2017 will be, as every year has for the past decade, a landmark for esports. More money, more players, more attention, more games, and more competition than ever before... again. Overwatch is going to be a huge part of this, if Blizzard have their way, and the central part of that is the Overwatch League. Announced at BlizzCon 2016, it’s the official competitive scene for the game with some seriously large goals in mind.
For the future of the game itself, check our constantly updated list of Overwatch future plans.
There’s a lot of different parts to this, so we’ve broken it up into sections below, which you can skip to using these links:
This is the question on everyone's lips, minds, and other appendages – when does this whole thing kick off? Despite it being announced at BlizzCon 2016, Blizzard haven't been forthcoming with details on the League, or how it will operate, and many who expected things to move quickly are learning just how fine those big blue gears like to grind.
The only tidbit we've had was a quote from Mike Morhaime as part of the Activision Blizzard investor call for Q4 2016, where he mentioned that the first combine – the event where players show off to prospective teams – would still take place in 2017. It was also mentioned that they were planning to "start the process" of assigning teams and franchising, which seems like something that should have begun a while ago. The Q1 2017 financial call made a similar promise that the League was still due in 2017.
Doubtlessly, there will be more soon, but Overwatch League is looking more and more like a 2018 project as time goes on. Morhaime also answered a question reconfirmed this in response to a question, saying there would be more to share in the "coming months."
The Overwatch Contenders season zero tournament, a pre-cursor to the pre-cursor to OWL, took place during June. Season one is due to start in August, with an American and European division each giving out money and, presumably, seeding into whatever form the first season of OWL takes.
The first seven teams have been announced. The cities and their owners are as follows:
The announcement trailer above and official site have given some fairly clear indications of what Blizzard want out of the Overwatch League, how it will be structured, and the big differences (and similarities) between it and things like the League of Legends LCS system.
City-based structure with franchises
This is the biggie, really – Overwatch teams will be based around cities, much in the same way NBA, NFL, or soccer teams are. In fact, those sports teams are exactly who Blizzard want to own the Overwatch squads. The aim is to, eventually, have a local team for major cities throughout the world, from LA to London, Seoul to Shanghai. They’ll be as relevant and valuable to that city as a well-performing major sports franchise.
What this also means is that there’s unlikely to be relegation from the league. Teams may move city, dump most of their players between seasons, or generally restructure, but they won’t ever be removed – the Golden State Warriors didn’t make the NBA playoffs for 12 years in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, now they’re one of the strongest teams of all time. That’s the ebb and flow that’s wanted.
Exactly how this works in 2017 is still a little up in the air. Don’t expect mid-tier teams and smaller cities to immediately have partnerships up and running while the system is still developing. It might be years before Overwatch League has a sizable presence in the US, Europe, Korea, and APAC, but that’s the endgame.
Regular broadcasts, plus a “primetime game”
Once you’ve got your teams and your game, you need to get it to the people. Obviously, a large amount of this will be through Twitch, YouTube, and other online video broadcasts in a traditional manner. However, the pull of TV and other paid-for platforms is strong, in terms of money to be made and developing a reliable ecosystem.
In that regard, there’s mention of a “standalone primetime matchup between top teams” as part of the broadcast schedule. Speculation is that this will be an Eleague-style national broadcast, using the Sunday Night Football formula of having a “big game” as the focus of all international broadcasts at that time. It’s even possible it won’t be available for free at all.
Players taken from a global talent pool
Also mentioned on the announcement site is plans for teams to be constructed from a global pool of talent. While some readings of this suggest existing teams would be dissolved to run a draft, that’s not a realistic scenario that team owners, players, viewers, or anyone else is going to be happy about. More likely, this confirms that there will be no region locking, and that creating future teams or adding players to a team will have a more formal process.
In late June 2017, Blizzard began the process of actually forming this talent pool with a letter sent to all of the game's best players – the top 500 from each region with more competitive leanings, as well as any players that had done well in the limited tournaments so far. This letter asked for various pieces of information, as well as confirmation that those pros were interested in taking part on the Overwatch League. The intention was to build a big pool for the first draft.
Solid contracts and a plan to go from amateur to pro
The other half of that is making sure players are treated fairly. Blizzard specifically mention contracts several times, wanting players to have salaries rather than relying on winnings or other deals. They also outline how the best ladder players will compete in online tournaments, then attend combines – essentially proving grounds – to show their worth to prospective teams. This is a much more structured process than the normal hope-to-be-noticed system in other esports, though details are thin on the ground what a combine, for example, will actually entail.
Ex-MLG are running the show
The MLG were purchased in full in late 2015 and so they've now been consolidated under the Activision Blizzard banner and will be running the Overwatch League, serving as the "operation foundation, partnership hub, and media production network" for both this and the COD World League. It will retain the MLG name.
Blizzard warn against believing rumours and speculation
After a flurry of stories about NFL teams buying in, endemic esports franchises being unhappy (that is, folks like Fnatic and Evil Geniuses) and the project as a whole having problems, Blizzard issued a statement calling the rumours "unverified and wildly ranging."
