Originally Posted December 7th, 2017 by Kyle Nakasaka
In honor of Overwatch League’s regular season being right around the corner, we thought it be best to talk about some places where the league may fall short. The Overwatch League, Blizzard’s most recent development is an ambitious project that seeks to take the esports world, as well as the rest of the world by storm. Overwatch League is meant to be the bridge between worlds; the league that brings esports into the mainstream and for the most part, they are progressing well with it. They recently finished showing off the new team names, colors and rosters and they are now a day into preseason. However, not everything is rainbows and sunshine in Blizzard World. Overwatch League is problematic as its rushing Overwatch, both in terms of an esport and a video game, which may result in either side becoming severely underwhelming. By pushing Overwatch League before the game has developed into an esport naturally, Overwatch will be bound to malnourishment as it will be hard to develop an audience for the esports scene before the game has secured its audience.
Overwatch League was announced during Blizzcon of 2016 and was planned to look much differently from a lot of other esports leagues in the sense that it wouldn’t take up the relegation system, a league style that most of the other esports already use and would instead use a model more closely related to traditional sports leagues with their being two divisions, Atlantic and Pacific, with six permanent teams within each. They also are continuing Overwatch Contenders, a technical minor league to the Overwatch League, and will be using it as a way for OWL teams to recruit new players. Among the teams, you have some that were pre made teams such as Immortals, who are now the Los Angeles Valiants, as well as Seoul Dynasty which is primarily composed of members of Lunatic-Hai. There are also teams that are made from the ground up such as the Boston Uprising and the Los Angeles Gladiators. Some teams have been getting huge investments, with some being close to $20 million. However, it doesn’t seem that these investments will be able to make Overwatch League work in a night.
Blizzard Activision was recently downgraded by the Cowen Group to a market perform rating as a result of the Overwatch League. Doug Creutz, the market analyst for the Cowen Group, stated that, “we expect OWL 1.0 to be a learning experience, and thus believe the probability of reality failing to meet investor expectations is relatively high.” With this, it is clear to see that not alot of faith exists in Blizzard Activision when it comes to esports as this will be the first time Blizzard will be creating an esports league from scratch. Not only that, Overwatch has only been out for a little over a year now and Blizzard is already pushing for this game to draw in a crowd like nobody has ever seen before. While this may seem like a long time, I really don’t think that pushing an internally built league is the way for Overwatch to become an esport. It took two years for League of Legends to even have a championship and Overwatch has already had 2 World Cups, and while they have been pretty well received events, I think building an ambitious esports league from the ground up is a pretty hefty jump from a yearly global tournament. While 2009 is a little different from 2017, I think the fact that Riot didn’t actively pursue League of Legends as an esport title allowed the players to naturally grow to want that and once Riot saw that the game naturally began to take form in the competitive scene, they started moving in that direction. The fact that Blizzard is pushing Overwatch as a game and as a competitive esport, to me, seems like a bad idea as it doesn’t naturally allow players to get invested in the competitive scene and creates a barrier between casual and competitive players far too soon.
Esports tend to catch that young male demographic pretty solidly time and time again, so it seems that Overwatch League is trying to cash in on that phenomena. However, they also seem to be aiming for a greater audience than just that demographic as seen by 12 regional teams and the construction of at least one esports arena. While it seems like they have everything to setup this league, one of the main issues I think they will have is with viewership. According to Beezy of OWL team Philadelphia Fusion, the Overwatch World Cup drew in near 300,000 at peak viewership during the United States vs South Korea match. However, compared to the World Cup, standard Twitch viewership for Overwatch hovers at near 15,000 which, to me, doesn’t bode well for the Overwatch League as the league will be having multiple matches on 4 days every week and will most likely end up looking more look more like the standard Twitch viewership more than it will the Overwatch World Cup. It just seems like it will be harder to be able to generate good viewership numbers week after week if you don’t have a dedicated audience which I’m not sure OWL has yet.
The other concern is their ability to draw in people outside of the young male demographic and the people who play their game because the advertising for the OWL currently is directed inwards rather than outward which is most definitely harming their viewership numbers. While having the elusive young male demographic is definitely a big plus, the Overwatch League is shaping to have a bigger audience than just that demographic alone, but I don’t know if they’re advertising to them. None of their advertising is targeted at people who don’t play the game which will make it hard for OWL to generate new viewers because otherwise they will only generate new viewers off of new Overwatch players. By not advertising outwardly at all, you almost immediately shut down the potential of new people getting involved in the ecosystem.
Another issue that permeates the Overwatch League is its identity crisis and what I mean by that is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Yes, at its core Overwatch is an esport, but with the introduction of the Overwatch League, Blizzard is treating the game less like an esport and more like an actual sport, which seems like an unnecessary step. Overwatch League is adopting the football style leagues and team branding and to some degree that’s pretty cool, but in actuality, it ends up being an unnecessary risk. The young male audience is heavily captivated by esports and less so by regular sports these days and while a large part of that may fall on the content itself, there is a chance that it has something to do with the presentation, which is why it seems very unintelligent for Blizzard to gamble on a league system and branding when the relegation system works perfectly fine as does typical team branding. The choice to try and make a middle ground between hardcore esport and consumable sports media is such a risky one that it may end up dissuading a lot of potential viewers due to questionable league choices.
The other part of this is that they’re assigning the teams home cities like in football for whatever reason, even though all the teams will be playing in Anaheim for the first year or two. One of the biggest problems with this is that they are again taking a risk changing up team names to try and make the classic sports rivalry come back to life in esports, but it ends up being just another extraneous risk that didn’t need to be taken in the first place. While I can understand wanting to internalize every part of the league and wanting to own all the team names and what not, I don’t know if you even need the regional attribute of the name as the entirety of London Spitfire is from Korea. The Overwatch World Cup is interesting because all the players for each country are citizens of that country and the competition between countries feels genuine. With the OWL, even if I’m from Boston, I don’t really have a reason to route for the Boston team when none of them are from Boston in the first place outside of their owner.
However, with those thing in mind, I say enjoy Overwatch League as much as you can. The production quality seems very high and if you love watching competitive Overwatch, then I’m sure you will get an absolute kick out of the OWL. I’m excited as much as the next guy, but perhaps cautiously optimistic is a better term. I hope that the Overwatch League does do well so that we can see the league change and take shape into the best product that it can be. Overwatch League preseason is taking place from Dec. 6th through the 9th on https://overwatchleague.com or MLG.tv with the regular season kicking off on Jan. 10th and being streamed on Twitch as well as the league website.