Sustaining the Overwatch League
By: Izzy “Noukky” Müller
Note from Jake: I’ve been planning for some time to bring contributing authors to this blog, and Noukky is the perfect one to start that trend. I hope you’ll enjoy this very important piece on the sustainability of the Overwatch competitive scene, I think she has done great work.
“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves”
– Anthony J. D’Angelo
Let’s talk about the term ‘grassroots’. If we think of roots we think of a foundation that gathers resources to let something grow. In esports this foundation is often called the developmental tier, including not only tier 2 but also the amateur scene. One thing you might ask yourself is, ‘what makes the developmental tier so important? Though this article is focused on Overwatch, we will look generally at why the developmental tournament landscape looks so grim right now and explore ideas of what will render it fertile once again.
How did we get to this grim state? Blizzard can’t be reasonably held responsible for specific tournaments cancelled, leagues delayed, or players dropped. Nonetheless, the announcement of the Overwatch League absolutely had a critical impact on the entire Overwatch esports industry.
Unlike other publishers that let the roots of their esports scenes grow naturally over a long amount of time, Blizzard rushed forward announcing the Overwatch League’s development, not even one year after launch. Blizzard was always vocal about Overwatch becoming a successful esport, but what does the OWL mean for other tournaments and their organizers?
Instead of being able to grow naturally, build up brand recognition, and plan for long term goals these organizers have to worry about the possibility of upcoming restrictions and monitoring in a post-OWL world. Blizzard tried to set guidelines for presentation of their product, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, those circumstances made investing into the scene rather unattractive for tournament brands as well as for many esports orgs. This all snowballed into a big pile of uncertainty about the sustainability and stability that a naturally grown circuit would bring. The grassroots scene has been left wondering: “How do I get return on investment?” and “Will my work get taken away? Will there be even a place for me once OWL rolls around?”. Riot did a similar thing after they launched their League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), leaving the organizers that built up their scene for the first 3 years and establishing their own system. The big difference here is the time factor. Whereas the League of Legends circuit had time to grow naturally, Overwatch was in a much less mature state as its definitive league was announced
In a more optimal setting, third party organizers would be able to develop a sustainable tournament circuit by themselves. Bigger events like Gamescom, Dreamhack, and IEM act as anchor points that give smaller organizers the opportunity to fill in the gaps with weekly, monthly and seasonal events. One of the most important things to point out here is: there needs to be a path for aspiring players.
The path for an aspiring player looks something like this: you get into a team, you scrim 2-6 hours a day, and you try to compete. The first thing you need to look for is regular competition. As a newcomer it’s really important to have weeklies so you can get tournament experience under your belt. It’s not even about skill improvement if you get matched against stronger teams, but to learn how to play under pressure and not lose your cool on stream, even if it’s only in front of a few hundred people. These events don’t need to be numerous, but it’s crucial that they are consistent. National events and leagues are a part of this early development spectrum too. As time progresses, these smaller competitions suffer diminishing returns because you increase your level of play in a steady environment. For every player that improves beyond this level of competition, though, another will be quick to take his/her place.
Towards the top, your progress will demand bigger gaps between competitions because scrim time gets more valuable to work on strategy and mechanics. At this point you have graduated to “Mid-Tier” competition. These competitions are still not able to provide a sustainable income for you, but are equally as important as they are the top of the developmental tier. Teams and players start to gain recognition at this point, and it is a big stepping stone on the path to tier 2 competition (I define ‘tier 2’ as the point of self-sustainability). A mix of monthly events, seasonal tournaments, and online qualifiers for bigger events should comprise this tier. They give teams the chance to prove themselves against even harder competition to get on the radar of esport organizations. From this stage onwards, if the team progresses steadily, they count as a good investment for esports orgs. Successful teams, even at this level, aid brand recognition via tournament performance, social media, and on streams as well. There are hardly any tournaments not streamed in this stage. A smooth transition into the tier 2 and pro scenes should be within reach from this stage onwards.
With Overwatch League coming around, a big shuffle will happen and 12 teams with 6-12 players will rise to the highest level of competition. This will leave a large number of lost players that are looking to continue their careers. I am fairly confident that things will fall into place once this shuffle is over. The first thing I would really love to see is Contenders expanding as a regular competition for the semi-professional scene. This alone will not be sufficient; we need the third-party organizers to fill in the gaps between seasons with events too. Due to the uncertainty of the future of the tier 2 scene resultant from the OWL announcement, Blizzard needs to work proactively with these third party organizers to create a self-sustainable circuit so players will have a clear career path once again. Blizzard could either plan seasons around Dreamhack or similar organizers or preemptively line up tournament organizers for the offseason of Contenders to increase the chance for the scene to thrive. Another big factor is promotion and exposure. Using social media and the game client to promote this tier of events is essential to player and tournament sustainability. If Blizzard intends to run the tier 2 scene alone the Seasons need to be close together with a bigger prize pool than they have right now. In addition to that, an offseason tournament like they do with HGC in Heroes of the Storm will be needed.
With the upcoming team shuffle and the start of Overwatch League, one way to help the scene to gain long term viewership is to create incentives for career fans. The way Blizzard introduced this to Heroes of the Storm on Twitch should be, in some form, replicated into Overwatch. Allowing people to cheer with bits for their favorite teams would be a nice incentive to engage the viewer base that also aids with sustainability.
Starting with the idea of Open Division, what I would like to see is a relegation tournament between the best teams of Open Division and the lowest-ranked of Contenders. This not only creates competition, but also ensures that the players’ work will not be lost in the long run. At this point, we are still not sure about the real path to pro that was advertised because communication in general about Blizzard’s plan for sub-OWL tournaments is rather slim towards the public. If Blizzard has a cohesive plan to solve for sustainability in the tier 2 scene, failing to communicate it ahead of time might do just as much damage as having no plan at all. Tournament organizers will need time to adapt to Blizzard’s vision no matter what it looks like.
Being on a Blizzard broadcast channel or qualifying for a desired tournament are dreams that players should be able to reach with daily hard work. With support from Blizzard, organizations will also realize that this path of competition can be a sustainable part of their business. Fresh talents that work their way up from the amateur scene to the top of Contenders and get the chance to tryout for the big Overwatch League teams are potential good investments. Without certainty that the path exists, organizations will have a hard time making the original investment in these potential pros. Without the grassroots, there can be no springtime bloom.