Minor leagues, while far less glamorous than their major counterparts, are the backbone for sports like basketball and baseball. They provide a stop-gap for players between college and the major leagues, they supply meaningful competition that’s vital for player growth, and they give competitors another option outside of betting it all on their one shot in the big leagues.
The NBA G League, which was established in 2005, is one of the best examples of a well functioning minor league. Dozens of players, coaches, business development employees, and referees from the smaller teams like the Santa Cruz Warriors have joined and positively impacted top NBA rosters. That’s because the league has succeeded in developing talent and fostering an environment that gets that talent under the spotlight — the two primary goals that any tier 2 system should have.
Overwatch Contenders was created with the same goal as the NBA G League. It’s another avenue for high level Overwatch play and it’s a system where qualified players can face quality competition that’s vital for their growth. Unfortunately, Contenders has a laundry list of issues in how it’s managed by Blizzard.
“As important as their Path to Pro program is, Overwatch League is the clear money maker,” said North American commentator and analyst Evie “Ham Tornado” Feng. “Blizzard’s focusing their resources on their flagship product. They’re doing this for the betterment of the community and not with the goal of gaining as many viewers as possible.”
According to the players, analysts, and coaches Heroes Never Die spoke to, Blizzard hasn’t committed to a clear vision for Contenders. They’ve created a confusing ecosystem with a mixture of academy and unsigned teams, stumbled in their creation and promotion of LANs. These in-person tournaments for players who are used to competing online are crucial, but the execution has failed to deliver on providing the best experience.
Blizzard Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
If you look at it from the surface, Contenders has been successful in its mission to funnel players into the Overwatch League.
“It’s the only real place for teams to hunt for talent, so it works in theory,” said Brazilian Overwatch analyst Felipe “Tonello” Souza. “The way that Blizzard has constructed it is good, if you buy the game right now you’ll know exactly what you need to do to go pro.
“It can definitely be better though. The system works from a closed circuit perspective, we don’t know if it could be better if there were more options.”
Plenty of Contenders players have made their way to Burbank. Both Renan “alemao” Moretto and Cameron “Fusions” Bosworth have been signed by the Boston Uprising, and Finley “Kyb” Adisi is now on the Guangzhou Charge. Those are just three examples of the wide range of Contenders talent that will be competing in Overwatch League’s second season.
At the same time, several Contenders stars who’ve made the jump have admitted how woefully underprepared they were for playing in the big league.
“It’s all valid, there’s absolutely nothing that can prepare you for playing on the level of OWL,” Feng said. “I’ve talked to players who’ve told me they’ve learned so much more from just living in the team house than playing multiple seasons in Contenders.”
While the competition in Contenders may never completely prepare players for the challenge that is OWL, Blizzard has only hampered the quality of play in Contenders with its confusing system. It seems like academy teams have completely different goals in mind when compared to unsigned teams, meaning that competition isn’t always the biggest priority.
“The league isn’t working for you if you’re on an unsigned team since it’s built to facilitate academy teams,” said former Second Wind coach Thomas “Maid” Mok. “The league should focus on developing talent, but it’s split right now. Unsigned team’s need to win to build clout while academy teams are more focused on developing their talent.”
The difference of approaches, and treatment from Blizzard, has been abundantly clear in the most recent season. XL2, the academy team for NYXL, cut several Overwatch League veterans from their roster in favor of local, less competitive New York talent in what many view as a publicity stunt. Second Wind, an unsigned team, dominated late in the season before losing to Fusion University.
Even after performing incredibly well, the previous set of rules would have relegated Second Wind to Trials and removed them from Contenders. On Jan. 15, after community feedback, non-academy teams like Second Wind were invited to 2019’s Contenders lineup without having to play through trials based off their performance landing them in playoffs. While this won’t happen in upcoming seasons due to Blizzard rule changes, it isn’t the only issue that unsigned teams face.
There are also limitations to what sponsorships teams can accept, which greatly limits options for teams that are strapped for funding — which is the case for most unsigned teams.
“I don’t think the system can work for unsigned teams,” Mok said. “It needs to either work as a franchise system or have everyone under the same rules.”
There is also the fundamental issue of how teams have to work through open division, trials, and contenders together only to be ripped apart once one or more players get signed by league teams (or if the team doesn’t make it to the next level) — creating a fundamental imbalance at the Contenders level.
