Overwatch League

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Overwatch League
Current season, competition or edition:
Current sports event 2018 Overwatch League season
Overwatch League logo.png
Sport Overwatch
Founded 2017
Owner(s) Blizzard Entertainment
Commissioner Nate Nanzer
No. of teams 12
Countries
Related
competitions
Overwatch Contenders
Official website overwatchleague.com

The Overwatch League (abbreviated as OWL) is a professional eSports league for the video game Overwatch, developed and fully controlled by Blizzard Entertainment. The Overwatch League aims to follow the model of traditional North American professional sports, using a set of permanent, city-based teams and regular season play, rather than the use of promotion and relegation used commonly in other eSports leagues. Each team franchise is backed by an owner and tied to a major city, and players that are signed onto the team are assured a minimum annual salary, benefits, and a portion of winnings and revenue-sharing based on how that team performs in the season.

The League was announced in November 2016, and the first twelve teams were established within the next year. The first season started regular season play in January 2018, to run through June 2018, followed by post-season playoffs and an All-Star weekend to occur in July. A total prize pool of US$3.5 million is available to teams within the first season.

Format[edit]

The Overwatch League is owned by Blizzard Entertainment, and run under the Major League Gaming organization (which is also owned by Blizzard's parent company, Activision-Blizzard).[1] The Overwatch League plays out similar to most North American professional sports leagues, in which all teams play scheduled games against other teams to vie for position in the season's playoffs, rather than the approach of team promotion and relegation more commonly used in other eSports leagues.[2] The League currently features twelve teams.

In its inaugural season, a series of pre-season games were played in December 2017, regular season games planned from January to June 2018, and then a playoff for the championship scheduled for July 2018. All games in the first season will take place at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, with capacity for 450 spectators.[3]

For the first season, the main season is made up of four 5-week long stages, with three matches played four days a week (Wednesday through Saturday) and a ten-day break between stages. Each team will play 40 normal matches during the season; 20 against teams in their division, and 20 from outside their division. At the end of each stage is a playoff based on the teams' performances in that stage for a solitary winner of that stage for a prize of $125,000.[4] Teams are also paid out based on their overall standings at the end of regular season play, ranging from US$25,000 to US$300,000 within the first season.

The post-season is based on teams' performance across all regular games across all stages of the season. The top team of each division get an automatic bye into the post-season, while the top four teams across both divisions have a play-off match before facing off in the semi-finals and finals. The winning team will receive $1 million, and with the total prize pool across all stages and finals totaling $3.5 million.[4]

Player eligibility and benefits[edit]

While Overwatch is played in teams of six, League teams can have up to six additional players that can be swapped between matches.[5] A team's membership is locked at the start of the season, with a mid-season signing period allows teams to bring in new players or trade players between teams.[5] Currently, the League is not region-locked, so teams can use players of any nationality to fill their ranks, as long as the team ownership is based in that city or region. For example, the London Spitfire at the onset of the first season was entirely made up of South Korean players. The only restriction on players is to be of at least 18 years old and ability to travel internationally.[6]

Overwatch League players, while on a team's contract, are paid an annual salary. In the first year, a player's salary was a minimum of US$50,000 set by the League. Additionally, the League offers players with health and retirement benefits, as well as housing and training support. Blizzard required team owners to provide the signed players with bonuses representing at least 50% of the team's winnings and revenue.[7] Players can negotiate for larger amounts with their team's owners and larger portion of the bonus revenue-sharing from tournament winnings and other income. For example, Jay "sinatraa" Won secured the League's highest salary of US$150,000 for his spot on the San Francisco Shock, along with a 50% share of the team's bonuses.[8]

Players are expected to follow a code of conduct set by Blizzard while playing and representing the League, and may face suspension and fines for violating these, in addition to any penalties the team itself may impose.[9] A noted incident shortly after the League's launch saw Dallas Fuel's Félix "xQc" Lengyel suspended by the League for four games and fined US$2,000 for making comments about another player that were deemed homophobic; the Dallas Fuel further suspended him for the remainder of the first Stage of play.[10] Following additional conduct violations in the second stage that led to further suspension, xQc was let go by the Fuel.[11] Players, as part of their benefits, receive media training to help with speaking to the press and public about their roles, an issue that has been a problem in previous organized eSport systems.[12]

Overwatch Open and Overwatch Contenders[edit]

Professional teams in the League are given the opportunity to scout for new players through two additional competitive leagues run by Blizzard.

