Sinisa Bucan, November 7, 2016

Is Overwatch League a Game Changer?

The phenomenon of esports is huge. The number of viewers rises exponentially every year, the production value of events gets better and better, and more and more people are attempting to get into the professional gaming business. However, despite all of the undeniable growth esports is experiencing, is it really comparable to traditional sports? In the most fundamental way, yes. It’s a competition between two teams or two players that people can watch. But in many other aspects, it’s not even close.

That shouldn’t be a surprise or a knock against esports. The fact of the matter is that gaming as a whole is still in its infancy, and esports is quite literally a newborn. Traditional sports have had decadeseven centuries—to work out the kinks and come into their own. We are only starting to see that evolution take place in esports, which is really exciting.

What is so different about traditional sports when compared to esports? Mostly it’s about stability; pretty much everything is standardized, and all of the rules are in place. Being an athlete is a legitimate career choice, which doesn't necessarily apply to esports. In fact, a lot of esports careers only span for a couple of years. Games are constantly evolving with patches, balance changes, expansions, new characters, weapons, and maps. If you can’t continually adjust, you’re out. Negotiating a contract is even harder.

Overwatch League is an Attempt to Introduce Stability

Last week, Blizzard announced the Overwatch League at BlizzCon. We don’t have many details about it yet, but the goal is to combine Blizzard’s esports know-how with “the best practices of time-honored traditional sports.” The dream is to turn the relatively unstable “occupation” of a professional esports player into a fully-fledged career, while also creating “fans for life.”

Each team in the Overwatch League will represent a major city. Over time, Blizzard is planning to set up Overwatch League teams across the Americas, Europe, China, Korea, and the Asia-Pacific region in order to create a truly global esports culture. Fans would be able to root for their team no different from Manchester United or Chicago Cubs fans. This is why I think that associating teams with cities is a brilliant idea. People will be able to relate far more to a team from their hometown, state, or country rather than a random team named after a sponsor that really isn’t based anywhere.

Team owners will be tasked with recruiting and developing players, internal structures, and determining team roles. Blizzard suggests that team owners and players will “share in league economics.” Each player will have a contract detailing compensation and full benefits (including a guaranteed minimum salary). Blizzard wants to move away from the prize pool focus, noting how nobody talks about prize pools for the World Cup or the Super Bowl. Everyone knows that athletes are extremely well-compensated.

Who will be the team owners? Blizzard has invited both existing esports organizations and traditional sports owners to BlizzCon to learn more about the Overwatch League; all of whom will be able to bid for their own team location. Teams will have permanent spots in the Overwatch League, unlike games such as League of Legends or even Blizzard’s own Heroes of the Storm, which use a complex system of promotion and relegation. Blizzard thinks that this system of promotion and relegation makes sense in European football, a sport which has had over 120 years to establish itself.

When it comes to esportsespecially new ones like Overwatchsuch a system may act as a deterrent. Teams having permanent spots ensures stability, not just for team owners and players, but also for fans, sponsors, and the media. Overwatch League will also have a consistent schedule and a lengthy off-season during fall and winter months. The goal is to create shorter, more exciting, and reliable seasons, while also enabling a third-party ecosystem. Fans will be able to watch their team live both in person and on stream. Additionally, Blizzard is going to launch a website with comprehensive coverage on teams and players.

How to Become a Pro?

There aren’t many details available about this, but Blizzard wants to make a clear difference between a hardcore Overwatch player and a professional Overwatch player. Much like the NFL, Overwatch will have a combine, a once-a-year opportunity for upstart players to showcase their skills to team owners. Your invite to the combines will depend on multiple factors including high-ranking placement in Competitive Play, online leagues, and third-party events.

How Long Term is this Long-Term Strategy?

When talking about long-term implications, there’s a host of doubt and concerns regarding any esport revolving primarily around ownership. Teams being privately owned is not a big deal, as this is a common occurrence in traditional sports as well. But what happens when the sport itself is owned by a corporation? How long-term is this, really? There are a number of things that can happen. Overwatch could stop being profitable, Blizzard may wind up getting bought by an even bigger company (Activision Blizzard used to be owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi), and it could even go bankrupt.

Although these scenarios aren't be likely, they’re not altogether implausibleespecially in the long term. I’m not talking about the next five to ten years, but beyond that. Even if all football (soccer) clubs went under, even if FIFA and UEFA disappeared for whatever reason, football would still survive. The sport itself is not owned by anyone, whereas every single esport is owned by someone.

Perhaps the best comparison would be UFC, which is a privately-owned company that promotes and produces MMA events worldwide. It has also signed most of the top-ranked MMA players in the world. UFC pretty much controls most of what happens in the MMA world. However, even if UFC disappears someday, MMA will continue to live on as a sport.

Going back to that comment about football’s 120 years of history, how realistic is to expect that Overwatch will be around in that time? How realistic is to expect that Blizzard will be around? The question may seem a bit silly at first, but it does raise a legitimate concern regarding the long-term viability of esports. Are we destined to witness a neverending string of different games throughout the years, or will games like Overwatch truly establish themselves and never go away?

Final Thoughts

The fact of the matter is, esports is a newborn. There are so many kinks to work out and it’s exciting to be in the here and now to see it evolve. There’s no question that Overwatch League has its heart in the right place. Stability and consistency are crucial. These pillars have sustained traditional sports for decades and centuries, and they will surely play a major role in esports as well.

Associating teams with cities is a stroke of genius, as involving the local community can only deepen the relationship between teams and fans. Players having contracts with a guaranteed salary and benefits is a great step towards ensuring the viability of such a career path. In conclusion, we certainly can’t wait until next year to see the beginning of Overwatch League.

Sinisa Bucan

Siniša is a writer and translator from Croatia, a small European country on the Adriatic coast. Apart from being a passionate Hearthstone player, he enjoys all kinds of video games, including strategy, role-playing, adventure, and action. Other interests include listening to indie rock and travelling. You can follow him @SinisaBucan.