2018 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. 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:
"Preseason play will start on Wednesday, December 6, with a series of exhibition matches featuring all 12 teams," explains the official press release. These will be played at the Blizzard Arena, along with all other Overwatch League games for the first season.
The season proper begins on January 10, with a full schedule of games available over on the official site, or schedules for each team on our team pages linked below. Each team will play two matches a week, in a four-game set on a collection of maps that is locked in for a full season.
The season is split into four stages of five weeks each, with a week's break between each one. The end of each stage has a title match for a batch of cash, and helps to split the season up a bit.
Overwatch League playoffs
These will take place between July 11 and July 28 and form the end of the season, including the grand finals. They will take place away from the Los Angeles Blizzard Arena that is hosting the other Overwatch League games, possibly on a different continent to appeal to international fans.
To qualify for the playoffs, teams have to either win their division or have one of the six best records overall.
Overwatch League all-star game
While little is known about this as of yet, it's scheduled to happen after the season proper finishes between August 10 and August 12, and is meant as a more casual celebration rather than serious competition. More information is expected to be released in the near future
With every team and roster now finalised for the inaugural season, we've split them off into individual articles to showcase team skins, players and more. Here's the list:
- Atlantic Division
- Boston Uprising
- Florida Mayhem
- Houston Outlaws
- London Spitfire
- New York Excelsior
- Philadelphia Fusion
- Pacific Division
As for future teams, a rumoured 13th squad based in Chicago, USA and owned by FlyQuest was also on the table, but doesn't seem to have made it to the first season. Needing an even number of teams to break things down properly, Blizzard likely want to expand the League before season two rather than try to force it now. With more European and APAC teams required to form proper divisions in those regions for true international competition, there will be plenty of expansion opportunity.
Blizzard have also announced some rules about how teams can be formed, in combination with the contract rules laid out below.
- Rosters are between six and 12 players.
- There are no region locks on who can be employed where, hence why the London-based team has a squad solely comprised of Korean superstars.
- Player housing and training facilities will be provided by teams, and they will be up to a standard set by Blizzard.
- Players under the age of 18 can sign contracts and practice, but cannot play in games until they turn 18.
Overwatch League skins
Each team are getting their own pair of shaders - one home, one away - for use in games. Blizzard have said that they're working on a way for players to show their support. Whether that will be individual skin drops or a different shader system remains to be seen.
Overwatch League app
Announced during the panel at BlizzCon 2018, there will be a dedicated mobile app for watching and keeping track of the Overwatch League. It will essentially be a portal to everything you could possibly need to know, and is due to debut with the start of the league itself.
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.
In season one, this hasn't come to fruition yet. 12 teams represent mostly the USA, with only a single team from Europe, China and Korea each. It might be years before Overwatch League has a sizable presence in the US, Europe and APAC, but that’s the endgame.
However, the up-shot of this is that those teams that have signed must create new brands for their Overwatch League team. Hence why each has a new name, new social channels, and new branding. What this will allow for Blizzard is sale of franchises between different owners if necessary.
50/50 revenue split with teams
A sports league has to be valuable to two parties: those who own it and those who take part. Money is made from "media rights and consumer products" as ActiBlizz put it, plus sponsorships and in-game merchandise. The plan for splitting it between big blue and the teams is that, once marketing and production costs have been taken off, it'll be even.
On top of this the teams will have their own revenue streams, especially as the system develops. "The more traditional areas like ticket sales and concessions and local sponsorships and local merch sales" said Spencer Neumann in a Q2 2017 earnings call, "but they'll also have more unique opportunities such as the ability to host certain nonprofessional Overwatch matches." This was elaborated on in a blogpost on the Overwatch League site.
As for the in-game merchandise, Nate Nanzer said in an interview with PCGamesN that Blizzard weren't announcing the details yet but "it will definitely be its own thing" as opposed to borrowing the systems of Dota 2 or League of Legends. "I think it will be really exciting to give all Overwatch players the chance to show off in the game who their favourite team is."
Merch and team uniforms were shown off during the Overwatch League panel at BlizzCon 2018. They're due to go on sale at the start of preseason, but in-game items haven't yet been confirmed.
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.
For the first season, it still hasn't actually been announced where you'll be able to watch games. The assumption is it will be free on Twitch, at least for now, but official confirmation is yet to be had. It will be spectactularly difficult to remove free watching once it has been offered, but Eleague and other esports broadcasts have managed to provide free and paid for versions without disrupting viewership too much. This is usually done via having seperate broadcasts for each, with the paid for one featuring many other features besides live gameplay.
Solid contracts and a plan to go from amateur to pro
Blizzard want to make sure players are treated fairly. Here's a summary of the components of player contracts:
- Guaranteed year-long duration, with options to extend.
- $50,000 minimum salary
- Health insurance plan
- Retirement savings plan
- A minimum 50% share of performance bonuses from winning leagues and competitions given to players (so with six players, at least 8.3% each)
- This will amount to $3.5 million in seasone one, between the stage finals, playoffs and grand finals.
Blizzard 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. In fact, they consider anyone who is of-age, eligible to play and owns the game as a free agent. That includes anyone currently on a team, and nothing ties them to that team besides their own legal contracts.
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. They're yet to be announced for season two, and teams for season one were formed simply by backroom discussions between existing pro players and teams.