They went on to say that "it's important to think twice about statements from unnamed sources who may try to leverage the media to deliberately spread misinformation as bargaining tactics or for other competitive reasons." A co-owner of team Selfless Gaming gave his thoughts just after the statement was released, agreeing with Blizzard's statement.
You can read about the various rumours below and make up your own minds. It's rare that a company (particularly Blizzard) will make such a statement, generally ignoring anything of the sort so as not to give anything away. Something about the Overwatch League changed that – be it money, the rumours themselves, or the people involved.
Blizzard’s official announcements aren’t the only source and much of what they say has implications we can infer. There’s also separate interviews, leaks, and more. Here’s what we’ve gotten from that.
Year one won’t be global, or have home and away games
This is more of a common sense situation. The league hasn’t started yet, and even the combined might of Big Bobby’s Big Wallet and the world’s most skin-hungry community isn’t going to magically produce a world-spanning league within a couple of months. America and Europe will be the focus for early teams, and while they may be based around cities, it’s unlikely they’ll be packing out a stadium every few days to host their rivals. Nate Nanzer, the public face of the league and Blizzard’s global director of Overwatch esports, extrapolated on this in an interview.
The lack of surity and security in the League is beginning to prove a problem for investors, as revealed by the Reunited closing-down AMA. That same AMA revealed that the US focus of the League was proving problematic for EU teams at the moment, forcing them to move to North America.
Blizzard have finished hiring for top positions
As part of that growth, Blizzard needed to hire for the Overwatch League. In fact, when the program was initially announced, they were hiring for all but the most senior positions within the department. See the above screenshot for what we mean, all of which have now disappeared and been filled.
This includes a fairly huge effort for editorial content focused on the Overwatch League, much like the LoL esports site does for Riot’s game. This was mentioned in the explanatory trailer embedded above, and will presumably operate out of the Overwatch League website. Currently, Blizzard are hiring for just two positions in the League.
Teams are going to be funded by the billionaires behind large sports franchises
With the news of teams like Dignitas and Liquid being bought out by major sports franchises – the Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors, respectively – this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. There have been direct moments of contact between these various sports bigwigs and Overwatch teams, plus Blizzard itself. Here’s a tweet from BlizzCon of Bobby Kotick hanging out with NFL top dogs, plus Jack Etienne of Cloud9:
There was a lot of this going on at the show, mostly behind closed doors. A huge esports mixer took place with invites having gone out half to the world’s billionaire investors, and half to team owners. If you’re going to bid for the city of Los Angeles, you’re going to need millions – possibly tens of millions – of dollars. That takes capital esports teams just don’t have, and moving into business with those that do is a natural step across all of esports, not just in Overwatch. Caster and esports veteran Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles expanded on much of this in his video about the Overwatch League, which is well worth a watch.
Beyond this, it's been rumoured several times that the buy-in prices were in the millions. ESPN's sources say $20 million minimum, rising for major cities, while an earlier report from March puts it at $2-5 million for most cities, as high as $15 million for LA. As noted above, Blizzard say these rumours – and especially those that say esports teams are therefore being priced out and major franchises aren't interested in that level of investment – aren't to be believed.
In the Q1 2017 financial call, Kotick said that the full franchising process and announcement of key cities would be happening in the coming months. As a guess, that likely means around August – long enough from BlizzCon for that to still feature some sort of launch event for the League itself.
Shortly afterwards, esports journalist Richard Lewis reported that the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots had bought sports in the League. Lewis' reports on other scenes, particularly League of Legends and CS:GO, have often proved accurate. He has also reported that other franchises have been slow to get in bed with the League.
Outside the game, there’s a lot of work to be done – but the same is true in Overwatch itself. An ecosystem cannot be built around a game without help from the game itself, and these are ideas suggested by the community or we’ve come up with ourselves, mostly inspired by other games, that will help with just that.
Microtransaction revenue share with teams
Be it skins, sprays, or emotes, anything can be customised to represent a team. Gun stickers proved very popular in CS:GO, and every League Worlds team gets their own emote for players to show support in-game. How that’s implemented in Overwatch, especially season by season into the future, is a massive range of possibilities.
The common theme in any game that does this is revenue share. Teams create value for the game by keeping players interested and getting newbies in. Feeding that back adds a new revenue stream for teams – on top of the merchandise, ticket sales, and broadcast rights that the other elements of the league offer – as well as giving players even more reason to stick about.
In-game spectating of pro games
This is, arguably, the best thing Dota 2 has done for its own pro scene, and Heroes of the Storm has a similar system. It isn’t as widely used as you might expect, but what it does allow for is a lot of recognition by your average player as to what is happening on the pro scene. With 25 million players, which must have growth targets in the hundreds of millions, that’s a lot of eyeballs you want to be giving the best possible chance of getting invested in esports. This can also work cross-platform once the spectator system is implemented fully.
That’s the info we have so far on the Overwatch League, but there’s likely to be far more popping up as we head towards BlizzCon.