The "Overwatch Open" division, first started in June 2017, allows amateur teams pulled from the best players in the game's normal competitive mode (those that qualify at the end of the game's competitive season into top two tiers) to compete in a structured season and post-season format with intra-regional matches. Players that complete all non-playoff games for their team can earn a small amount of credit to Blizzard's digital storefront, while regional winning teams can earn higher prize payouts. The Open division is played across seven different regions: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North America, Latin American Spanish Speaking Countries, Brazil, Australia/New Zealand, and Southeast Asia.[13]

Teams can then move up from the Open Division into the Overwatch Contenders league, considered a minor league to the Overwatch League. The Contenders League was used to bring existing regional tournaments (Overwatch Apex for South Korea, Overwatch Premier Series for China, and Overwatch Pacific Championship for other Asian-Pacific countries) under the same banner and expand out to other regions, specifically adding North America and European series to bring a total of five regions. Teams that participate can be amateur or sponsored teams, and the tournament's structure is similar to the Overwatch World Cup events, including a structured cash-payout for highest-placing teams in each region.[14] The 2018 Contenders season will see the addition of two new regions, Australia and South America. Further, within 2018, the top eight teams from the Open division within each region will be invited to a Contenders Trials, to take place in a promotion-relegation tournament at the end of a Contenders season for the chance to compete in the next Contenders season.[15]

Rules[edit]

Overwatch is a six-versus-six team-based first-person shooter video game. Broadly, the goal is to work with team members to eliminate or repel opponents while attacking, defending, or competing for an objective. Players select from the game's roster of more than 25 heroes, each with their own pre-designed set of weapons and skill kits, though each player on a team must play a unique hero. A player can switch to an available hero if they are eliminated prior to respawning, or if they return to their current spawn point, which allows for teams to adjust their composition dynamically based on the current situation.

Within League play, a regular season match features two teams (one selected as the home team, the other as the visiting team) playing at least four games, with each game featuring a predetermined map type, following the same gameplay format as with normal competitive mode in Overwatch. The League uses only both Control maps, played on a best-of-three rounds, and Assault, Escort, and Hybrid maps, with each team having at least one chance as the attacking team. The pool of specific maps from the standard Overwatch rotation are determined at the start of each Stage, allowing the teams to determine their player lineups and strategy while also changing the season's metagame.[16] A team may call in substitutes for players only between games. The team that won the most games wins the match. If teams are tied after four games, a tiebreaker game played on a Control map (which cannot end in a tie) is used to break the tie and determine the match winner. League standings are based primarily on the overall match win/loss record, but ties are broken based on the total game win/loss record; as such, all four games in a match are played even if one team has already secured three wins for the match. Any further ties for tournament placement are broken based first on the head-to-head game win/loss record, then head-to-head match count.

Overwatch League games are played on a custom server controlled by Blizzard; this server is also available to League players for practice skirmishes between games. This version of the game will receive similar updates to the main commercial game, adding new maps and heroes, and altering the various hero abilities based on testing within the Public Test Servers. However, these updates will not be applied immediately as they are for the commercial game, but instead no more frequent than once every six weeks, effectively between the stages of each season, a natural placement according to Nanzer. For example, a late January 2018 patch, which had significant effects on characters like Mercy and thus had potential to upset the metagame, was not applied to the League server until mid-February, at the start of the second stage.[17][18] For matches, each player is provided with an identical desktop computer, monitor, and noise-cancelling headphones to play on to eliminate any handicaps related to computational or graphics processing, but players may use their preferred keyboard and mouse.[19]

History[edit]

Concept[edit]

Overwatch's development started around 2013, near the same time that eSports and spectator-driven video gaming were starting to gain wide popularity due to accessibility of live streaming platforms.[19] However, the game's development was not dedicated towards eSports; according to the lead producer Jeff Kaplan, "it's dangerous to be overly committed to eSport too early in the lifespan of the game" based on past experiences Blizzard had had in eSports, and instead planned any eSports-related goals by observing the game's player community.[20] During Overwatch's beta period, between late 2015 and mid-2016, Blizzard observed that players were already forming ad hoc competitions and tournaments for the game. According to Nanzer, who was Blizzard's global director of research and consumer insights prior to taking on the League's commissioner role, Blizzard considered the potential if they were the ones in charge of setting up these competitions. Nanzer stated: "If we structure a league the right way and put the right investment behind it, we can actually monetize it in a way that’s not too dissimilar from traditional sports."[19] Building from this insight, Blizzard started crafting the basis for the Overwatch League.[19] Part of this included adding competitive features into the main Overwatch game, such as ranked player where skilled players would be able to climb a rankings ladder, allowing them to be noticed by eSport team organizers.[1] In October 2016, Bobby Kotick, CEO of Blizzard's parent company Activision Blizzard, first mentioned the Overwatch League, describing how viewership of user-generated eSports content was around 100 million, exceeding viewership for the professional NFL and NBA games, and saw the potential to provide "professional content" through the Overwatch League to tap into that viewership.[21]

