Allow me to quickly introduce myself. My name is Chris "Kophee" Mehlhoff. I was the main tank and shotcaller for EnVision eSports. I want you to know that I’m writing this article from a player’s perspective. It will be biased as I don’t have access to Blizzard's plans for the Overwatch League or competitive scene. I’m only able to work with the information that is readily available. Right now, players from all regions and teams are experiencing tremendous feelings of doubt regarding their career; they have no idea where they personally fit into Blizzard’s Overwatch League, and unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t going to make it.
As some of you know from my recent retirement post (which can be found here), I explained why the odds of me getting into the Overwatch League as a player were basically non-existent. This applies to most existing professionals, and for everyone else on ladder it’s impossible. However, there were a few more points that I wanted to go over as I didn’t get a chance to cover everything in that brief post.
As we know already there are seven confirmed Overwatch League teams.
- Seoul, Korea – No roster announced
- Shanghai, China – Team CC (no roster announced)
- Boston, MA – Overwatch Boston (no roster announced)
- New York, NY – No roster announced
- San Francisco, CA – NRG Esports (will probably be the NRG roster)
- Los Angeles, CA – Immortals (will probably be the IMT roster)
- Miami-Orlando, FL – Misfits (will probably be the Misfits roster)
So, let’s break it down. I think it’s safe for everyone to assume that the Korean team will field Korean players, that’s fair. The same goes for the Chinese roster, again, no complaints here. Let’s talk about North America now; if we assume Immortals and Misfits aren’t changing their rosters, then that removes two more teams for players to sign with. The last three available teams are: NRG (limited spots), New York, and Boston. We know that NRG is piecing players together to finish their roster. That leaves New York and Boston which we don’t know anything about except that HuK is in Korea representing Boston. It’s possible they could have already signed full rosters (which I think would be the smartest decision considering Rogue, EnVyUs, and Kongdoo Panthera are all available), or they could be building rosters from the ground up. However, when considering the success of past teams that have done this, it’s a risky move that often leads to mixed results; definitely not something I would want to chance 20 million on.
To summarize, we only have three teams that are actively looking for starting players (one of which has their manager in Korea), one we know nothing about, and the last being half complete (NRG). HuK from Boston is a former Starcraft 2 professional and knows exactly how talented Korean players are from experience. I expect him to recruit a few Korean players, if not an entire team during his visit. This means that in a best-case scenario, there are about 12 starting slots left in the Overwatch League. Where am I getting the number 12 from, well let’s analyze the teams through deduction. Please keep in mind that while this is a predicted guess, it’s an extremely calculated guess. I’m thinking there will be four or so slots from NRG, six from New York, and maybe two or three from Boston (depending on how many Koreans are signed). The talent pool competing for these spots includes players from Rogue, EnVyUs, and every other professional player. How many ladder players do you think are getting signed to those slots? How many players from teams like Liquid, Renegades, CLG, Kungarna, Cloud 9, LG Evil, ex-Hammers and every tier 1 free agent do you think are under consideration? I’d say a good amount of them are being considered, but there’s only 12 slots at best. That means dozens of players are going to be stuck in limbo waiting for more organizations to buy a league spot, or they’ll be stranded in competition outside of the League. Blizzard isn’t sanctioning tournaments anymore so prize pools won’t exist; and I challenge you to find me a team that pays a living wage that isn’t participating in the Overwatch League (spoiler alert, these teams started dropping their rosters months ago). If we take the most pessimistic point of view possible, there’s maybe six slots left for every role in the entire game for every player around the entire world. Getting a slot is like getting the golden ticket to the chocolate factory at this point. But Kophee, it feels like you’re ignoring the fact that rosters can have up to 12 players. Yes, I am, because I would honestly be shocked if we saw any team sign more than nine players. I’m expecting most rosters to field six to eight players with substitutes only coming in during special or crucial circumstances. During Overwatch’s lifespan as an esport, Immortals is the only team to field and achieve strong results with a seven-man roster in North America.
To clarify, I have absolutely no problem with teams wanting to import players from Asia, Europe, or anywhere else. I think every team should do what they can to have the most profitable, marketable, and winningest roster they can afford. That privilege was given to them the exact moment they bought their Overwatch League spot. Another point I want to make clear is that I don’t have any issues with the type of top talent exclusivity Blizzard seems to be pushing for in the Overwatch League.
