When I accepted the position of team manager at a small European Overwatch organisation, I was told that the goal was Contenders within eighteen months. Contenders, which serves as a B-tier for the Overwatch scene, sits just under the Overwatch League itself.
It was certainly an ambitious plan, given that over seven hundred teams had entered the European Open Division. Sixteen teams would enter the playoffs and the top four move on to compete in a round-robin tournament. All of this is for a chance to compete in Contenders — a long road for an uncertain trophy. But my employer’s pitch was good, and they had a former member of a high-finish Open Division team lined up to fill the position of head coach.
So, I said yes. Four months later, I would resign from my position on June 9th.
The team was in disarray. The head coach had become a modern Captain Ahab, locking himself away to pursue high-level free agents before occasionally storming into the management channel of the team’s Discord server to yell at his coaches for not doing jobs he had never assigned them. The three coaches that worked under him tried their best, but they had no real leadership and , relied solely on the head coach, their direct supervisor, for all tasks and solutions to problems. This enabled the head coach’s desire to control everything and shape the team to fit his image of a ‘perfect team’.
The server had over thirty players who were actively working on trial runs to play with the team. Some players having been in the server since March, and more players were added daily. The team had failed to meet a deadline for naming a roster three times. The ship was sinking and yet the band played on. What was the root cause of all this chaos? The team had decided to go all in.
The advent of officially sanctioned Overwatch tournaments has been a double-edged sword for the community. On the one hand, the ‘Path to Pro’ program (Open Division -> Trials -> Contenders -> OWL) provides a very clear path for players who want to make the game their profession. It removes the obstacle that older players had to face, where they had to play around the pro circuit and cultivate a reputation before a large enough team took interest in them. Overall, the system makes becoming an Overwatch professional more accessible.
This is especially important for younger players and people who are currently working another job to fund their Overwatch journey. However, it is this accessibility that creates the other edge of the sword: any six people can be an Overwatch team and have a shot at progressing up the ladder.
This allows for hundreds of teams (743 in EU Season 2, 654 in NA Season 2) to enter the Open Division and compete. If you are a young organisation who is seriously looking to compete, this means you have hundreds of potential opponents as well as the fifty or so serious competitors who will most likely battle it out for the playoffs spots. At the top, the competition is so fierce that even losing a single match can spell the end of your season.
So how can you feasibly compete? One option is to build a team and grind season after season, making a roster change here or there, build a social media following and claw your way through the ranks ... But even then, the behemoths still sit at the top of the tower. With Contenders being such an exclusive club, good teams are cursed to remain at the top of Open Division.
Look at the channels on any Overwatch Discord server and you will find tens of teams looking for the best of the best. The battle for 4.3K and 4.4K players is cutthroat, with spies, bidding wars and the best prospects being courted by seven or eight teams at once. In such a competitive market, going ‘all-in’ is the only way a team can survive.
But it comes with a heavy price. Teams become obsessed with the idea of a perfect roster, one that will spring them into playoff contention in their first season. As with any addiction, this can lead to neglecting other parts of your life or job ... but with esports, it’s so much more than that. It leads many people to build an empty structure — they put all your hopes into a group of players. These players are selected due to what one can see of their gameplay trials; they aren’t your friends, and it’s more than likely that they haven’t been fully screened.
This means that when they post a sexist rant on Twitter or under-perform in the clutch in a vital Open Division match, teams don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it. They simply have to live with it ... or start the process all over again. Players will leave if promises go unfulfilled regarding playoffs or Contenders Trials. People will pass along warnings about the team’s delusions of grandeur, or inflated claims of team strength.
This pressure affects the other members of the team. If the entire staff is down with the all-in mentality, then there is no one to warn when things have gone too far. From my own experience, I watched the head coach and owners burn out as they pushed themselves to find the best of the best (without ever asking the question “if they are the best of the best, why are they interested in a team that’s four months old and has played in three tournaments total?”). Sooner or later, everyone breaks and the team collapses.
For those who aren’t sold on going all in, the experience can be hell. They are stuck doing everything necessary for a team to run besides searching for the best players. They end up apologizing to teams as the bosses cancel scrims. They are one holding the team together, even if they lack the skills to do everything else. They are often left in the cold as the leaders continually hunt for new talent.
When trying to make a living off a fast-paced, brightly-colored game, it’s easy to try and run one’s business the same way. It’s tempting to fast track development, aim for the top on the first try and bring in the big name players.
But the thing people don’t realize is that the teams at the top can go all in because they’ve spent years preparing to do so. They started at the bottom and worked their way to where they are. Even if the specific iteration of a team or brand hasn’t, then then the people running it have. Going all in on your first Open Division is the easiest way to hurt your standing, your team, your colleagues and yourself.
I found that out by being a victim to the mentality. I’d hate to see it happen to anyone else.