While the release of the Sombra was the news that had the most hype coming into BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment also released details on a much more ambitious plan: the formation of a developer run esports League for Overwatch.
The 10th anniversary of BlizzCon kicked off yesterday with an opening ceremony hosted by Blizzard President and CEO Mike Morhaime. In that speech, Morhaime unveiled Blizzard’s plan to create a competitive esports league specifically for Overwatch, designed with long term sustainability in mind for teams, athletes, owners, and sponsors alike. Morhaime’s remarks on the Overwatch League were short on both length and detail but featured a trailer which included a cameo by tennis star Serena Williams. As the day continued, fans were given more details about the new league, which combines elements of traditional sports infrastructure and current esports practices by forming professional teams in host cities, creating standards for player compensation and conduct while providing a clear path to reaching professional status.
A league is nothing without teams to play. Blizzard’s Overwatch League forgoes the tradition of teams representing countries or regions. Instead, teams will represent host cities throughout the world. In breaking down footage from an informational video on Blizzard’s Youtube Channel, teams within the U.S. will most likely start with franchises in New York and Los Angeles. Those interested in becoming owners of these franchises may have to go through a bidding process first. Once the franchise is awarded, the team will become a permanent fixture in the league. No relegation or yearly qualification is necessary as the team’s position in the league is secure. The move dismisses some of the risk and hurdles of owning a team, allowing owners to build their team infrastructure on much more stable ground. With this stability, teams will have an easier time attracting big sponsors and growing loyal fanbases.
A team is nothing without its players. The Overwatch League hopes to protect its young superstars from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous team owners. Blizzard will provide players with contracts that include guaranteed base salaries and employment benefits as well as provide revenue sharing. With contracts in hand, players will worry less about the inherent uncertainty of the current system and can focus more on themselves and their gameplay.
Blizzard also debuted a new way for teams to discover talent. The Overwatch League Combine will take place before each season of the Overwatch League. Players will be invited to showcase their skills in-person for team owners, coaches, and scouts. Like the NFL Combine, players will be run through a series of test to determine how good they really are. Blizzard gave general ideas on how to get an invite, such as climbing the competitive ladder in Overwatch and having strong performances in online or live Overwatch tournaments. Once the combine completes, a brief signing period begins where teams can build their squads.
Players need games to play. Once the signing period ends and rosters have been signed, the league begins regular-season play. Games will take place in front of live audiences, presumably rotating through host cities. At the end of regular season play, the best teams will then face off in a play-off round to crown the world’s best Overwatch team. The length of seasons or the specific ruleset have not been released yet.
The Overwatch League also intends to double down on fan engagement. Alongside live events, the Overwatch League will have an interactive website with complete coverage of the sport, including in-depth analysis, editorials, and comprehensive stats for teams, players, and heroes. Like websites for the NFL, NBA, and MLB, it will be loaded with everything a fan needs to know about Overwatch League.
The Overwatch League is a highly ambitious undertaking for Blizzard Entertainment. Never has a developer put so much faith and resources into a competitive esports title in such a short amount of time. However, there are still a number of unanswered questions. What will happen to current teams and tournaments? How will the Combine work? Can teams go outside of the combine to find talent? Will there be one prize pool for the whole season or will each event have it’s own? But for now, the prospect of such a league is tantalizing. If done properly, this could completely redefine how esports is administered. If it fails, esports may never garner the kind of mainstream success it wishes for.
Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment