The Overwatch Path to Pro system has built a good foundation for creating a sustainable minor league system to the Overwatch League; players are guaranteed pay across seven regions, even ones that have been relatively ignored by tournament organizers in the past.
1700 fans came to watch the grand finals of Contenders Korea. Image credit: Blizzard
However, after one season of Contenders, it is clear a foundation is all it is. The payout isn't higher, some regions were given schedules that got in the way of viewership and play, and promotion is lacking. A mindset shift on how Contenders is viewed by Blizzard is vital to make it truly sustainable for all players across the world aspiring to join the Overwatch League.
It's common in pro sports for minor league players to play for very little money, but that is one aspect about traditional sports leagues that Blizzard shouldn't try to replicate. The winnings need to be increased across the board, especially in the regions with the lowest prize pools, to aid in the sustainability of the circuit.
Young & Beautiful was a playoff team in Contenders Europe Season 1, and due to a lack of an organization, their winnings are the only Overwatch esports earning they get. With Europe having one of the highest prize pools in the Contenders circuit, they earned about $13,336 from this season of Contenders. That's about $2,222.66 per player. If Young & Beautiful plays similarly the last two seasons of 2018, that will be about $6,668 per player for the entire year.
The British Hurricane celebrate their Contenders Europe title. Image credit: Blizzard
Players in the Pacific, South America and Australia aren't so fortunate however, and compete for smaller prizes, with South America and Australia the smallest of them all. Kanga Esports, an Australian team, had the same record and a similar map score as Young & Beautiful, but their winnings only amounted to $3,228. That's $538 per player, with each player getting $1,614 in a year if the team has identical performances in each Contenders season.
These two teams are examples of just how much they earn by just barely making it into the playoffs earn, and Blizzard likely isn't going to just raise the prizing out of the kindness of their own hearts. Contenders needs sponsors beyond just the Old Spice Hand Gym and McDonald's Australia, and they're unlikely to come without viewers. Fortunately, there is much more Blizzard can do to bring eyes, especially local eyes, to Contenders.
Shine the spotlight
The most obvious way to increase viewership in Contenders is to promote it more. While Blizzard is unlikely to expand the in-game Overwatch League tab into a tab titled "Esports" or "Live" and put Contenders in-game, there shouldn't be any issue with promoting Contenders in the game's launcher. In addition, the Overwatch League Twitch channel should host the Overwatch Contenders games (at least during playoffs if not more regularly than that). There is no reason reruns of matches should take precedence over Contenders finals.
Some promotion through Twitch is already beginning though; the Overwatch League Twitch channel has began to broadcast LAN matches for EU and NA Contenders. If this is done for every region and if live matches are hosted through OWL's Twitch channel, then Blizzard will begin making headway on improving Contenders.
Fusion University emerged victorious in Contenders North America. Image credit: Blizzard
Blizzard also needs to stop treating the Contenders audiences like one global audience and more like seven different audiences, as their efforts to avoid broadcast overlap and make 24/7 Overwatch a reality just worked against the very regions who rely on Contenders the most. Both Australia and South America had to play on prerecorded matches because their broadcasts were scheduled for the middle of the workday, and it also meant that audiences were limited by their own work and school schedules (despite the setback, Contenders South America matches had viewership numbers that rivaled Contenders North America and Contenders Europe).
Audiences also starve for competitions local to them, a trait of fans that Blizzard should be capitalizing on. Due to having either a lack of or very few players from other regions such as South America, Australia, and the Pacific in the Overwatch League, fans from these regions want to watch local players in Contenders, where the highest level of regional talent is present, and Blizzard should be treating these competitions as local spectacles rather than global ones to cultivate these local audiences, such as scheduling matches during the local timezone's primetime (unless they conflict with Overwatch League matches).
Alongside those changes, Blizzard also needs to provide all regions an opportunity for the playoffs that only a few have been provided with.
The showmen at LAN
Every region should get the opportunity to play LAN finals. While it's reasonable that not every region can be played on LAN for the entire season, there shouldn't be a region that's not playing in front of a live audience for its grand final; tickets weren't sold for the Contenders Australia LAN final while the South American final wasn't even played on LAN, and for the highest level competition in these regions, this is unacceptable.
The Sydney Drop Bears took home a LAN title in front of a live audience of zero. Image credit: Blizzard ANZ / Sarah Cooper (ESL Australia)
To add to the issues Australia and South America suffered from, the Australian finals collided with Overwatch League matches, and the viewership was destined to flounder as soon as the matches were scheduled, highlighting the previous issues with scheduling.
If the issues outlined are remedied, viewership for Contenders can grow, especially in traditionally neglected regions. Hopefully more viewership will lead to more sponsors and more profit from Contenders and motivate Blizzard to raise prize pools to become something more sustainable for its players.