The Overwatch League was formally announced at the November 2016 Blizzcon.[2][22][23][24][25][26][27][28] The announcement stated that the League would feature franchised teams that will hire Overwatch gamers to compete in live arenas and via video streaming. Teams would provide competitors with salaries and benefits and would help "cultivate team and player development".[29][2] Rather than following the format of other eSports that use relegation and promotion as in the League of Legends Championship Series, Blizzard wanted to follow the American model used in more traditional physical sports.[2][30] Kotick believed that "nothing like this has ever really been done before" in eSports.[2][29]

For Blizzard, the costs of running the League would be offset by traditional revenue streams that professional sports league have, such as promotion and advertisement, and physical League merchandise. Kotick also said that due to the digital nature of the eSport, Blizzard can also obtain revenue from virtual League items to fans, and additional sales of Overwatch and other games, and they are able to include more lucrative "over-the-top advertising opportunities that wouldn't exist in traditional sports".[31] Kotick said, just prior to the start of the inaugural season, "It's a ways before you're going to see certain revenue streams, but we're already seeing a lot of traction and enthusiasm from fans."[31]

Buildout[edit]

Blizzard sought out potential team owners, aiming to include teams that were localized to a geographic area. Blizzard believed having such local teams would spark more interest in eSports from spectators and potential sponsors through new activities around supporting their team.[29] A first meeting for prospective team owners was held at Blizzcon 2016 after League's announcement, with New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke among the attendees.[29] During the formulative period, Blizzard hired Steve Bornstein, former president of ABC Sports and CEO of NFL Network, to serve as the company's eSports chair, with particular emphasis on the broadcast and presentation of games played in the Overwatch League.[19]

Blizzard anticipated the Overwatch League will have a seven-figure payoff for the winning team at the end of a season.[30] The first, shortened season of the League was expected to start in Q3 2017, with full seasons starting in 2018, with the League having half-year long seasonal breaks starting in Q4 of that year.[30] Prior to starting the League, Blizzard planned to run a "combine," where players are invited to try out for guaranteed team contracts.[32]

Little information about the League came out of Blizzard following the initial November 2016 announcement, leading to some speculation that the League was having trouble. However, during this time, Blizzard was working behind-the-scenes to engage potential team owners, wanting to hold back as to provide large comprehensive announcements rather than trickles of information.[33] In May 2017, ESPN reported that the League had been having difficulties in signing franchises, which ESPN ascribed to two issues. The first was the high base cost of starting a franchise, starting at $20 million with higher costs in more urban markets like New York City and Los Angeles, and much higher than other eSports league buy-ins. Second, there would be no revenue sharing until 2021, making recovery of the franchise costs difficult.[34] These difficulties lead to a delay for the start of the first season. According to ESPN, once the Kraft Group agreed to support a Boston-based team (later named the Boston Uprising), this had a snowball effect towards establishing of six other teams.[35]

The first seven teams were revealed in July 2017, and additional teams announced in the months following.[36] With its first twelve teams set by mid-December, Blizzard announced that its first season will run from January to June 2018, with a pre-season in December 2017 and a championship tournament in July 2018.[37] A possible thirteenth team, backed by Wes Edens, had been in discussions but missed the deadline for Season 1.[38]

Blizzard announced in September 2017 it had acquired a former facility used by The Tonight Show at The Burbank Studios in Burbank, California which it converted into the "Blizzard Arena", an eSports venue which was initially used for both the Overwatch Contenders and the Overwatch League games, and eventually planned for use by other Blizzard eSports.[39] Having a dedicated arena was seen to help establish the Overwatch League as a more orchestrated event compared to other eSports tournaments, and to better connects players with their fans.[40] Blizzard operated the first Overwatch Contenders in the Blizzard Arena in October 2017 as a means to test the facility's capabilities and make modifications to improve both the players' and audiences' experience in time for the pre-season of the Overwatch League in December 2017.[40]

In July 2017, it was discovered that the Major League Baseball association had issued a trademark dispute for the logo that Blizzard registered for the League, stating in their complaint to the United States Patent and Trademark Office that they felt Blizzard's logo was too similar to their own and may cause confusion.[41] However, no further filings were made by Major League Baseball within the required dispute period, indicating that either the association had decided to drop the dispute, or that the association and the Overwatch League came to an undisclosed understanding to allow the League to continue to use the logo.[42]

