The Death of Overwatch League

Ok, it might be a little early to proclaim death on OWL but it has been one hell of a bad year for them. Just for background… I myself am an OWL watcher but now OW player. I don’t particularly care for FPS games and Overwatch is no different. But for whatever reason, about a year or so before OWL started, I found that it was quite entertaining to actually watch teams play Overwatch.

When Overwatch League was announced, I was thrilled. I liked watching the game, and looked forward to more organized play. But more than anything, I always felt that one of the biggest issues with eSports was the instability of the games and difficulty to find a hook into being a fan of any particular team. I mean if you became a fan of a team, it was likely because they won a lot which isn’t my favorite reason to like a team. (Or you just grabbed one out of a hat.) I think the idea of a location based league in eSports is long overdue and I was happy to see someone take a shot at it, but I fear that the failure that is Overwatch League might actually hamper this from happening in the future. I wanted to go over the various reasons why I think the league is doomed to fail.

  1. Owned and operated by Blizzard. This is like if the NFL was owned by Spalding or Nike, there’s a huge conflict of interest here. There isn’t even a panel of league owners who make rule changes, it all comes from Blizzard, like it or hate it. I am sure league owners get to bug Blizzard about things they’d like to see, and I’m sure Blizzard has taken them up on it from time to time, but Blizzard is free to ignore. I don’t think it can happen in the modern age of “you can’t show our game without our permission” but if a league is going to work, it kinda needs to be independent of the developer of it. They benefit from the league being successful and should understand that and that should be the only benefit they get.
  2. Lack of transparency. What we know for sure is that Blizzard asks about 25-35 million per team sale, though I would guess it differs greatly from team to team. We know players get paid salaries, but we don’t know how much. We know trades happen, but we don’t know for what… often a player gets traded to another team with no visible return to the sender whatsoever. Players do sign contracts, no idea how long. Players supposedly get stipends for renting and insurance, we don’t know what that looks like either. We know that there are tournaments that award cash prizes, we don’t know how that is split between owners and players. We know there are t-shirts made for the teams, we don’t know if the players get a cut. We know that OWL signs deals with youtube and twitch and networks, no idea of the details and don’t know the cut the teams get from those deals. We know skins are sold, we don’t know if teams or players get cuts. We also don’t know if Blizzard gets cuts of merchandise. We basically know nothing about where all the money is going but my guess it is mostly going to Blizzard and i don’t appreciate that if I am trying to support my team.
  3. Lack of developmental process or parity. I don’t mean Overwatch for this… I mean there is no real minor leagues per say. A lot of teams take from Contenders and I do think Contenders was originally meant as the sort of Overwatch minor league given that the initial teams all had their own contender team that they sent lesser players to. Most teams have bowed out of Contenders entirely though. Teams seem to prefer to just dump players that still need development and pick random players from random Contenders teams, or the entire team, when they need to fill. They also don’t even need to take from Contenders… when Dafran was picked up by Atlanta, he didn’t come from Contenders, he was just a youtuber being picked up to increase the popularity of the team. There’s also no draft at all, which in conjunction to there being a lack of salary cap (at least I assume, there might be one but again no transparency) there is absolutely no parity to the game. Which means if a team pays money, they will win consistently regardless… They may not always win, but they will always be near the top… they’ve essentially created the bad part of the MLB and is it any surprise that New York in both seems to be the biggest problems?
  4. Lack of Stability. One of the reasons I wanted OWL to work was because I wanted to be able to root for players and their respective teams. But even the move between seasons 1 and 2 , there only a few teams that maintained their rosters… most teams were completely rebuilt, and this happened again between 2 and 3. And now in 3 we have the Titans just completely revamping their team mid-season. Stability is just not a thing at all. I have a hard time rooting even for the teams I want to root for, let alone two random teams that aren’t teams I like. When teams I don’t like are on, the last year I just stopped watching cause I don’t know who they are anymore. A good case of this is the LA Valiant whom in season 1 was one of my favorite teams, but by season 2 I didn’t bother watching because I didn’t know many players on the team. Another kind of stability that is lacking is just game to game stability. Blizzard will patch, add characters, and add maps mid-season and OWL will put them in mid-season. They do this purposely in order to “keep things interesting” but it means that if you build a team to handle a strategy that gets nerfed midseason, your team is out of luck and there’s zero heads up on how things will change mid-season for teams to even prepare. This got magnified in season 3 when they added the hero pools (which I’ll get to later). The changes that Blizzard makes to the league are similar to if NFL decided to limit 2 WRs on offense at a time instead of the up to 5 that are currently there “just to keep things interesting.” It’s just a terrible idea to do midseason, it’s unfair to the teams and the fans who follow them.
