The most significant announcement of last weekend’s BlizzCon by far came in the form of the Overwatch League, a new organization dedicated to creating a more consistent, stable ecosystem for professional Overwatch teams. With the Overwatch League, Blizzard is abandoning convention and charting a new path for the future of the esport.
“Blizzard is giving the franchises more power than they’ve ever had before with an esports league”
While the form that the organization will take is unprecedented in the world of esports, the structure is similar to the NBA or NFL model. Professional teams will no longer retain their identity as brands under broad regional umbrellas like “North American.” Instead, each team will represent a city. While the League will establish itself first in the US, Blizzard intends to expand it into a global organization. Some existing teams and team owners will be converted to new teams within the League, but we may see more team owners from the professional sports world, such as NRG’s Shaquille O’Neal.
While rosters will change in a pre-season combine that harvests from the highest skilled players in Overwatch‘s ranked mode, teams will no longer face the threat of dissolving after a bad season, as is relatively common in leagues like Riot’s LCS or anarchic Dota 2 professional scene. With Blizzard also ensuring players are contracted fairly, they’re taking a firmer hand in the development of Overwatch’s competitive scene than we’ve historically witnessed in the realm of esports.
Team owners like Rogue’s Franklin Villareal aren’t worried about the massive changes, though—they’re excited. “Blizzard is giving the franchises more power than they’ve ever had before with an esports league,” said Villareal. “They’re providing structure. There are restrictions as you’d expect in any professional league, but we have the ability to run our organizations better than they’ve ever ran before.”
The only thing that Villareal is concerned about is the scope of the League. With regular LAN matches planned, there’s a danger in Blizzard overestimating the existing demand for professional Overwatch. “The Overwatch League is extremely ambitious,” he said. “I think everyone is nervous about how much the audience needs to grow to support Blizzard’s vision, but based on my conversations with Blizzard and the other owners at BlizzCon, everyone is committed to making it work.” There is reason for optimism: Overwatch has expanded its player base more rapidly than any esport, ever.
While the organization will be great for the top tier, teams outside that bracket worry about being left behind
In the new Overwatch League, players on top teams will have more security than ever before. But other players are unsure of their future in the new organization. One professional player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while the organization will be great for the top tier, teams outside that bracket worry about being left behind. He also expressed worry in the professional community that the proposed number of players for the initial league is too few. Since many existing teams will be split up, many players worry that newer teams under the League will lack synergy.
Blizzard has plenty experience managing esports organizations, so the challenge of Overwatch League won’t be entirely new to them. Even so, this is the most ambitious initiative, and perhaps biggest gamble, of Blizzard’s time in competitive gaming. We’ll see if it pays off.