Launch[edit]

To support spectating on broadcast and streaming media, Blizzard has implemented cosmetic modifications to the game. Each of the teams have been given a unique color scheme, and character skins with those colors and team names/logos have been added for these matches.[43] Players of Overwatch outside of the League will be able to purchase a character's team skin using tokens, a special in-game currency, added to the game a day before the launch of the first regular season, that will require real-world funds to purchase, but which assures that teams get a portion of the revenue of their team's skins.[44][45] Later, at the start of the second stage for the first season, Blizzard offered players tokens for watching the live broadcast of the games through any of the official channels.[46]

Blizzard has also worked to create an AI-based cameraman that can follow the action of the game as well as select key instant replays.[43] During regular season matches, Blizzard employs a team of about 80 to 100 people to manage the game and its broadcast; this includes on-screen hosts and interviewers, play-by-play announcers or "shoutcasters", "overseers" who use the AI cameraman and monitor a match from several different angles to present the best view for audiences, and broadcasting and technical support.[19] Among those Blizzard has brought on to shoutcast matches include Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, Matt "Mr. X" Morello, and Mitchell "Uber" Leslie.[47] Blizzard released a special Overwatch League app in early January 2018, just prior to the start of the first season, to provide schedules, results, highlights, and other details about the League's progress.[48]

During the first season's pre-season, the games were only streamed through Blizzard's website and through its subsidiary Major League Gaming. Just prior to the launch of the regular season, Blizzard and Twitch established a two-year deal for Twitch to be the sole third-party stream broadcaster for the Overwatch League in the world, excluding China. Twitch will provide these streams in English, French, and Korean, and will incentivize viewers to watch these streams with in-game items for Overwatch.[49] The deal was reported to be worth at least $90 million.[50] On the first day of the inaugural season's playoffs, Disney and Blizzard Entertainment announced a multi-year partnership that would bring the league to ESPN, Disney XD, and ABC, starting with the playoffs and through to all of the following season. This partnership included broadcasting rights to the Overwatch World Cup as well.[51]

Future growth[edit]

Blizzard plans to expand its geographic reach to have more teams, and establish worldwide stadiums and implement home/away team formats with teams travelling between these locations, similar to professional leagues; this approach is not expected to be used until the third season of the League.[37] The permanent nature of teams with the Overwatch League, compared to promotion & relegation formats, would give opportunity for team owners to find additional revenue models by running their own stadiums and the merchandising opportunities for these, according to Morhaime.[12] By February 2018, after the conclusion of the first Stage of the inaugural season, ESPN reported that the revenue projections for the League has exceeded its expectations, with some insiders claiming that the League's revenue was four times greater than initially planned; this was in part through its Twitch streaming deal and new advertisers like Toyota and T-Mobile that came on board a few weeks into the League play. Blizzard plans to begin shopping for investors for new teams in March 2018, but because of the higher projections, Blizzard has stated that the franchise fee for new teams in Season 2 will be higher than US$20 million, with some reports giving figures between US$35 to 60 million.[38] While ESPN stated that it should be easy for Blizzard to obtain new American teams, investors for teams from Europe will be more difficult as they tend to look for security and history for investments. ESPN also identified that South Korean investors will not likely be invited, given that their products lack a global distribution, while many of the main Chinese investors already have possible conflicts of interests with other eSports leagues.[38] During its investor calls during May 2018, Blizzard's parent company Activision Blizzard stated that it planning for six new teams for the second season, with two or three based in Europe, and with the new franchise fee raised to US$50 million.[52] By May, Blizzard confirmed that there would be six new teams for the second season, two from North America, two from southeast Asia, and two from Europe and the Middle East.[53]

While the first season saw all players under contract, Blizzard does not rule out the potential for players to form trade unions or to otherwise become free agents; Nanzer says that such decisions would be left to players.[9]

Teams[edit]

Twelve teams, each based in a global city, will compete in the League's inaugural 2018 season. They are divided into two divisions: the Atlantic Division with the American East Coast and European teams, and the Pacific Division with the American West Coast and Asia-based teams.[54][4]