Finally, the part you’ve been waiting for, and why I’m personally upset by how Blizzard has run things so far. The Overwatch League was marketed as something a ladder player could eventually make their way into. It was marketed so that franchises could celebrate their cities just like you would with any other national sports team. Blizzard sold an idea, and a dream, and that dream was that anyone could be in the Overwatch League. Now, every professional player knew how impossible that was. If you weren’t grinding six to ten hours a day like everyone else or in the small circle of teams considered professional then you never had a shot, most of us knew this from day one. For anyone reading this that thought you could go from ladder to the Overwatch League, I’m sorry, Blizzard lied to you. We all remember the infamous KRUSHER99 video, the 75,000 pros tweet, and the survey that was emailed to players from the professional level down to top 500 ladder one tricks. The front page of the Overwatch League website states, "This is your league" in full capitalization. But from what I’ve seen, the only players that belong in this league are figuratively (and literally) the talent apex of the Overwatch APEX. Even the "signing period" that is happening right now feels like a marketing formality like the other three examples I provided. If you haven’t received a direct notification, or are in talks with a team right now, then you’re probably not on the list for consideration. Back when the Overwatch League was first announced, I honestly thought that if you were at least a top 12 team in North America you would have a chance at becoming KRUSHER99. However, Blizzard has disemboweled its own player pool because of how exclusive the Overwatch League is. I hope you like a lot of the best players right now, because as it stands, we’ll be cheering on these same players for years to come. If history repeats itself, the Overwatch League will be just like when there was a massive skill gap between closed beta players and release players. Everyone from closed beta created their own community and were hostile to outsiders. As long as you were in closed beta and your name drew attention then you could get any try-out you wanted, even if you weren’t particularly good (this is still happening to this day). Every game suffers from this, League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are perfect examples of how closed off the upper echelon of professional gaming can be. The Overwatch League will become another degree of that for Overwatch.
So, what can the rest of us do? We can hope that Blizzard eventually curates enough slots to hold a much larger talent pool than they currently do. Or they can provide a means of developing a scene for players outside of the Overwatch League. This secondary league would have to give the remaining professional players an eco-system where they can sustain their livelihoods and continue to develop as players. I have a feeling Blizzard doesn’t have anything lined up, I can’t see them holding onto information related to a tier 2 for this long, plus it doesn’t make sense to let traditional eSports teams drop out of their game. If I was creating a league for the tier 2 scene I would include and even pay traditional organizations to participate in them. Blizzard is receiving 20 million for each Overwatch League slot, so far they've sold seven slots. I would gladly partition a million or two of that 140 million and pay up to 20 teams a year to participate in a secondary community. This is how you foster talent; it gives players the opportunity to showcase their skills for owners of the League to scout. Another thing, without traditional esports teams, you are missing out on the entire market of eSports viewers. All of eSports was built around those teams over the past decade and esports as we know it exists because of those teams. Boston Overwatch has absolutely zero fans, you know who has millions though, Cloud9 does. I have knowledge in good faith that some traditional teams and Blizzard are at odds with each other, I’m using that knowledge to further demonstrate the fact that there will most-likely not be a tier 2 scene involving traditional esports teams, if there is a tier 2 scene at all.
Now, if Blizzard has plans to develop a thriving tier 2 scene to keep competition below the League alive then I have no problem looking like an absolute idiot for writing this. But, if they do have plans for the tier 2 scene then they need to work on developing their communication skills with the professional community. What blows my mind the most is that Blizzard refuses to acknowledge the importance of an open line between developers and players, and instead opt to keep secrets for the sake of surprising the community with short-lived hype announcements; Blizzard you are damaging your esport by doing this. I’m a 24-year-old Winston main and even I know that it’s more important as a company to let the players and community (the cornerstones of your game's success) to know exactly what my plans are. The information about the Overwatch League should have been given months ago to let players decide if their aspirations are in line with what you are trying to create. Instead we got one-day hype announcements that misled and teased the casual fanbase into thinking they could be in the Overwatch League for almost a year. Wow. I don’t even know what to say.
In summary, Blizzard, the product you marketed and the product you’re selling are two completely different things. If you truly believed in a global league where cities could support local players and compete amongst themselves nationally and globally (oddly enough, just like the Overwatch world cup), then slots wouldn’t be 20 million, and we would see most if not all current tier 1 talent included in the process.
Lastly, because I thought it would be fun, here are my predictions for what the first seven teams of the Overwatch League will look like. Blizzard has shown in the past (with the nature of their announcements usually containing everything at once) that a lot can change in just a day, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw a current NA roster, or one to two more organizations buy into the Overwatch League during the next two months. However, that’s more than likely going to be room for players from the absolute top to take advantage of.
- Seoul, Korea – Lunatic-Hai (no changes)
- Shanghai, China – Team CC (Chinese roster)
- Boston, MA – Korean super team with the best players from multiple teams (including ~2 NA)
- New York, NY – Wild Card (We could see Rogue or EnVyUs but who knows)
- San Francisco, CA – NRG Esports (Will probably see an American lineup, NRG is a patriotic brand)
- Los Angeles – Immortals (no changes)
- Miami-Orlando, FL – Misfits (might see a player swap or two)
Thanks for reading.