How Overwatch League Re-writes The Rules Of Esports

by Daniel Tack on Jan 26, 2018 at 01:06 PM

Blizzard takes a new approach to professional esports in the digital age

London. Los Angeles. Shanghai. Seoul. With Overwatch League, Bliz zard is taking an ambitious step forward for esports, setting up a global platform with city-based teams it hopes will connect with local fans for generations to come. Taking a page out of traditional sports franchises and combining it with one of the hottest team-based multiplayer games, salaried players, and a robust inaugural schedule, the first year of Overwatch League sets the stage for what could become a new standard for the ever-growing world of digital competition. Kicking off on Janu ary 10 with a prize pool of $3.5 million, the Overwatch League’s grand finals for the year begin on July 26. Take a look at what makes the Overwatch League tick, from the teams, the commissioner, the fans, the owners, the players, and the managers.

This article was originally published in issue 298 of Game Informer Magazine.

Changing the Game

Many other esports leagues and tournaments boast worldwide competition, but teams can vanish seemingly overnight, with players splintering off at random to form new teams with new names. Overwatch League’s franchise format keeps the team location locked, so you’ll be able to root for your team every year, even if there are some player swaps.

The Overwatch League features 12 permanent, city-embedded franchises. Think the Detroit Lions or the Dallas Cowboys, but for Overwatch, with names like New York Excelsior or San Francisco Shock. Down the line, Blizzard sees these teams becoming household names, passed down from generation to generation like current longstanding sports fandom and rivalries. That passion isn’t restricted to the USA, either, as the league is international.

“It’s all the best players in the world – we don’t have any restrictions on where players can be from,” says league commissioner Nate Nanzer. “We’re playing in Los Angeles in our first year, and that’s to make sure our teams have time to build out a local capability, but the eventual goal is that all these games will be played in a home and away format.”

Over the course of the last summer, the league closed the deals with the original 12 franchises. Once they staffed up their front office and coaching positions, they had a player signing period where they could sign up to 12 free agents.

While not entirely unique to Overwatch League, the concept of salaried players with healthcare benefits is a far cry from floating professional players in other game circuits who are constantly trying to score a big tournament or new sponsorship to stay above water. The players who crack a league roster have a guaranteed minimum salary of $50,000 per person, and the job includes benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. Bidding wars drove the salaries as high as $150,000 for elite players, which Jay “sinatraa” Won received from the San Francisco Shock. “It’s a real career, and it was really important for us to make sure that Overwatch League players were celebrated and treated like the professionals that they are,” Nanzer says.

If you’re a hotshot Overwatch player, your skills could take you all the way to the league – sort of like being recognized at a pickup basketball game. The process starts in the Open Division, which accepts anyone who has reached the game’s highest ranks. The top four teams who succeed in the Open Division earn a spot in the Contender Trials, an event that starts in February and gives teams a shot to earn a spot in the Overwatch Contenders. These tournaments serve as the developmental league for the most promising talent, putting the best amateur teams in the same pool as professional ones. Getting noticed here is the surest way to get signed to an Overwatch League team for season two. Those looking to start new teams can begin here to form their rosters and scout out fresh talent. The league hasn’t outlined whether new player acquisitions will happen via a draft or free agency, only that “In future seasons, players will be signed in a way that serve[s] the needs of an established league, its teams, players, and fans,” according to Dot Esports.

“We’re really trying to build out the entire sport of Overwatch and make sure that there’s a clear path to pro for players and that players know exactly the steps they need to take to be a pro player,“ Nanzer says.

Getting The Team Together

Putting together an Overwatch League team isn’t easy. Blizzard has some intense requirements to meet, including substantial startup fees that dwarf other esports initiatives. ESPN reported the buy-in to get into the league started at $20 million, and many established competitive teams balked at the price considering guaranteed revenue sharing doesn’t begin until after the 2021 season.

I asked Florida Mayhem part-owner John Kracum about the challenges involved in starting up one of these teams. “Yeah, there were about 20 million challenges,” Kracum jokes. “The initial challenge from our organization’s perspective was, ‘What does the value proposition look like?’ We’re putting in a lot of money, time, and energy into creating a new team. We had Misfits’ Overwatch team leading up to the Overwatch League, so we had some foundation in place, but to really buy into this model and into the future of this league, it took a lot of thought and what the opportunities could be around it.”

