Amidst all the videos, streams, fanart, and cosplay, Overwatch’s competitive community began to blossom - especially at a time when esports has gained a lot of traction. In the seven months since its release, orgs from Team EnVyUs to Immortals have invested into the scene, broadcasters from ELEAGUE to OGN have hosted tournaments, and $1.9 million USD in prize money has been handed out in that time span.
Overwatch has shown its grand potential as an esport, and Blizzard is looking to support the scene even further with the ambitious Overwatch League, a franchised league that plans to have city-based teams, player salaries, a player combine, and much more.
But since OWL’s announcement at Blizzcon last November, something mysterious has happened to the Overwatch scene. With Blizzard looking to take the reins into their own hands, they’ve kept the doors sealed on any other details about OWL. On top of that, we’ve suddenly seen a surge of more online events than offline events, a phase that was supposed to have already passed by in the scene’s infancy. Viewership numbers for tournaments have also stagnated, a metric whose future shifts will prove to be one of the most important long-term indicators of Overwatch’s health.
In the words of Seagull: Overwatch has entered limbo, and it’s time to take a look at one of the catalysts - the great Overwatch LAN drought.
Online and offline
There are two parts to an esport: online play and offline play.
Online play is the building block of any esport, allowing players to connect and play with others miles away. It helps establish the lower levels of play with platforms such as in-game matchmaking, pick-up game services, online leagues and cups, and offline event qualifiers. Online events also are easy on a tournament organizer’s budget, making them highly appealing from an economical point of view.
Then we come to LANs, also known as offline tournaments - which are the most important part of esports. Their importance is multifaceted; for one, they remove any ping and hardware disadvantages, evening the playing field for all teams. There is also the atmosphere of playing at an event - being right next to your teammates, the giant crowd of the audience, the crew of casters and analysts watching your every move, the level of competition against the other teams, and the cameras and production crew streaming to thousands of online viewers - which all makes the pressure to perform much higher. Combine that with the prestige and big prize pools, making offline events a truly special experience.
Offline events, however, are much more expensive to run for a tournament organizer. Renting out and building a stage, getting equipment, paying for a broadcast team and production crew, buying flights and accommodation for teams and their staff, getting sponsors to offer a prize pool - there are a huge number of costs that make these events cost a pretty penny.
Often, there’s a balance between online and offline due to the costs of offline events. In CS:GO, there are huge leagues like the ESL Pro League and FACEIT’s ECS, where teams play in an online regular season and the top seeded teams qualify for the offline playoffs. For organizers running those leagues, it helps balance the budget thanks to the low cost of running the online portion and potential for a large amount of hours consumed for sponsors. It then gives an incentive for teams to work towards qualifying for the offline finals, which offers the largest chunk of the prize pool in the league. In CS:GO and other esports scenes, online qualifiers are also used to determine who qualifies for offline events, though larger scenes have moved towards offline qualifiers as well in recent years.
Offline events are the biggest part of esports. While online play is important in a scene’s infancy (and will likely stay in the future in the lower levels), the benefits of offline events help establish the scene worldwide, especially with its draw for viewers and for the top level of professional play.
Overwatch’s esports scene started with its online phase, with tournaments such as the GosuGamers Weeklies and the Alienware Monthly Melees hosted. As the scene grew, organizers became interested in hosting offline events.
2016 saw a healthy schedule of offline events, with at least one event each month from August, mere months after release. The list of events that year were:
- ESL Atlantic Showdown (Aug)
- Overwatch Open (Sept)
- APAC Premier (Oct)
- OGN APEX Season 1 (Oct-Dec)
- Overwatch World Cup (Nov)
- DreamHack Winter (Nov)
- MLG Vegas (Dec)
- IEM Gyeonggi (Dec)
It was a good balance of events that year; they were evenly spaced out so that there wasn’t any oversaturation, meaning that teams had an ample amount of time to practice, travel, play, rest, and repeat.
The momentum seemed to carry over in the beginning of 2017. But after a few months, the rain began to stop, and people started to notice the drought. So far, the only two major offline events this year were:
- NGE Winter Premiere (Jan)
- OGN APEX Season 2 (Dec [of 2016]-Apr)
Those events were held within a time frame of around four months. In the latter four months of last year (Sept-Dec), there were seven events in total. The momentum in 2017 came to a slow halt and, in the West at least, there’s been only online tournaments to compete in lately. Essentially, we’ve gone back to where the scene started.
So what happened? What has caused the scene to stagnate?
