The Overwatch League will take its first, uncertain steps next year toward the future its creators always dreamed of: a fully-fledged, self-sufficient adulthood as a locally-based esports league, modeled after North American professional sports competitions. A handful of its teams will, for the first time, host regular-season games on their home turf instead of Blizzard Entertainment’s gorgeously tricked-out, every-surface-is-a-screen Burbank Arena.
It’s a big step for the baby league, which won’t have that freshly-released shine next year and will have to stand solely on its own merits. That won’t be the only change: Everything from the setup time before your next game to the pacing of match schedules will adjust to emphasize the things that worked in the inaugural season — and, hopefully, fix some things that didn’t. Some adjustments may bring new features to Overwatch’s 40-million-plus home players.
This winter hiatus is a time for both Blizzard and OWL team executives to pause and reflect about the season past and the new one starting on Valentine’s Day. We spoke with Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director; Nate Nanzer, the League’s commissioner; and a wide range of team executives about what what we can expect to see change and what we’ll see more of in the season ahead.
Building on big viewing audiences
The Overwatch League started 2018 with a bang, forming a $90 million partnership with Twitch for two years of online broadcast rights, drawing more viewers online than the National Football League for early matches and later forming partnerships with ESPN, Disney XD and ABC. While momentum wasn’t always steady, the League finished with 10.8 million viewers for the finals. To put that in perspective, the most-watched regular-season NFL game (on all media) in the past two years pulled in 16.7 million viewers.
Some fans questioned the staying power of OWL broadcasts after the season ended. But Blizzard and team owners publicly and privately said they were extremely pleased by the overall audience, and the steady addition of advertisers and sponsors throughout the season backs up that stance — as do the eight new teams joining the League next year, paying a premium over last year’s starters and bringing the total to 20. Some teams said they had employed third party companies to measure audience, and were happy with the results.
Blizzard itself is nearly doubling down on its OWL investment in 2019, with the overall prize pool rising to $5 million from this year’s $3.5 million. Next year, Nanzer said Blizzard plans to continue its work to make the broadcast friendly to those who don’t play Overwatch — or even video games at all. Long 40-minute show recap broadcasts may be on the outs, as short 1-2 minute videos demonstrate much higher viewership and engagement. Efforts will include more educational content, tweaks in livecasts to make it easier to follow the action and continued emphasis on in-person showmanship.
“If there wasn’t a large desire for this league we wouldn’t be doing it,” Kaplan said, pointing to the ebbs and flows of audiences for traditional sports as a model. “It’s a tremendous amount of effort on our part. If it wasn’t worth our while, it’s a little bit expensive to just be a hobby for us.”
Winning at esports without sacrificing your soul
Many team executives have their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line, which leads to some interesting behind-the-scenes conflicts when Kaplan’s and Blizzard’s idealistic values for Overwatch conflict with what’s good for business. The game has long been a champion of diversity in all forms, with a broad range of characters and a harsh stance toward players who don’t respect others. Kaplan filmed a somewhat plaintive “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” developer notes video last year that does a good job of explaining the company stance toward toxicity. As of that video, Blizzard had taken action against more than 480,000 player accounts.
That’s all fine and dandy when the suspensions and bans are taking down Helen from Poughkeepsie, but it’s another matter entirely when the targets are popular pro OWL players and streamers. Several executives mused privately about consistency and severity of actions and enforcement, or suggested Blizzard might need to re-examine the core values of the game moving into season 2.
Publicly, teams stand behind league decisions, with some taking up the diversity flag themselves. Ari Segal, president of the Immortals organization that owns the LA Valiant, said his team has specifically targeted diversity as their brand this season and for Season 2, to set themselves apart from other teams in the league and perhaps esports as a whole. Some of that is because executives believe it’s the right thing to do, he said; some of it is because of the city they live in, and the artists’ community they’re part of. The Valiant hosted a women in game development panel with Microsoft this year, and plans a series of Be Valiant events again in 2019, including a return to the LA Pride LGBTQ+ event.
The league as a literal game-changer
The League’s goal for 2019, of course, is to pull in even larger numbers of viewers. To that end, even Overwatch itself is changing in ways that will affect home players. Those tweaks range from the mundane -- patches will be better-timed to avoid interfering with league play, which also changes their cadence for normal players — to the sublime, like the Overwatch World Cup viewing tool, which allowed gamers to see a match from the perspective of any pro player.
“I’ve seen a lot of discussion about well, why would Blizzard spend time on the Overwatch World Cup viewer? It affects so few of our players,” Kaplan said. “We used the Overwatch World Cup as a beta test for the replay feature. The part that we’re most excited about is actually bringing it to every single Overwatch player someday, so that you and I can actually watch our own matches and learn from our mistakes and get better at what we’re doing.”