    1. 2-2-2: Adding on specifically… 2-2-2 was a terrible move on Blizzard’s part. It was bad for the game and bad for the league. They did it to try to solve GOATS as goats was widely using 3 healers and 3 tanks, and it was a slower game than Blizzard wanted but it was really powerful (In fact, Blizzard has since said they never really intended for there to be off tanks so it’s odd that they even went 2-2-2 which forces offtanks). The hope was that by forcing players out of that 3-3 format, the game would be more interesting if they had DPS. I understand why they did it, it just was a dumb move. One problem is that by the time 2-2-2 was implemented, counter strategies were being developed, including 1-3-2 or 2-3-1… which was way more interesting and fun than either the GOATS or the 2-2-2 comps). They were extremely exciting matches and in an instant, blizzard removed them for a composition that was dying. And the composition that players moved to… it’s pretty much GOATS just in a 2-2-2 format. It is still super slow and team based, it just has different characters being used. Blizzard instead should have enforced 1-1-1 which would have allowed teams to vary, but still forcing them to have a little bit of everything. Then we could have kept those excellent 3 DPS comps.
    2. Hero Pool: Another terrible idea… the Hero Pool. Now Fans have been asking for a Hero Ban pretty much since season 1, but this wasn’t what they were asking for. Traditionally, a hero ban makes it so that one team selects a hero, the next team selects two, the first team selects two, and so on. One character can only be used once on both teams combined. An alternative way to do this would be to allow each team to ban 1 character from the opposing team’s hero pool for a map. Both ways allow methods of strategizing how to deal with your opponent that can be planned by teams ahead of time. Instead… Blizzard decided to automatically ban 4 heroes every week with heroes that were heavily used being more likely to be banned than heroes that weren’t. To me, this screamed Blizzard throwing their hands in the air and saying “we can’t balance the game so we aren’t going to try.” This does make the games more interesting because they are an absolute mess with teams not having enough time to prepare for the heroes that they are allowed to use and having no idea how opponents might react to the same problem. It lowers the amount of strategizing by the team… I think this sort of thing would work as a once a month sort of throw down that teams would have a couple weeks to prepare for. But doing it every week has increased stress on players and coaches, causing many to retire mid-season, and has made the game such a mess it’s actually kind of obnoxious to watch.
  5. The Onscreen Personalities: They are terrible. They aren’t all bad… but they aren’t all good either. Most of them are extremely punny and overly-zelaous with the hyperbole. I for one, did not find it cute when so many of them said “we don’t have to lie about every game matters anymore” when talking about the removal of the 4 game format. We all knew you were lying bro. It’s not good to point out though that you are not an honest or objective observer telling us what is happening on screen. The unfortunate part is that many of the best personalities they had in the first two seasons are now gone. Their 3 best casters left before season 3 and to offset that, they moved their two most obnoxious desk caddies to announce instead. Ugh. Goldenboy was only around in season 1, but he was their clear best desk guy. The only real bright side remaining for their casters is Soe who went from being a “sideline reporter’ to the main desk host…. and she is great… Custa who has also done well on the desk and adds credibility to the desk…. and Jake… who struggles at times because it is his first year but shows a ton of promise.
  6. Only one game at a time. Can you name one sport that has only a single non-playoff game going at any point in time? The only ones you can think of really are special games and NFL’s weekly Sunday night and Monday night games. What’s funny about this is that they have 3 sets of casters… they don’t have to have them separate for any real reason outside of they want to milk everything they got. They probably realize that they don’t really have the viewership to cover 3 games at a time so they do 1 and hope that everyone watches all of them (or forgets the stream is on) and that artificially inflates numbers. But what ends up happening is all too many games that are equivalent to Mayhem vs Dragons or Dragons vs XL in season 1…. games that almost no one wants to watch, except maybe fans of the teams. I actually didn’t mind separating out all games in the first, even second seasons… it helped you learn about the teams which was good… but now that’s not needed. People have gravitated to teams. I think before COVID, they were doing 4 games on Sat & Sunday each separate, it would have been better to have 2 time slots on each day with 2 games playing a piece and then having a 3rd game on one of the days (or maybe even both) that was the “featured” game that had a higher level of competitiveness.