The Blizzard freeze
In Overwatch’s tournament circuit, Blizzard issues out licenses to organizers that wish to run a tournament, whether online or offline. According to tournament organisers working within Overwatch, single events with a $10,000 or larger prize pool require a license, and event organizers that hand out $50,000 or more over a single year also require a license. Blizzard has a powerful voice when deciding which events feature in the Overwatch circuit.
The lack of offline tournaments this year is notable; that’s in part due to Blizzard’s reluctance to hand out licenses for offline events.
Sources from tournament organisers in Overwatch claim that multiple offline events planned for 2017 were denied licenses for varying - and often unclear - reasons. One such organizer, Esports Arena, opened up on their situation regarding licenses.
Esports Arena has hosted Overwatch events in the past with Blizzard licenses, including Agents Rising (one of the first major offline events in the scene), and the online Agents Series (3v3 and 1v1 online tournaments).
Speaking on behalf of Esports Arena, project manager of events Wade Radomske says that when ESA inquired about getting a license for an offline event, they were denied one, with Blizzard stating that other organizers were doing licensed events in the dates ESA requested (April/May). The events Blizzard were speaking of appear to be online events, as other offline tournaments have not been announced for that time period.
Wade also gave a statement on behalf of ESA regarding the drought:
“We're constantly working to develop events for every game, and Overwatch is no exception. One of our big goals was to host Agents Rising 2, a reiteration of the first major LAN in Overwatch. But everyone is trying to do Overwatch before the official Overwatch League starts and securing licenses is tricky due to the number of organizers looking to host events both online and off.”
Various insiders have pointed to one possible theory behind the developer not handing out licenses for offline events - it may be in part due to the MSI MGA disaster last December.
MSI MGA was an offline event in London, hosting a showdown between Fnatic, Kongdoo Panthera, Ninjas in Pyjamas, and Rise Nation. It was met with a myriad of problems: a poor production crew, faulty equipment provided by MSI, and internet issues led to the cancellation of the event by the organizers - all without even a single match being finished.
Given that MSI MGA gave off a somewhat bad view of the scene, insiders have speculated that Blizzard may have changed their policies, becoming wary of handing out a license to an organizer that could cause a similar situation at an offline event. Since then the only licenses for offline events they’ve granted have been to OGN for OGN APEX Season 2 and NGE for NGE Winter Premiere, and they have handed out the rest of the licenses for online tournaments such as Carbon Entertainment’s Carbon Series, The One Game Agency’s Overwatch PIT Championship, and the continued Alienware Monthly Melees.
There is a caveat to that theory though: though MSI MGA was a catastrophic event and it seems reasonable to deny the organisers a license in the future, that does not mean that Blizzard should suddenly stop handing out licenses to proven, capable companies. There are plenty of other reputable tournament organizers that can run an event professionally - ESL, DreamHack and MLG are all organizers that have experience in running events, with a proven track record running Overwatch events with Blizzard’s consent. It doesn’t make sense to deny licenses with a tighter blanket policy just because of a singularly bad apple.
It must be stated, however, that this is speculation on behalf of those involved behind the scenes. The true reasoning behind the lack of offline events could be anything, with the mysterious nature of internal Blizzard workings, and we may never know.
Whatever the reason might be, it hurts event organizers that they can’t run offline events, especially as there was potential for many offline events in the first quarter of 2017. A list of events that could have theoretically hosted Overwatch - though there is no evidence of license applications - includes DreamHack Open Leipzig in January, MLG Atlanta in February, and IEM Katowice in March. The Korean and Western teams in OGN APEX Season 2 could have also taken a break from competing in Korea and flown into these tournaments, further elevating the competition in the events.
Outside of the tournament organizers, the LAN drought also hits to the core of the scene: the players themselves.
Water water everywhere, not any drop to drink
Esports players tend to have long practice schedules so that they can stay at the top of their game. Practice sessions usually consist of VOD reviews, scrims, and personal practice, all of which can take up around eight hours per day.
Verbo of Immortals chipped in about how his and the team’s schedule works. “Our practice schedule consists of 6-8 hours of scrims,” he said. “We start at 12pm PST and end at 7pm PST.”
Immortals have been one of the top North American teams over the past few months, winning December’s Alienware Monthly Melee, taking an offline title at NGE Winter Premiere last January, and winning the Carbon Series last month.
