The third season of the Overwatch League will arguably be the most important one yet for Blizzard’s ambitious esports venture. For the first time, the league’s 20 teams — which are scattered across six countries and 19 cities — will host matches in their local markets. That’s been the plan since the league kicked off back in 2018, with the 2019 season serving as something of a test with select home games in three US cities. But the 2020 season will be a strong indicator of whether the city-based structure so familiar in traditional sports can actually be successful in competitive gaming.
That’s not the only change. Activision also revealed last week that it’s swapping broadcast partners, moving over from Twitch to YouTube. At the same time, the game of Overwatch is shifting in a big way with the introduction of new hero pools, a system that will see certain heroes banned from play on a weekly basis. For the pros in the Overwatch League, this means regularly changing strategies as they adapt to whatever that particular week has in store.
Any of those would be a big enough shift, but when you put it all together, it makes for some intriguing storylines. The third season of the Overwatch League will kick off on February 8th with games in Dallas and New York City. Ahead of opening weekend, we spoke to Jon Spector, VP of business operations and product strategy for Overwatch esports, to see what these changes mean for the future of the league.
“It’s been three years in the making to get to this weekend,” Spector tells The Verge.
THE STRAINS OF TRAVEL
The league’s grand plans for a truly global league got off to a rough start. On January 29th, Blizzard announced that all of the matches scheduled for February and March in China — which would have included matches in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou — were canceled following the outbreak of the coronavirus. It was a necessary decision to ensure the safety of players and fans, and Spector says it’s one the league deliberated over for some time.
“It wasn’t [a decision] we took lightly,” he says. “We’ve been excited about playing those matches in China for years, the fans and the players are excited about it. But we never had a single discussion where player safety didn’t come first. As we monitored the situation, we came to a point where it was very clear that the right thing to do was to cancel those matches in China.”
Spector says that the league is still in the process of determining how and when those canceled matches might be played. “The situation seems to change every day, or every couple of days, in terms of travel restrictions and the status of the coronavirus,” he explains. “It’s certainly challenging to rethink those plans. But we’re actively working on it, and the key message for our players and fans is that their safety comes first. Everything else is a secondary goal. It’s certainly disappointing, but I feel good knowing we made the right decision.”
Aside from the canceled games, there are plenty of other challenges with the new format. Season 3 of the Overwatch League is utilizing what Blizzard calls a “homestand” structure where teams host a series of matches over a given weekend, with each team hosting a minimum of two events. Previously, all OWL games took place at the now-closed Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles where the league had tight control over every aspect of the broadcast and fan experience. That will no longer be the case.
More important, though, is the effect that constant travel could have on players. The demands of high-level Overwatch have already caused many players to retire from the league, and travel only adds to that. (Jay “Sinatraa” Won, arguably the league’s biggest star, told The Verge last year that he’s actually afraid of flying.) “We know that we’re asking a lot of our players this year, and that traveling around the world for matches is taxing in a lot of ways,” says Spector.
While he notes that player welfare is foremost a responsibility of the teams, he says that OWL staff are in daily contact with players to monitor potential issues. There’s even an internal chat room where Overwatch pros can voice their concerns and feelings about league operations. Spector says that constant communication will be key to monitoring the impact of travel on player well-being. “We’ll keep in close contact with our players and teams to make sure we’re doing what we can to help and support them,” he says.
To that end, the league and its member teams have also created a set of guidelines for host teams to ensure travel is as seamless as possible. Players and coaches will receive city guides with details on the venue, local restaurants, and hotels. Host teams will also be required to provide practice facilities for visiting squads.
“It’s similar to if you go to an NBA arena. There are guidelines for what the visiting team locker room has to look like,” Spector says. “We’ve done the same thing with all of our teams so that teams that go on the road will have access to a quality practice space for a certain number of hours per day, and to make sure that when they show up at the venue they’ll have a place to set up and get ready backstage.”
BYE, TWITCH; HELLO, YOUTUBE
On January 24th, the same day the city-based Call of Duty League kicked off its inaugural season, Activision announced a new partnership with YouTube that makes the Google-owned site the exclusive home of Call of Duty, Overwatch, and Hearthstone esports moving forward. It was a notable departure. Amazon-owned Twitch, which reportedly paid $90 million for the broadcast rights to the first two seasons of OWL, has long been the home of competitive gaming. Twitch even introduced new features like a robust spectator tool just for Overwatch.