The first major contract to get a lot of notice was for Sinatraa, who will be playing for the NRG Esports team out of San Francisco. He's making $150,000 a year at 17, something we can all relate to, no doubt. This came about as part of a bidding war, according to ESPN, between Cloud9 and NRG. That's a lot of cash on the line.
Ex-MLG are running the show
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, and it's their player that is hosting all the videos currently on the site. Whether all streams will be run via them as well remains to be seen, but it's entirely possible Blizzard don't want their hands in the fate of Twitch.
It's a long-term project
While the above, along with all the hiring, should be evidence enough for this, Blizzard have said as much themselves. In their Q2 2017 earnings call Spencer Neumann, CFO of Activision Blizzard, said "with the recently-announced sale of seven teams, we do expect some revenue upside to Q4, but it will be modest given the recognition of team sale proceeds over multiple years. Further, from an operating income perspective, the revenue recognition of team sales will be partially offset by the investment required to launch the league including inaugural season marketing.
"As we look ahead to the first season, we see a number of important upcoming milestones, including standing up league operations, supporting team's development of player rosters, attracting sponsors, elevating the viewer experience and securing media distribution. We're investing in this league for the long term. Over time, we expect to recognize additional revenues related to both more team sales and multiple league revenue streams. We see this as a substantial long-term value driver for the business."
For investors, that means they shouldn't be looking at a big W in the green column until a few years down the line. For players and casual viewers, it means that not only is this not going to disappear over night if it doesn't prove successful by the end of 2018, but it will grow. Depending on your opinion on how watchable Overwatch is, that's either going to lead to a massive league, a great slow growth or an incredible, self-multiplying train crash.
Esports brands and traditional sports brands are working together
With the split interest from esports teams and more traditional sports organisations, it's not obvious exactly what each part brings. Nanzer breaks it down between traditional sports being the masters of "building local brands, hosting events, selling local sponsorships and building generational fandom in a location" while esports is more of a global market. All the teams involved have been working with their own traditional sports investors to facilitate their place in the League.
Cloud9 have been working with their internal investors in a similar way, as CEO Jack Etienne explains:
"Cloud9 opened ourselves up to investment last year, end of last year, and we brought on not only traditional sports owners, but several retired and current players, and a host of media-related folks. They are bringing their experience to make sure Cloud9 is properly equipped to handle the challenges of the future.
"One of the largest owners of the Dodgers is a part of the Cloud9 investment team, and I literally speak with those guys on a weekly basis, on how are we going to handle the future and the issues that come up."
With a full list of investors and teams now available, it's clear that every time has some investment partner from outside traditional esports brands. Even Comcast got 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, Europe, SK and China are the focus for early teams, and while they may be named after cities, they won't be packing out a stadium every few days to host their rivals. Nate Nanzer extrapolated on this to us:
"There is a lot that goes into hosting home games right? You have to source a venue, you have to staff it, you have to sell tickets and concessions, you got to figure out how to run a show - there is a tremendous amount of operational capability required to host these home games. We will play the entire season out of a studio in LA [so that] teams have time to build the capability required.
"We hope to start having home and away as soon as possible, we don't have exact timelines to share on that but I know all of our teams are working on that building out those capabilities so they are able to host home games, as soon as possible after the first season."
The lack of surity and security in the League proved a problem for some investors, as revealed by the Reunited closing-down AMA. That same AMA showed that the US focus of the League was proving problematic for EU teams at the time, forcing them to move to North America. As the first season begins timelines for home and away still aren't clear.
Buying in is a high cost, but not unreasonable for esports teams
Rumours have swirled for a long time that getting into the Overwatch League takes a significant amount of investment. Numbers from $2 million to $30 million have been thrown around, though no confirmation has yet been heard. These prices are pointed at the billionaire corporations behind the world's largest sports franchises - hence why men like Robert Kraft and Jeff Wilpon own teams. The latest buy-in rumours say $20 million, which isn't exactly pocket change for average Joe.
However, Cloud9's CEO, Jack Etienne, says it was affordable in mid-2017, even if he wouldn't reveal quite how much it cost. "I’m not going to get into the details of how the deal works, I'll leave that for other folks to reveal. Obviously there is a capital component, and we already have the capital needs in house."
With twelve teams secured and investment from a number of different sectors, clearly it wasn't that hard to convince people the buy-in was worth it. Exact prices have still never been revealed however.
The global structure means higher viewership
Most games run regional structures with a global finals, partly to help with travel costs and partly to stop the Koreans winning everything. Overwatch League, at least to begin with, will operate a little differently, as Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne explained to us in an interview:
"Usually it's regional leagues so the North American vs North American teams, and maybe once or twice a year you will have an international event - but what is special about this is that every single game is an international event. At those international events you see a huge spike in viewership, to put it into comparison most games will have a 10 to 20 times increase in viewership when it is an international event because it's a global audience. So the fact that this is always going to be a global audience [means] I expect the viewership to be very strong."
Exactly how long the non-regional structure will last, as well as whether the same gains will be seen without regional games to compare to, remains to be seen. For C9's London team, they're unlikely to be joined by another squad for some time. Meanwhile LA, for example, has a local rivalry with two teams already set up there.
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.
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 30 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.
For the World Cup finals 2017, Blizzard implemented a huge number of new spectator features that vastly improve the experience. They also added a button on the main menu to go directly to the stream. However, loading that process up fully in-game without leaving the client gives the potential for a lot more views - particularly from console players.
That’s the info we have so far on the Overwatch League, but there’s still some things to announce before and during