Due to the LAN drought, their activity has been only online recently, and Verbo says that offline events are needed for the team and the scene itself. “The lack of offline events affects our team since we do need more experience on LAN,” he said, “such as getting into a comfortable position on stage to playing in front of an audience.” He added onto that point with some wider advantages for teams, saying, “I do think the scene would be better with more offline events because since the Overwatch League will be offline 100% of the time, the pros not only benefit off getting practice at offline events but it builds Overwatch as a spectator sport where the community is able to go see games live at a venue.”
For all the hard work that players have put into performing at their best this year, it has for the most part only gone towards online tournaments. Sure, it’s a nice to win an online cup, but it’s offline tournaments that carry the prestige and money that can really prove your team is at the top of the scene.
Even through the drought, Verbo says that he and Immortals will keep working towards the future, online and offline, and they’ll also make sure to know when to take a break.
“Practice is practice regardless of what it's for. We are looking at the long term and are playing to becoming a stronger team than what we are now.” Speaking on the team’s decision to decline some large tournament invites recently, he added, “We have felt burnout recently due to us not having a break and we put in 8 hours per day. Once we recognized this we took a well deserved break, recharged and went back into practice feeling better than before.”
Immortals also highlight another issue with fragmented, online circuits. They’ve been performing well within North America, but haven’t faced elite competition throughout that time. With the lack of offline events, how do you determine where teams stand in the rankings? How do you weave the online narratives together?
No steps on the ladder
One of the rule of thumbs that analysts follow in esports is analysis in offline results vs online results. Analysts always consider offline results when analysing teams, and take online results with a grain of salt (or for some people, completely ignore online results [i.e.Thorin in his CS:GO power rankings]).
The reason being is that teams can perform differently online and offline. One prime example is in CS:GO with Virtus.pro. The Polish team in 2016 had poor records in leagues with an online regular season such as ESL Pro League and ECS, usually placing in the bottom of the tables.
Their LAN performance, however, was a completely different story. The team had high placings in many tournaments, went on to win titles of their own, and even held the spot as the best team in the world for the later half of October last year (based on HLTV rankings). In the words of esports analyst stuchiu, the LAN environment is what makes Virtus.pro an elite team.
"For a team like Virtus.Pro, which seems so intrinsically linked to grit, to a fire that can only be lit in the face of real stakes, online games are an anathema," he wrote. "The only games VP can play seriously are live matches."
"But bring them to a LAN, get them to a large international stage, and they light up. It is captivating to watch. That special spark they have not only burns in them, but is also inflamed in their opponents."
Because of how analysts observe results, telling where most of the field stands can be hard when there’s a lack of offline events. Sideshow, one of the analysts for over.gg’s World Rankings, says that more offline events would help greatly in determining their rankings.
“The lack of offline events affects rankings in tons of ways, and therefore storylines within the scene," he said. Sideshow points out the factors that make online tournaments somewhat inferior. "Online tournaments are inherently more variable, don't attract all the best teams playing together, and several teams have bad ping disadvantages. FaZe are the quintessential team for this; it's hard to get a read on them as half their team, including both primary DPS players, play with 110-170 ping."
"The lack of huge global offline events is also a massive factor for rankings, and in my opinion the general enjoyment of watching competitive Overwatch." Sideshow also pointed out the different types of competition in past offline events, saying, "It's not often talked about, but the only LAN we've ever had that blended the best European and North American teams was the Atlantic Showdown in mid-2016. While events like DreamHack Winter, APEX, and IEM Gyeonggi have bits and bobs of talent from regions competing, it's by no means an "offline showdown" of the best possible teams. This kind of stuff happens all the time in CS:GO, making for incredible viewing and storylines; this is honestly my primary hope for Overwatch in 2018 onwards - having a healthy OWL off-season with regular global tournaments forming a circuit. We'd be able to tell who the best teams truly are, and get fantastic series throughout the year.”
While Korean teams currently hold the top spots in the rankings thanks to their offline performances at OGN APEX, the majority of Western teams and where they stand are harder to tell due to the lack of offline events in the West.
One example of a team is Rogue, who are currently residing in Las Vegas, and have been considered by some experts as the best team in the North American region this year, winning the February, March, & April Alienware Monthly Melees, and Overwatch Pit North America, especially when other top NA teams like Team EnVyUs and Cloud9 were in Korea for OGN APEX Season 2, and took a break after they came back to the states for a few weeks.
But one thing to note is that the Frenchmen’s results this year have only been online. Sure they’ve proven themselves in the past to be one of the best teams in the world thanks to their results in the late summer and early fall of 2016, but they haven’t played a single offline event since last December at IEM Gyeonggi. With the team heading to OGN APEX Season 3 for their first offline event of the year, their full potential has yet to be shown, especially when they’ll be competing against the best Korean teams in the scene.