It was a big bet for YouTube, which is doing its best to break Twitch’s stranglehold on the market for live-streamed gaming. There’s a good chance that, at least initially, the change will lead to lower viewership for games. (For comparison, the League of Legends Championship Series broadcasts on both platforms and regularly averages more viewers on Twitch compared to YouTube.)
Spector says that there were other considerations for the shift, namely the fact that, while Twitch is the dominant platform for gaming, YouTube has a much broader audience and remains the go-to destination for watching Twitch streams and other live video after it’s aired.
“As we think about how do you grow the Overwatch League, how do you win over new fans, how do you introduce this sport to more fans around the world, now our answer in 2020 is we’re putting our content on the single biggest platform in the world by an order of magnitude,” he explains.
Spector also believes there are benefits that tie into the league’s new global structure. Over the past two seasons, OWL maintained a fairly standard schedule, with most games played in the afternoon and evening on Pacific Standard Time. But that won’t be the case when there are games played in London, Seoul, Paris, and elsewhere. That means there will likely be a large audience looking to watch games after they initially air — something YouTube is particularly well-suited for.
“Regardless of where you live in the world, there are going to be times when your favorite team plays in the middle of the night,” Spector says. “If you’re a Gladiators fan and you’re based in LA, when the Gladiators go to Seoul, they’re playing at 2AM LA time. The YouTube platform is the best in the world for VOD content, for highlights content.”
HERO POOLS AND THE CONSTANTLY SHIFTING META
Just a few days after unveiling the YouTube deal, Blizzard detailed the next Overwatch patch. But more than just changes to the game itself, the announcement showcased a new philosophy, one where the game would see regular updates and balance fixes in order to keep things from growing stale. Chief among these changes was the addition of the hero pools, which, right now, is an experimental feature that could make the game more dynamic by banning characters that may be crucial to any given team’s strategy. The idea is to prevent one character or team composition from becoming dominant, forcing players to constantly come up with new approaches.
Hero pools are coming to the main game with the next seasonal launch next month, but it will also impact the Overwatch League at the same time. Starting on March 7th, four characters will be banned from OWL each week — one tank, one support, and two damage — and teams will be given a week’s notice to prepare. For fans, this will likely mean a more exciting experience.
The first two seasons of the Overwatch League have each been dominated by a particular strategy; season 1 was home to the aggressive “dive” composition, while 2019 was overrun by the slow, defensive-oriented “GOATs” setup that prioritized tanks and healers. This meant that games were often very similar to watch, and it forced teams to either adapt to the dominant strategy — or meta, in esports lingo — or fall behind the competition.
Hero pools, along with last year’s role lock feature, are meant to combat this. Essentially, it means, because the available heroes will change so often, it won’t be possible for a dominant strategy to remain dominant for long. The four heroes banned each week will be randomly selected from a group of the most-played characters over the previous two weeks.
“One of the things that we heard from fans and our pro players, was a desire to see the game’s meta move more frequently and be disrupted more often,” Spector says of the change. “I hope and expect that what you’ll see is that when you watch two teams go against each other, they’ll have very different answers for how to respond to that challenge.”
One of the early criticisms of the system — which Spector notes is subject to change — is that it could put even more strain on players. Not only do they have to deal with the added stress of travel, but now they have a limited time to practice each week for a constantly changing rotation of characters. The league, naturally, sees things differently. In fact, Spector actually believes that hero pools will change the way teams practice, as they’ll no longer have to grind away at perfecting a very specific strategy so that they can compete with the league heavyweights like the Vancouver Titans or San Francisco Shock.
“I think what hero pools should do is bring a lot more diversity to the number of heroes that are being played, and I think that’s a positive for players for their longevity and their value,” he explains. “Last year, if you were a damage player and you couldn’t play Zarya, you were grinding to try to learn a hero that’s something out of your comfort zone. Whereas now, what you should be able to do is showcase more of the heroes that you’ve mastered and enjoy playing.”
A LEAGUE IN BETA
One thing all of these changes point to is the constantly changing nature of the Overwatch League. Each season of the esports circuit has looked different, and season 3 represents the biggest shift.
Many of these elements could change over the course of the season, and the 2021 iteration of the league might look markedly different from what it is right now. That’s one of the advantages that a new institution like the Overwatch League has compared to traditional sports: an ability to experiment since there are fewer traditions to stick to.
“We have an ability to be innovative,” Spector says, “in a way that’s hard to do when you have 100 years of history.”