When the Overwatch League was announced at BlizzCon 2016, responses ranged from cautious optimism to disbelief. Blizzard were trying to do things right. It seemed that the video game giant was finally willing to put their full weight behind an esport, something fans had practically been begging them to do since the StarCraft: Brood War days. On paper, the high-budget, location-based league could be a game-changer for esports; something that has never been done on this scale before.
Blizzard has stated that the OWL will be launching this year, and we’ve been hearing reports that it’s supposed to be slated for Q3.
As time rolls on, though, I’m getting more and more nervous about its success. Each day that passes without concrete information, I slide more and more into the camp of Overwatch League doubters.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still hopeful. I want the OWL to succeed. I love Overwatch and think it has a lot of potential as an esport. I’m just not convinced it won’t be dead in the water.
Where’s the information?
Blizzard has been remarkably tight-lipped about the details surrounding the Overwatch League. Here are the things we know for sure:
- There will be localized teams around the world.
- Teams will be franchised, guaranteeing permanent spots.
- There will be revenue sharing.
- Players will receive guaranteed salaries, much like Riot Games’ LCS.
- Activision Blizzard president and CEO Bobby Kotick is telling investors they’re aiming for revenues similar to that of the NBA or NFL.
- Blizzard is actively looking for potential owners to buy into the league, both endemic and outside.
- A new division within Blizzard has been formed to manage Overwatch esports.
- Overwatch League will launch in 2017
For such an enormous project that’s expected to launch in just a few months, that’s not a lot of concrete information. Blizzard has never been known as a company that’s particularly transparent about what they’re working on, but the Overwatch League isn’t an upcoming anticipated game (or HD remake like StarCraft: Remastered). It’s an esports league that requires fans and teams alike to be ready for when things drop.
Not providing important information doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Sure, we’ve heard rumors. Reports have come from ESPN that OWL will be based in North America. A slide from a Blizzard presentation showed off “example” cities for Overwatch League. But still nothing concrete to dig our teeth into.
The creeping doubts remain
On Thursday, Yahoo Esports received an official statement from Blizzard about the state of the Overwatch League. Within it, Blizzard did a few things. First, there’s the insistence that the team is carefully trying to build the OWL from the ground up and isn’t going to be ignoring endemic esports orgs while doing so. Second, the statement questions reports from anonymous sources about the state of OWL planning.
That second point is damage control. In the face of escalating rumors, Blizzard needs to gain control of the message. And by planting doubt in the minds of the public in the reports coming out of a variety of sources, they’re working to bring it back. The questioning of the press doesn’t feel particularly great, but I can understand what Blizzard is trying to do.
Ensuring investment into the Overwatch League is all about perception, and Blizzard is fully aware of that. They’re trying to keep what’s truly going on behind the scenes under wraps while maintaining a positive public image. Succeeding in that is going to be key in the coming months for OWL’s success. It’s just not clear that they’re pulling it off.
While I’m sure Blizzard has had the Overwatch League in rapid development since its announcement last year, the fact that they’re just announcing the new division in charge of Overwatch esports now is cause for concern. It may not actually be an issue, but it doesn’t look great in terms of optics. Why take this long to announce something that’s been going on for a while, especially just a few months before the League is set to kick off?
With the hunt for owners willing to buy into such an allegedly expensive league underway, endemic esports organizations seem to be getting scared off. Plus, the lack of details about when the OWL starts up and how domineering over the competitive space it will be has resulted in third party tournament organizers hesitating to put together competitions. Outside of Overwatch APEX over in Korea, very few LANs remain for teams in the West to compete in.
As a result, Western esports organizations are stepping away from the game. Just this week, Splyce, Team SoloMid, and compLexity have all dropped their Overwatch teams, which could be a result of the rumors surrounding the potentially sky-high costs of a spot in the OWL. There’s a solid chance that esports organizations that don’t have the backing of traditional sports money will be less likely to pay the high price for a spot in the league.
Granted, Blizzard likely isn’t aiming for the relatively low budgets of esports orgs. To fund the high budget of the OWL, they need to be looking for the big fish of NBA and NFL teams. To make back the money they’re allegedly looking to set up and run the Overwatch League, they’re going to need viewers and sponsors. Those will only come from attracting some proper household team names. And those names don’t exist in esports yet, I’m sorry to say.
It all comes down to one big question: Will Blizzard and those who buy into the OWL make their investments back? Everyone involved has the potential to lose a lot of money, and we don’t have any evidence in esports that a franchise system will even work. There are a lot of factors to the money issue, not the least of which is whether or not the huge audience necessary to sustain such a league will be available.
Keeping the faith
I don’t want to be entirely doom and gloom. I believe there is a path for Blizzard to pull this thing off. Whether that be lowering the cost of a spot in the OWL or managing to convince big money players to get in at its current cost, they have the tools to pull it off. If they can fill the Overwatch League with worthy investors, the promise of guaranteed salaries and high-profile exposure from such a massive undertaking will draw big name players. The steps are laid out for Blizzard.
But they’ve got to be careful with the way they handle their public perception. By either casting doubt regarding independent journalism or simply neglecting to release enough information, Blizzard is allowing outside rumors to rule the day. And that could hurt them in the long run. Something needs to change, and soon.
Overwatch is on the precipice of something very interesting and potentially game-changing for esports. Now it’s just about whether or not Blizzard can figure out how to make it happen.
Follow Taylor Cocke on Twitter @taylorcocke.