One payload-sized benefit to normal players is the laser focus on balance the OWL forces on Blizzard’s developers. Kaplan wryly said the league’s teams have a knack for getting to the core of the game’s meta, and that Overwatch’s recent Winter Wonderland patch included balance changes that came directly as a result of OWL and other professional esports play this fall.
“Anytime OWL is running, it helps us balance the game a lot better,” he said.
Blizzard also tries to continually reduce down time for the broadcasts in ways that affect home players. In the past few months, they’ve taken particular aim at the startup time before games.
“There’s nothing like those moments where you’re having to watch an OWL pro for a minute of setup time,” Kaplan said. “He’s just sitting there, flicking his mouse back and forth, as the rest of us get seasick.”
Taking a shot at a new schedule
One thing Kaplan, Nanzer and team owners all agreed needed some work was the OWL schedule. Initially based on other sports leagues, it featured several matchups a night, four nights a week, five weeks straight followed by a one-week break, for six months. That’s not an unusual schedule for a professional baseball or basketball player, but it’s on the other side of the map from the typical esports pro schedule, which might require a flurry of matches over a weekend and then no competitions for a month.
The regular season stages also seemed to go on forever, leading up to renewed excitement for playoff matches that ended far too soon. And for esports fans in Europe, where the OWL champion London Spitfire is based, broadcasts were at exceedingly awkward times, with streams running in the wee hours of the morning. It’s telling that of the eight new teams, only Paris is located on that continent.
The new 2019 schedule features a five weeks on, two and a half weeks off cadence. Matches begin as early as 4 p.m. Pacific Time on weekdays and noon on weekends, and more games are played on the weekend, as the schedule shifts from Wednesday-Saturday to Thursday-Sunday. More playoff action between stages is also on the docket.
“Blizzard did a really good job of adapting the structure,” said Mat Taylor, general manager of the Dallas Fuel. “They realized that for this last year, there were a lot of matches. Forty games in a season is a lot.”
Hoping audiences root, root, root for the home team
One of the biggest schedule changes isn’t when matches will happen, but where. Three teams so far (Dallas, Atlanta and the LA Valiant) will host “homestands” in the 2019 season, where all of the League’s teams come to compete for a weekend in that team’s home city. Homestands replace the regular week of play, and are scheduled to occur once each in the season’s stages 2, 3 and 4. The home team won’t have to play in all those matches — generally, it’ll have one match on each of the two nights — but it will have the opportunity to drum up some local team spirit. Team execs say they’re ready for the transition, in part because they’d like to have some control over their venues.
“It’s the number one priority at the league,” Nanzer said. “It’s what I spend my time working on, thinking about, because I truly feel it is what is special about the Overwatch League.”
Several of the teams have already bet heavily on local events. The Los Angeles Valiant, Boston Uprising and others have had viewing events for those that couldn’t make the trip to Blizzard’s southern California arena. The New York Excelsior played unofficial host to the sold-out grand finals, which were played in the Barclays Center in that city, even building a pop-up store a block away.
“We chose Overwatch [to invest in] in part because it was a city-based model,” said Scott Wilpon, partner at Excelsior owners Sterling.VC and vice president at SportsNet New York, overseeing its partnership with the New York Mets. “Not being in our New York market has made it a little bit difficult to commercialize some of the growth that has occurred from the start through season one. We’re excited next year to be able to welcome our teams to the New York marketplace at the end of season two.”
Kaplan said the League was built on franchise owners who understood professional sports, with this transition in mind.
“We were very selective,” he said. “I know this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous, but we won’t sell a team to just anybody. It was a very selective process of finding partners who were not only dedicated to the league and the growth of the league, but also had some expertise in doing things like running professional sports organizations and running stadiums.”
Rob Moore is one of those leaders. He is chief executive of Phoenix1 Esports, which runs the LA Gladiators team, but his early career included 13 years with Disney. He’s encouraged by what he saw from Blizzard in season one.
“When you sit in that arena, if you’re watching the fans with your back to the stage, you have no idea [whether] you’re in an Overwatch League game, you’re in an MBA game, you’re in an NHL game,” he said. “You’re watching fans appreciate players who are the best at what they do, and having a true appreciation for making a really difficult play.”
Chris Loranger, general manager of the Boston Uprising, said that while the League can improve, he’s been very satisfied with the results from season one.
“I think by most people’s opinions, year one of OWL was a success — even to the hardcore critics and their metrics,” he said.