  7. Expanded too Quickly. They added 8 teams in season 2… this flooded the game with teams too quickly. It was a mistake. I think they felt they had to to try to even out the global map a little, but even so, they added 3 teams on the east coast (which was already flooded), 1 team on the west coast (take or leave it), 3 teams in china (needed) and 1 team in europe (needed). And with the flood of teams, came a thinning of talent. Which btw is the entire reason NFL doesn’t expand more. Has less to do with whether their is viewership for them and more to do with the fact that they just don’t have the talent to sustain it, and I feel the same is true in OWL. Granted, it showed just how bad talent evaluation is in OWL as there was an entire team in Contenders that turned out to be better than almost all of the OWL teams from season 1. They should have maybe added the 3 chinese teams and the 1 european team in Season 2 and re-evaluated, but I suspect that it was a money grab by Blizzard. OWL seemed hot after season 1, so they wanted to get the money from new teams while the getting was good.
  8. Homestead Weekends. When the league started there was a promise of home and away games. When they started doing homestead weekends in season 2 i thought it was a great way to test out away games because it was going to be technologically challenging no doubt. After they announced homestead weekends for the entirety of season 3… and they still aren’t really talking about it, my assumption is this is what they had planned for all along. Not the “every game has a home team and away team” that was promised, and also not the magical “7th member on the team” that casters keep talking about. What was worse about how they set it up is that it wasn’t even equal… I think originally Dallas had the most scheduled at around 7 homesteads, other teams had 3. If the 7th man is truly an advantage, that is a ridiculous advantage you are giving to one team. And if Dallas makes most of their money off these homestead weekends (again we don’t know how that money is split either), then they are also going to be making more money in general than other teams so it is a twofer. Part of the reason this was done, I suspect, was to alleviate issues that players had with traveling on a daily basis, which is a legit concern. But MLB already solved this problem like 80 years ago, why are they trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist? You can fix this by doing one of two things. 1) you could make it so teams play the same team 2 times every weekend and they only visit each team once, twice if they are in the same division. 2) Make sure when you bring in teams they are paired off in locality… LA & LA is a good example… If you Have NYC going to play LA Valiant, they hit up Valiant one day and Gladiators the next day. The next LA trip they do San Francisco and Valiant, the third trip is SF and Gladiators. This is easy peasy stuff to work around and I’m surprised Blizzard didn’t think of it. And yes, in addition to that, you increase the number of bye weeks, especially with international travel. Really Europe with only 2 teams presents the biggest challenge to this aspect. They should have had 4. Hell if they had 6/6/6/6 in each region, they would be in a great position. Even despite their practice attempts, the OWL homestead was riddled with technical issues before they ceased it due to COVID. I honestly don’t think these issues will subside without stadiums being built, and to date only Philadelphia has announced plans to do so… and even that I wonder if it will still happen (I think they may also own a CS team so that may be the reason).
  9. Skirmishes. This is a really minor and weird complaint. But am I the only one who thinks it is incredibly weird that teams play each other mid-season for practice? I remember when NFL teams used to do pre-preseason skirmishes between other teams and this practice stopped for several reasons… The primary reason… it offered a free preview on how to play other teams. It’s basically a scouting opportunity, which in a competitive landscape is a really bad idea. At least in the NFL it was before the season started and a lot of the times it was third or 4th string players. Well Overwatch League does it all season long with first stringers. Like seriously wtf. I know one problem OWL has is that they need another competitive team to play against… it’s too bad they don’t have a minor league team associated with them that they could play against… that would work better honestly. Yes you would have potentially players with less talent playing against players with more talent, but that happens a lot in major sports teams. They often pit second string against first in practice, not first on first (they do that too for the record). You might think, well you don’t get as much from them if you don’t get equivalent level of competition, and to a degree you are correct. But you sacrifice the practice almost completely if you can’t use real tactics in practice because the other team is actively scouting you while you do it. You are actually better to practice real tactics against lessor talent. Than no tactics against equivalent talent. Also it helps practice the minor league team and helps you find those gems in the minors that might mesh better with your team.

So I want to end this by saying that I don’t think all is lost. My assumption at this point is that season 4 will be played with Overwatch 2, which may provide some much needed fixes to how games are played all the way around provide new energy to the game. My hope is that with that stuff like the hero pool and 2-2-2 will go by the wayside as well as a better balance between characters. Hopefully some lessons get learned. Unfortunately, many of the issues noted above, are doomed to be continued… Hopefully, if OWL does fail, other games won’t point at it as a reason not to do location based teams, because it’s a good idea. This league is just poorly implemented. And I for one, am done watching unless major (positive) changes occur.