BlizzCon is the place for huge esports announcements, but they don’t get much larger than this. After plans for a Blizzard Overwatch League were hinted at recently, the focus of the Overwatch community and existing competitive scene was on the upcoming announcement. The announcement itself was vague but Blizzard also published an explanatory video featured below, along with the league website. Phillip Kollar, writing for Polygon also explained some additional details with quotes from Blizzard staff elucidating their plans.
The Overwatch League is designed to be Blizzard’s answer to Riot’s LCS and Valve’s Major system, but it is far more ambitious than either of those. Pulling the regional and franchising aspect from traditional sports, it aims to create a stable, rewarding, and competitive system for Overwatch that was described in the announcement as a “true next generation esports experience”. Blizzard are truly attempting to create the NFL of esports for Overwatch.
A large focus for the Overwatch League is its structure around major cities to create regional fanbases. Blizzard wants to tap into the lifetime support that manifests when fans identify geographically with a team, seen all across traditional sports. Each slot in the Overwatch League will represent a major city, with the cities bid for by both established esports organisations and interested traditional sports owners. Despite concerns from the community and professional players, so far there has been no indication that city teams will be required to have players from that region or will be required to play from that location. The regional branding appears for the moment to be purely aesthetic, though Blizzard have not expanded on the specifics.
Talking to Polygon, Nate Nanzer said:
You typically see fans of esports teams are fans of individual players, and then they kind of stick with that team over time. But we think there's an opportunity to bring in people who are interested in esports but maybe haven't engaged much with it by adding that geographic element. If you look at the way that teams make money in traditional sports, a lot of that has to do with local activity. When we think about adding stability to esports and to esports teams, we think localizing esports to some degree by having the city-based teams is going to unlock additional revenue opportunities for teams that don't exist in today's esports ecosystem.
The franchising of the Overwatch League is another groundbreaking aspect. Once a team has been successful in their bid for a city, which is equivalent to bidding for a spot in the league, they are guaranteed a place. Existing esports organisations and traditional sports owners have been invited to BlizzCon to discuss the Overwatch League, with Blizzard presumably hoping that big sports owners will see this as a ripe opportunity for investment. If they bite, this could lead to further partnerships with existing esports organisations or could price the smaller names out of the picture. Team owners will be required to provide contracts for their roster, with Blizzard-approved baseline minimum salaries as well as full benefits for players.
Unlike in the LCS or Blizzard’s own Heroes of the Storm league, there will be no promotion or relegation. This appears to suggest that a single bidding war will lock in organisations and investors for the future of the Overwatch League, though it is likely to operate in a similar vein to the LCS where spots can be bought out in the future. Blizzard are aiming for stability both for teams, players, and investors, as Gio Hunt, Executive Vice President of Corporate Operations, explains:
Promotion and relegation is really exciting and awesome in European football, where you have 120 years of history and eight divisions in every country. Overwatch is a brand new game and a brand new ecosystem. We think having permanent spots for teams is really going to give team owners confidence - and not just team owners, but media partners, sponsors, everyone that's going to be involved in the Overwatch League.
Open Circuit Offseason
It is completely unknown what will happen to current organisations and rosters. Blizzard is not trying to eliminate third-party tournaments with their league, and has actually made large provisions for the health of the open circuit in their plans, but there will be a new drafting procedure before the Overwatch League begins. This process is likely to shake every team apart, even the best. While the richest organisations and best players may find themselves in a paradise once the Overwatch League arrives, spare a thought for the player-owned organisation of REUNITED among others who have toiled to create the best rosters possible.
Few current contracts extend to the beginning of the Overwatch League though, which starts in a preliminary form in Autumn of 2017. After that shortened trial season, in 2018 the Overwatch League will run through the spring and summer months, leading up to the Overwatch League Championship in August. Each year the Overwatch League will have a long offseason after the finals, to allow for a healthy open circuit of third party tournaments.
Nate Nanzer spoke on the decision for a long offseason, saying:
An off-season is really important and something that's missing in a lot of esports. You have this 12-month calendar, and we've heard from teams and players that an off-season would be a welcome addition. The other thing an off-season allows us to do is to make sure that there's a third-party ecosystem that exists outside of the Overwatch League. While the Overwatch League is the pinnacle of competitive Overwatch, we want to make sure that there's a robust ecosystem outside of that. You can't just build the top of the pyramid. You have to have the whole pyramid, right?
With its plan for franchising to help investment and return from team owners, and a long offseason to allow an open circuit to develop outside the league, Blizzard has tackled two major flaws that are often levelled at its Riot counterpart, the LCS.
The league action itself will occur every week at LAN, with highlights and feature pieces in between match days. It is unknown whether the Overwatch League will operate with a central hub where all matches are played, or if teams will travel to opposing cities to play home and away games as in traditional sports; the latter does seem far less likely due to the prohibitive travel costs involved.
Blizzard also announced their plans to expand the Overwatch League globally in time, moving outwards from the Americas to encompass Europe, China, Korea, and the Asia Pacific region. It is not known how many city slots will be available in each league. Once the Overwatch League has become a global phenomenon, Blizzard plans to have the best teams from each league play against each other in a worldwide playoff.
Regarding prizepools, Blizzard wants to steer the conversation away from them. According to Polygon the Overwatch League will have an expected seven-digit prizepool, but Blizzard wants people to be discussing its league in the context of the competition and glory. It wants the Overwatch League to be the pinnacle of the competition, with the best players in the world on the best teams competing there.
As to how the best players and best teams form, that’s where things start getting more vague. Blizzard announced: “Proven stars and leaderboard heroes will assemble in one global talent pool. Teams then maneuver to sign the best players and build sturdy rosters for the season ahead.” Proven stars in this context is assumed to mean current professional players; the overall statement appears to suggest that Blizzard will hand-pick players for the global talent pool, in a similar way to the player selection for the World Cup.
For players who want to increase their chances of being invited to that player pool, Blizzard suggests placing highly in ranked competitive play, honing skills in online leagues, and making a name for oneself in third party events. There is no information on how these criteria are ranked, or whether there is any hope of redemption should you be left out of the talent pool for a season. There is also no indication yet whether this will be a full draft process every season or whether teams will purely use the draft process for new players to a roster.
The mention of a “global talent pool” also seems to indicate that there will not be a necessary regional component to rosters, and instead owners will be free to bid for talent during the offseason without geographical limits. This still appears to be terrible news for organisations such as EnVyUs, Rogue, or Misfits who have invested in long-standing teams which may be torn apart.
The proposed method for team owners to discover new talent also sounds like a throwback to traditional sports with little relevance in Overwatch. Blizzard announced that the preseason would feature a “combine”, an event where players attend tryouts and are evaluated by team owners and coaches in a series of tests. In such a team-centric game, without useful metrics or drills for measuring ability, quite how team owners will be able to test players at an event has not been divulged.
Overwatch League can be compared to the NFL, LCS, ELEAGUE, and other esports leagues, but Blizzard’s approach is definitely unique. The existing competitive community is likely to be uprooted over the next two years but it may lead to a bright future for the esport scene. Everyone in Overwatch is waiting for more information.