of the stuff that we heard has kind of been rumored here and there. There wasn’t anything too surprising, it was kind of good to figure out exactly what was going to be happening in the end.
Skipjack: To me it sounded like it was going to be a draft system which was very surprising to me. I thought it was going to be more like established teams playing against each other…but I don’t really know what it is going to look like now. If its a draft, it’s going to be interesting at least.
CP: What is your take on this never-before-seen esports combine? How would you even imagine such a thing looking?
Krawnnic: I think a combine is going to be very difficult to analytically look at somebody and say ‘these stats are amazing’…but you can’t really tell things like ‘is he a team player’, or ‘can he comm(unicate)’, ‘is he actually the full package, or can he only DM (deathmatch) the entire time’…The combine may show half of the story which is a good starting point but at the end of the day this player is going to have to mesh with their team so they’re going to have to do their due diligence after the combine. So signing at the combine may not be the best idea, we’ll just to see what they have.
Exi: I don’t really know honestly. The biggest thing right now for finding players is making sure you have good synergy. Overwatch is a team game, its 6v6 and its all about working together so you can’t really just pick up a player just based on stats – you have to play with them and make sure that they fit in with the rest of the team. I don’t really know how you’d do an open combine based on something like stats, I’m not sure if it would work.
Skipjack: I have no idea. I honestly have no idea what it’s going to look like. You cannot pick like, the first 10 players from ranked play…and if they were to…it could spawn thousands of cheaters just to get on high ranked. I have no idea how they’re going to do it.
CP: There is not a lot of information out there regarding the specific details of many of the League’s elements – what part of the Overwatch League do you want to have explained the most?
Krawnnic: My first question would absolute be about the combine. We need more details. We straight up need more details.
Exi: I think the biggest thing that I would like to know at this point is how player are going to find teams. Will it be full rosters moving over and taking cities, is it going to be more of a draft system…at least the question of how players are going to find where they’re going to be for the next months/years.
Skipjack: Ehhh I want to know everything! I guess, how are the teams going to be made – that’s what I want to know most. Where is the league going to be? Is it going to be region-locked? Stuff like that.
CP: How does the creation of the Overwatch League affect your future as an Overwatch Pro? What has changed for you?
Krawnnic: I think moving may be a possibility. If the organization we’re playing for (Method) buys a city – wherever – I mean even if its in another country…I think most of the players at this point that are on a professional team have already committed to the point where wherever we have to go we’re gonna play. And if we have to travel around that’s just part of the job.
Exi: I think the biggest thing now is until the League starts just to do your best and make sure that you’re in a spot where you can get into the League. Once the League comes out its going to be great for stability, but you still have to get to that point. I don’t know who’s going to be there, I don’t know how big its going to be, you just have to make sure you’re there if you can.
Skipjack: I mean if its going to be a draft, it basically means all of the teams have to split up and I cannot play with my dear friends anymore, that I’ve played with for like four months now, which is really sad.
I’m with the pros on all of these answers: we simply do not have enough information about Blizzard’s ambitious move. This league will require Blizzard, organization owners, players, and fans alike to buy-in to the concept from the very beginning. I am cautiously optimistic, but we have to have more info before doing so. Stay tuned tomorrow for the Overwatch live Q&A where many of these open questions may be addressed.