“If a team in Open Division doesn’t make playoffs, they disband and everyone becomes a free agent,” said retired player Scott “Daiya” Young. “Same thing with teams in trials, they don’t make contenders, they disband because there is just no reason to stick together when they could seek an opportunity in Contenders, because there is literally nothing else.”
It’s important for Blizzard to unify its approach, whether that means focusing primarily on academy teams or adjusting the rules so that unsigned teams aren’t competing at a disadvantage.
“More Overwatch League teams need to be encouraged to start their own academy teams,” Feng said. “That’s the best way for Contenders to become more sustainable and viable.”
The other recent changes to Contenders, including both seasons getting scheduled during stages of Overwatch League and more options for two-way contracts, do improve the path to pro system. But they aren’t the fixes that Contenders needs.
LANs, one of the other major pieces of experience players should receive in Contenders, have also been lackluster under Blizzard’s watch. For example, the North American finals were held in between World Cup qualifying matches last year. According to some analysts the broadcast was poorly produced, out of place, and unsuitable for the level of play Contenders brought to the stage. It’s something that isn’t acceptable for how important LAN experience is for developing players.
“Tier 2 should play a really important role in giving players in opportunity at a LAN in front of a camera — in front of cheering, or booing, crowds,” Feng said. “They are also very important to developing storylines which is something you won’t get by playing online.”
Contenders players have drawn the short straw with their LAN experience since Blizzard has canceled season 3’s in-person tournaments. However, it did recently announce that it will be hosting inter-regional events dubbed “showdowns.” Top performers from those events will go on to compete in a Contenders Gauntlet hosted later this year.
While most players believe this is a great move, Blizzard’s rocky past leads them to believe that these events won’t be much better.
“It needs to be well marketed unlike everything else in Contenders,” said Uprising Academy flex player Hasan “crakinlakin” Alfardi. “This is their chance to redeem themselves.”
Promotion issues have plagued Contenders since its inception. One of the most notorious instances is how Blizzard gave in-game rewards to general Overwatch streamers while Contenders playoff matches were happening. At one point Philadelphia Fusion streamer Jeff “emongg” Anderson had over 40,000 viewers while Contenders playoff matches were sputtering around the 2,000 viewer mark.
“It’s asinine that other streamers got supported with these drops while Contenders was neglected,” Alfardi said. “I’m not saying supporting the streamers is bad, but Contenders needed that push. It’s clear that those drops would’ve been hugely beneficial to us.
“We need more marketing towards Contenders while OWL is in its offseason in general. It would hopefully open peoples eyes to competitive Overwatch outside the league.”
Blizzard’s marketing efforts across Twitch and social media have been lacking so much so that the community has had to fill in the gaps. A fan-created path to pro Twitter page has been the go-to source for info, clips, and even schedules and other logistics that official sources have failed to provide a clear source for.
“Blizzard hasn’t been putting their resources into the scene, and promotion is something that they could do that would really help,” Feng said. “It could help incentivize people to watch Contenders and get more eyes on the players here.”
One thing that both Feng, Alfardi, and others agreed on is that Contenders would be much better off if it got the same treatment as the Overwatch World Cup.
“The World Cup is a great event, but it’s clear that Contenders benefits Overwatch as an esport in a much bigger way,” Alfardi said. “I’m obviously biased here, but I think Contenders would be a good replacement for it at BlizzCon.”
The major takeaway that most of the players and analysts Heroes Never Die spoke to was that Blizzard needs to take steps to make Contenders more competitive — helping prepare talent for OWL more effectively. The best way to do that is even out the difference in playing fields between unsigned and academy teams, create a better and more story-focused LAN experience, and promote the entire scene with resources that are readily available like in-game rewards.
If Blizzard can’t support the scene with its own resources, then it needs to loosen its grip on the tier 2 system and let other organizations step in to help provide support and guidance. If it keeps going this way then the overall quality of competitive Overwatch could decline.
“Overwatch League’s talent pool would be tiny without Contenders. New investors wouldn’t want to join and most teams wouldn’t have a competitive roster,” Alfardi said. “They need to find a way to improve how it works to keep the talent pool saturated. Contenders is needed to help Overwatch sustain itself.”
Correction [02/25/2019 6PM]: A previous version of this article failed to mention that Second Wind were re-invited to Contenders’ 2019 lineup.