Even though they’ve only played online this year, aKm of Rogue is confident in their offline performance.
“We're really not worried about our lack of offline events, because we're all very experienced players on LAN, and anyone of us perform way better offline, than online," he said. "So we're not too worried about it."
aKm also added his own take on the rankings, saying, "We [also] don't really mind where people think we stand, as long as we know ourselves where we stand”
This situation doesn’t just apply for teams like Rogue. Teams like Selfless Gaming and LG Evil have shown good results online this year, but they have also yet to make an offline appearance.
sinatraa of Selfless Gaming wishes that there were also more offline events. “It's unfortunate that there isn't many offline tournaments because we would like to participate in events that are on an equal playing field," he said. "We're enjoying the numerous events that we are in, but we're anxiously looking forward to OWL and the details surrounding the league.”
Voll of LG Evil also spoke about the LAN drought. “We as a team really want to see more offline events in the future," he said. "Whether it be for direct increase in viewership or another chance to support the team fans are rooting for, it is almost an essential factor to the growth of the game to have offline events for teams. The last event was NGE and we had to drop out of it due to roster issues, leaving us with no events to play as long as we've been a team. I also know a few of us are hoping events we attend will be running Blizzard's 143 tick tournament client. Small things like that among others make the need for offline events greater."
Voll also gave his take on the future of the scene. "I think that if you look at the current scene right now and take it's viewership and age into account, it's actually doing pretty alright. But if you consider the amount of work and money that is being put into the Overwatch League, I really do think it will be the next big esport. I don't know much, and nobody besides Blizzard really does about the League so we will just have to be patient and wait.”
The twilight zone
The LAN drought has lead the Overwatch scene into a state of limbo. With almost no info about OWL other than Blizzard’s promises and inside reports from various news sites, many people have mixed opinions about the future. One such player himself has already taken action due to the drought.
Former NRG player Seagull recently announced that he would be stepping down from the active roster to focus on streaming for the time being. In his statement, he cited that the lack of offline events left in a conundrum.
Seagull has been hailed as a celebrity in Overwatch ever since he began streaming in the closed beta, and continues to have a lot of viewers on his stream. While Seagull does make a good amount of revenue from streaming, he’s always been a player that is dedicated towards winning. He stated that in the last quarter of 2016, he decide to focus less on streaming and more on improving his play for tournaments such as OGN APEX Season 1 and MLG Vegas.
When the new year began, NRG weren’t invited to OGN APEX Season 2, and failed on qualifying for NGE Winter Premiere (and a chance at making its LAN finals). With only online tournaments that were available, the team dropped out of radar and spent the next few months rebuilding their roster.
As NRG went on hiatus, Seagull continued his 8-9 hours of daily practice, along with an occasional stream. But when the LAN drought began, it started to affect Seagull. All his practice just for some online tourneys didn’t seem worth its weight, and given that he’s at home, he has more opportunities to stream.
Full time streaming can have the potential to make more money than any professional team in Overwatch; streamers such as MOONMOON and TimTheTatman can earn huge amounts of revenue from subscribers, bits revenue, ad revenue, sponsors, and tips/donations combined compared to a player salary of around $3,000-$5,000 plus the prize money they get.
Given Seagull’s immense popularity within the Overwatch community and the amount of viewers and revenue he could potentially get when streaming on a daily basis, streaming on top of a hectic practice schedule would be really exhausting. And with no big offline tournaments to play for, the incentive to go full time streaming is something to not pass up on.
While Seagull does plan on returning for OWL (as he is still contracted under NRG and will likely stay with the org), his situation is a window of how many players are going through in the drought. While most players don’t have the luxury of going full time streaming, they have been left to play online, and have little to no offline tournaments to compete in.
See you at LAN
The LAN drought has put a roadblock in the building of a bridge towards Overwatch’s growth. The first parts of the bridge have been constructed thanks to the massive player base both casually and competitively, alongside the circuit of events in 2016.
But due to the drought, we’ve been left with a large gap, and getting the pieces to go across have been slow. The only hope for closing the gap is for Blizzard’s Overwatch League to be successful, as many hope so.
Another area for Blizzard to fix in the future is to avoid a dry off-season of 3rd party offline events, so that when a season of OWL ends, we can still get a good dose of competition for both players and viewers to dive into.
Blizzard has the vision to make a great esport. All they need to do is make it a reality.
A special thank you to uberchain, Sideshow, harsha, Admirable, Wade, and all the pro players that contributed to the article.