Division[55][4] Team[56] City Owner
Atlantic Division Boston Uprising United States Boston Kraft Group,[57] owner of the New England Patriots[58]
Florida Mayhem United States MiamiOrlando Misfits[58]
Houston Outlaws United States Houston OpTic Gaming, subsidiary of Infinite Esports & Entertainment[59]
London Spitfire United Kingdom London Cloud9[60]
New York Excelsior United States New York City Sterling.VC, the venture capital sister company of the New York Mets[58]
Philadelphia Fusion United States Philadelphia Comcast Spectacor, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers[59]
Pacific Division Dallas Fuel United States Dallas Team Envy[59]
Los Angeles Gladiators United States Los Angeles Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owner of Arsenal F.C., the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche[61]
Los Angeles Valiant United States Los Angeles Immortals[58]
San Francisco Shock United States San Francisco NRG Esports[58]
Seoul Dynasty South Korea Seoul Gen.G, formerly KSV eSports, a San Francisco-based group led by former Kabam CEO Kevin Chou[58][61]
Shanghai Dragons China Shanghai NetEase, Chinese internet company and Blizzard regional partner[58]

Seasons[edit]

2018 season[edit]

Pre-season play for the inaugural season began on December 6, 2017. The official season began January 10 and will continue through the finals in July 2018. Teams played at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, though Blizzard hopes that teams will eventually travel to compete in each other's home cities in future seasons.[59] Intel and HP were the league's first sponsors, in multiyear agreements including the provision of HP gaming computers and Intel processors.[62] After the first week, Blizzard announced that Toyota was a sponsor, with the car company providing support and running contests for viewers, in exchange for advertising space during matches and in Blizzard Arena.[63]

After the second week of play, Blizzard made a change to the order of maps played in a match based on player and viewer feedback. Originally, the four games were played in order of Escort, Assault, Control, and Hybrid. During the first two weeks, some matches had entered 2-1 into the final Hybrid map, but due to the nature of this map type, it is very easy to achieve ties compared to the other map types, which significantly reduces the chances of the losing team entering this last map of being able to tie the match; this also makes for unexciting conclusion to a match for viewers. Starting in the season's 3rd week, Blizzard swapped the Escort and Hybrid map order, with Escort maps less likely to end in a tie and to make for more tense finales.[64]

Viewership of the first night of play through the English broadcast of Twitch reached over 415,000 viewers, while never dropping below 285,000 once play started, exceeding typical Twitch viewership numbers; additional viewers not included in this include those watching the other language broadcasts on Twitch, and MLG's own streaming media.[65] Blizzard reported that over the first week, over 10 million viewers across all streaming formats watched League play, and that the Blizzard Arena was sold-out all four days of the week.[66] According to Kevin Chou, the CEO of KSV Esports which manages the Seoul Dynasty, the owners had considered consistent viewership over 50,000 during regular system to be a success for their investments.[67]

Reception[edit]

Some commentators observed that of the more than 100 players selected for teams for the first season, none of them were female.[68][69] Some noted the absence of Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, a teenage South Korean female player who is recognized as one of the highest-skilled Zarya players and who was the first female to play in the Overwatch APEX league.[70] During the press day event prior to the start of the season, teams acknowledged they had considered signing on Geguri but noted issues with such an action. The Houston Outlaws said that there would have been a language barrier issue with her potential teammates, and complications related to co-ed housing for teams. The team also claimed that if they had brought her on board, there would have been issues from external commentators about whether it was a press stunt or an otherwise legitimate reason, and the nature of this legitimacy would shadow her career. Other teams like the London Spitfire and the New York Excelsior had looked to Geguri as a free agent but in the end desired to work from an established set of players that had already worked in leagues in the past. Team owners recognized that they want to make the player roster more diverse, but this in part requires making the community around Overwatch less toxic and more inviting.[70] Nanzer also said he would like to see further diversity in players in the League, but was aware that there are cultures where there is a social stigma against professional video game players that can be a barrier to achieve this.[9] By mid-February, during the Season 1 free agency window, Geguri was signed on by the Shanghai Dragons, making her the first female player in the League.[71]

Additional concerns were raised following several League-issued fines and suspensions issued against a number of players based on their conduct. Journalists found that some players carried over the toxic nature from their days as YouTube or Twitch broadcasters, in which players would often routinely ridicule their opponents; many of the fines and suspensions follow from similar behavior displayed at the League level. The Overwatch player base outside of the League has also had issues of toxicity, which Blizzard has been trying to handle through better reporting tools. In addition to requiring the League players to follow the code of conduct, Blizzard is also watching how these players behavior on off-League broadcasts, and will fine players if they engage in toxic or inappropriate behavior even if not part of a League session.[72][11][73] Some of this poor behavior had concerned at least one of the League's sponsors, HP Inc., since the behavior becomes associated with their brand, though such problems were not unique to eSports, according to HP product manager John Ludwig.[74]

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