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Overwatch League Is About Giving Blizzard Control, But May Hurt the Game

A massively expensive esports boondoggle for rich investors? It feels like we've seen this movie before.
courtesy Blizzard

I still don't get Overwatch League.

I'm still waiting for a "eureka!" moment, even after yesterday's announcement of OWL's first seven franchises. My vision of esports might be too limited, too small-scale to comprehend Blizzard's ambitions here. My idea of an esports tycoon is still Evil Geniuses' Alex Garfield arguing with fans in the Team Liquid forums, not the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft inevitably celebrating the Patriot Way of Overwatch ("Do your job: Get on the payload").

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Overwatch League invites skepticism. It represents a radical departure from traditional esports, and esports history is full of harsh lesson about ambitious, top-down esports ventures.

What separates Overwatch League from some of its predecessors is the amount of money Blizzard and its investors are apparently pouring into the foundation. That difference might matter: One factor behind the death of of things like the ill-fated Championship Gaming Series (DirecTV's and Sky's attempt to make Counter-Strike a city-based broadcast sport in the mid-2000s) is that they depended on the financial commitment of too few investors. When the road to profitability proved more difficult than anticipated (as it always does) then those leagues were easy to cut from a budget.

Overwatch League has, by all accounts, asked for a major buy-in from everyone involved. The people involved have deep pockets and many of them, like Kraft and the New York Mets' Jeff Wilpon, are involved in managing more established competitive organizations and leagues. They make Overwatch League a "long-haul" commitment, where many of its predecessors were "if you build it, they will come" one-off bets.

It's easy to understand why Blizzard wanted to circumvent the existing esports ecosystem. A lot of organizations—even some major ones—can be exasperating to work with. Not just because of their self-interest, but because they fundamentally aren't run like professionally-managed businesses, which is fun and awesome until you actually need to do things. It's an ecosystem often characterized by ill-conceived lunges for the brass ring that end up hindering the development of esports ecosystems.

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Blizzard has worked within that space for years and, having a seen a few different sides of the business, I understand why you'd want to Kool-Aid-man through the wall into the traditional sports ecosystem, with its lawyers and money and people who can set and keep an appointment instead of typing out, "yea hmu on skype sometime" and promptly vanishing. Everyone has thought about it.

But for all its flaws, esports are a patchwork quilt because their foundations are laid across a lot of different communities who want and expect different things. And with Overwatch League, I can't escape the sense that foundation Blizzard have dug here is also serving as a moat between competitive Overwatch and the game's community.

Because while Overwatch League slowly taxis to the runway, Overwatch esports have been grounded. Knowing that OWL is eventually going to swamp them, a lot of organizers and esports organizations have backed-away from Overwatch. And according to some reports, Blizzard has gone out of its way to discourage other organizers who have shown a willingness to support the game.

courtesy Blizzard

Dreamhack's Michael Van Driel said that the LAN series largely stopped running major Overwatch events due to all the strings that came attached with the license from Blizzard. An organizer with the Overwatch Monthly Melee, which stopped running in May, was even more pointed, according to a report from Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson:

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In January I was already making plans to host events in May, June, and July later this year. By this time I had Blizzard looped into an approval process for many different aspects of our event, from branding/overlays and production changes to giving me available dates for our cast. When the topic of June onward came up we started running into issues.

In February, I was told that they [Blizzard] could not guarantee any dates for me past June 1st. Over the following two months I had several candid discussions with Blizzard's eSports team and various coordinators about continuing our event. This continued until finally we had to cancel our commitment to the Melee past June due to uncertainty.

It's not hard to understand why Blizzard would want to keep the field clear for OWL, but more than a year after the game's launch, these efforts are starting to take on a "destroy the village in order to save it" kind of character. With the exception of OGN's APEX series in Korea, the competitive landscape for this blockbuster FPS has been characterized by hesitation and skepticism far more than grassroots enthusiasm and growth.

Will the existence of a New York or LA Overwatch team change that? History suggests not—it failed miserably with the CGS, and even national teams and tournaments haven't garnered much of a following in esports. Maybe by being connected to already-existing sports marketing infrastructure, OWL can perform the magic that will imbue esports franchises with the local loyalties of traditional sports.

But I have my doubts. Traditional sports have spent generations bringing millions of fans into the secular cathedrals of traditional sports, where they learn to share an ultimately irrational passion and loyalty with enough people until it somehow becomes rational. I have a hard time believing that fandom will materialize just because you can frame an Overwatch match as Boston vs. New York. Especially after its competitive landscape has been stunted by its publisher and neglected by large swaths of the competitive community.

We talk a lot about passion in esports, and it's easy to be cynical about it because it's so often being leveraged to exploit the people who make esports possible. But there's truth behind the hypocrisy. Passion, enthusiasm, and loyalty have to be earned with currencies other than money. But so far, that's the only currency Overwatch League has to spend.