The up-front cost is steep, but Florida Mayhem part-owner Jake Kuhn sees the investment in Overwatch League as something that will resonate for years to come, with the esports scene shifting to rival – or even eclipse – traditional sports in terms of scope, reach, and generational impact.

“I kind of want to jump ahead to 10, 15, maybe 20 years down the line,” he says. “What I’m really excited and hoping to see is when fandom is inherited by your parents rather than kind of just diving around online or following your favorite players.”

Training All Day, Every Day

In the build-up to the kickoff, the daily routine for Overwatch League players is intense, including hours upon hours of watching games, playing games, and analyzing everything from metagame picks to how a rival team plays on specific maps with specific characters. The training regimen is excruciatingly time-consuming, often lasting from sunup to sundown. Many have come from other competitive esports games like League of Legends or other MOBAs, seeking newfound glory in Overwatch.

Seb “Numlocked” Barton plays on Los Angeles Valiant as the “main tank” role with Winston or Reinhardt, though his coach is trying to move away from these clearly defined roles to add more flexibility to the roster. Barton’s day is measured out in segments – almost every moment going to the game.

“[The day] typically lasts until 6:00-7:00 p.m., and you can relax then in your free time – but people kind of end up playing ranked anyway, because everyone is so focused on improving,” Barton says. “There’s a lot on the line, and if you’re not ready to put in the work to improve there’s going to be someone behind you to take your place.”

Managing Expectations

Former StarCraft 2 Pro Chris “Huk” Loranger has taken over the general manager reins of the Boston Uprising team, which is owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. As the team manager, it’s Loranger’s job to make sure everything flows smoothly from top to bottom, relaying communications from ownership and instructing coaches on day-to-day operations. Like a player’s schedule, Loranger’s day is packed from start to finish. As is the case for many of us, his day starts with a significant amount of email at 6:00 a.m., but things diverge quickly after that point. At around 9:30 a.m. he’s starting to review the VODs (videos-on-demand) that have been assembled by the coaches for the day to ensure a successful education session on the day. VOD review has a range – watching how the team performs both individually and as a team, watching how upcoming opponents play, watching how different players perform under various circumstances and with certain characters. Analysis of these replays and matches can make all the difference in determining where to focus your next performance boost or critical strategy swap.

“Generally in esports a lot of people have raw talent but they don’t necessarily have the professional background to structure things or put them into correct processes,” Loranger says.

Loranger arrives at the training facility at around 11:00 a.m., where he participates in additional VOD review, has lunch, and then the team scrimmages until around 8-9 p.m.. After that, there’s a staff meeting and more VOD review, and he generally gets to bed around midnight to 2:00 a.m..

“I’m viewing this from a startup mentality – it is building a company more or less from the ground up,” Loranger says. “I think we’ll get into a rhythm eventually and I’ll have more consistent and lower hours, but I don’t mind it at all. My main job and hardest job is figuring out the best steps for getting us from the team we are today to a better team in a week or a month, and how do I efficiently use all these staff members to do that.”

The Boston Uprising is widely considered the underdogs for the league’s inaugural season, but Loranger is excited for the chance to make a great underdog story happen.

Enter The Arena

The first season of Overwatch League takes place in the new Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. While it’s been dramatically overhauled, these matches will be held on the same stage that once hosted The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno years. Seating for more than 450 people is available in addition to special spectator boxes, training facilities, and lounges. The grand finals will take place at a much larger venue, one which Blizzard hasn’t announced yet.

Firing Up The Fans

Overwatch League teams play with custom skins to show off their colors. These jersey-style skins are available for all characters in the game, and can be acquired by fans in-game. Purchasing these skins provides monetary support for teams, and these are not linked to the traditional randomized loot boxes in any way. Players can buy a token to purchase one of these skins, and they can select the exact team and character skins they want with this purchase. If you want a Philadelphia Fusion Genji or a Houston Outlaws Hanzo, you can get exactly what you’re looking for without worrying about duplicates, sprays, or emotes.

In addition to in-game gear, a full line of real-world, team-based apparel and accessories is available for purchase, from caps and pins to jackets and jerseys.

Our Digital Future

One of the most common themes in talking to individuals involved with Overwatch League is there is a very real feeling that esports could potentially overtake traditional sports in the next five to fifteen years. While it would be easy to dismiss these sentiments because everyone involved has a vested interest in the success of Overwatch League, there’s a real chance it could happen thanks to the insane amount of viewership, prize pools, and shifting sensibilities as viewers and fans move online and away from the television.