Saturday, 2 May 2020

Primal Rage: The Overwatch League Must Take Responsibility & Action Towards Its Recent Esport Exodus & Decline

The Overwatch League received its biggest blow a few days ago when its reigning league MVP Jay "Sinatraa" Won announced his retirement to join esports organisation Sentinels, as part of their Valorant roster. The league's western face and star player, retired before his MVP skin was even released into the game and he joined the Dallas Fuels aKm and Unkoe's likely retirement from the league this week alone. The same week that the Dallas Fuel's academy team pulled out of Overwatch Contenders North America and the Paris Eternal closed their academy team down. They aren't the first to make their respective moves and are unlikely to be the last. The current state of professional Overwatch looks to be in shambles and its on the Overwatch League and those behind it's heads alone. The Overwatch League is not dead as an esport but it must take both action and responsibility.

When the Overwatch League announced that 2020 was the year that the Overwatch League was going ahead with its globalisation plan, it instantly became their make or break year. With each team planned to host at least two games in their home cities, the planning and coordination required were immense. The league needed to cover every aspect associated with the esport scene accounted for and prepared to run as smoothly as possible. While the current ongoing pandemic has added to the problems that the league faced, it is not the reason the Overwatch League seems to be in a worrying spot. The blame for this lands squarely on their own shoulders, as the problems that the league currently face have been ongoing for a year at the very least. The league has failed when they tried to fix around issues instead of addressing the main problem, both with Overwatch as a game and the league itself.

It is hard to pick one place over the last year or so to start with, but the game's development, in particular, its meta during this period seems like the best place to start. The lengths and apparent inability to balance the game has been a problem since the end of Dive in 2018. While most games have regular meta changes that keep the game fresh and entertaining, meta's in Overwatch have lasted nine months to a year in the case of Goats. The development teams struggle to move away from Goats resulted in Role Lock which effectively destroyed not only the composition creativity that competitive Overwatch has been known for but the passion of a lot of professional players across the tiers. This was then taken further with the developers patchwork attempt to introduce hero bans in Hero Pools, which has caused additional problems to compositions, due to a need to create their own version instead of the reliable pick and ban phases used across multiple different esports and has taken 2 months to find the best solution. Which involved the mistake of not having the same hero pool for high rankings and OWL until May 1st.

Their inability to properly balance Overwatch has had a knock-on effect to the scenes viewership levels but it's not the only reason that the league's viewership numbers have tumbled. The 2018 Overwatch League's opening weekend came around, the levels of excitement were high. Having had four seasons of OGN's Overwatch Apex, ESL's Battle of The Atlantic and other tournaments in its build-up.  The Overwatch League was set  up perfectly and prospered in seeing the games best players from around the world competing against each other. With a reported 2 year $90 million broadcast deal with Twitch and saw a peak of 425k people tune in to watch the first games was a promising start. While this naturally declined, the league found its footing with a promising mark between 120k to 180k. With the grand finals reaching 1.1 million average audiences.

However, while 2019 managed to maintain an average audience of 100k the numbers slowly began to decline towards the end of the season and Role Lock's introduction, that was meant to invigorate the game and help balance the meta, failed to do so. Although the 2019 Grand Finals reached an average 1.12 million, they would be numbers that the league haven't reached in 2020. When the leagues deal with Twitch ended, Blizzard secured a streaming deal with YouTube reportedly worth $160 million for Call of Duty's CoD League, the Overwatch League and professional Hearthstone for three years. Since then the league's numbers have dropped further. While the CDL had a low number that has progressively improved, the Overwatch League now averages 36k and shows no signs of improving, unless the league reintroduces their League Pass. Although the VODs of each week has had promising numbers and will have advertising revenue, the Overwatch League's live viewership numbers compared to other top tier esports is lacking, to say the least.

The league's viewership numbers are not the only sign of professional Overwatch's fall from grace. Their management of its tier two scene has been one of the least impressive I have seen in recent memory. The introduction of academy teams was announced at the same time as Overwatch league and was meant to provide a pathway for players who unjustly missed out the first time around, players who developed into league ready players over time and those who weren't old enough but would be in the future. Of the leagues 20 teams, 17 have at one point or another held an academy roster. While some were stopped due to poor management (looking at you Houston) the vast majority of academy teams attempted to follow the above and produce talent for the league. In its core, it was something that was working well especially with the likes of Atlanta Academy pushing players into the Overwatch League. However, the league's lack of promotion and funding towards those academy teams, meant that 13 of those 17 academy teams are now out of action, with the biggest blow being the withdrawal of Envy by the Dallas Fuel this week. The lack of tier two support has seen several players already declare for Valorant, which is only in its beta stage. The lack of funding and support towards Contenders is one of the scene's biggest needs to address.

Finally, it brings us around the current ongoing situations, which the league have failed to truly address. The total collapse of the Vancouver Titans has been one of the most embarrassing spectacles I have seen regarding a team with such a high standing in any of the tier one sports in a long time. A team who picked up the core of RunAway, the most anticipated team to enter the Overwatch League, the 2019 stage 2 winners and Grand Final runners up. Have seen problems between the organisation going back at least five months, came to a head the last two weeks when the entire playing roster and coaching staff removed all mention of the Vancouver Titans from their social media and then led to their starting Off-Tank Jjanu and head coach Pijon leaving the roster. While it is expected that the entire roster and staff are expected to leave, the league has not once addressed the situation, one that has such a vast impact on the entire landscape of the scene and has seen the Titans go from heroes to villains in a little over a year. While there has been radio silence from the league relating to this, they have handled other public relation scenarios just as badly. The way they presented themselves during the offseason in a public spat between on-screen talent who decided to move elsewhere looked amateurish at times and while they haven't said the word regarding the situation regarding the Titans, they have been quick to fine players some players for using what they deem inappropriate language but not others. The inconsistency and lack of transparency in relation to these situations is disappointing and you would expect to see the league take a more interactive approach that you would see in other esports.

While I've ranted about what I feel needs to be corrected upon, I in no way feel as if the Overwatch League is in trouble during the short term but if they want to be the serious long term global esport they pitched they were in it's earlier days, then they need to address these situations. 

(You can find more Overwatch League & Overwatch Contenders related content on Twitter @haloofthoughts
(Picture Credit: The Overwatch League0

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