5 Reasons Why I'm Bullish About Overwatch League

Esports Industry Guest Post by Ben Goldhaber,  life-long competitive gamer, esports industry veteran and currently the Director of Content Marketing @ Twitch.


I’ll admit, my faith in Overwatch esports has faltered on more than one occasion. Other times, I’ve felt like I was taking crazy pills as I’ve played the role of the lone defender of Overwatch as a viable competitive title against close friends and respected peers in esports.

20 mill OWL buy-in? An insane scheme destined for disaster.
The game? A casual experience, chaotic, and impossible to watch.
Copying mainstream sports models? An affront to what makes esports so special in the first place.

Now I’m not writing this to change your mind, my good naysaying friends, nor proclaim that Overwatch will ascend to godly status and dethrone the likes of League of Legends, CS:GO, or perhaps even Dota 2. But as we’re just a few days away to the launch of the inaugural Overwatch League season it seemed like a good time to put my thoughts on the closest thing we have to paper in 2018.

So here we are. And here are my top 5 reasons why I am bullish about Overwatch League.

 

1. An Extraordinary Investment

Figured I’d start with the most boring and straight forward aspect here, but an important one nonetheless. CASH MONAYYYYYYYY

 If you don’t know where this .gif came from, you’re probably new to esports. Which is rad. Welcome.

If you don’t know where this .gif came from, you’re probably new to esports. Which is rad. Welcome.

I’m no esports historian, but I am sure that we have never, in the history of our dear community, seen investments and marketing budgets like what is to be put into full motion this week.

By all accounts, the 12 franchised OWL teams have at least $240 million invested into Overwatch League. We’ve already seen major sponsors sign on like Intel and HP (who seem to be bankrolling half of esports at the moment, but I digress), and there are many more to come. The billionaire team owners have contacts at Coke, McDonald’s, T-Mobile, and Ford up their sleeves I’m sure.

And we know that OWL is not just the next big esports project from Blizzard, but that it has the full backing of Activision-Blizzard and even ATVI CEO Bobby Kotick himself. You’ve gotta imagine ATVI will have thrown in a cool hundred million of their own cash into marketing, prize pools, production, venue costs, salaries, and so on, by the end of the first season (note: ATVI’s market cap has nearly doubled in the last 12 months, no doubt in large part to Overwatch’s success).

You better believe that Bobby has connections. This is the man who has personally pitched mainstream sports magnate and Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft, bringing him in on the ground floor of the Overwatch League with Boston’s franchise slot.

Investment in esports have grown exponentially since 2009 and, somehow, people seem to have become jaded by the influx (see: deluge) cash into esports coming from venture capitalists, mainstream sports owners and players, and the entertainment world particularly in the last 3 years. But the list of billionaires and multi-national corporations who’ve already bought in to OWL is nothing short of a revolution. The launch of OWL will likely be remembered in the history books as the moment esports truly went mainstream.

Overall, I suspect at least 400–500 million dollars will be spent on Overwatch esports in the next few years. Some will argue that the dollar investment into OWL will be its downfall when the return on investment doesn’t pan out… and they might be right. Only time will tell. But (hey guys, its me again, not-esports-historian-guy) it is no exaggeration to say that esports is about to be exposed to more new eyeballs with the launch of OWL than at any other preceding moment in esports history. If someone knows more than I do on this topic please let me know, but I’m fairly certain even Riot has never had a huge marketing budget to push LoL esports.

But as we all know, money is useless without the right people to channel it into results.

 

2. The People

OWL is stacked with talented people. Not just the players, but the supporting casts up and down the board. Let’s walk through it:

The Overwatch esports team at Activision-Blizzard has been on a hiring spree. According to OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer (*ahem* on the podcast I co-host), at least a few hundred people will be involved in OWL on Blizzard’s end alone. Between the MLG staff, Blizzard esports transfers, and newly hired talent, they’ve brought on a well-rounded group of some of the most accomplished veteran esports mainstays that could possibly exist (Alchemist, for example, actually pre-dates the term ‘esports’ all together). Hires from outside of esports, some coming from traditional sports, some coming from the world of research and consumer insights, should give a fresh perspective and institutional knowledge from their worlds. I’ll admit to a slight bias here because I consider at least a half dozen of the Overwatch esports team as close personal friends, and many of the rest at least as respected peers. But I have a lot of faith in these folks.

OWL’s on-air roster encompasses many of the esports hosting greats from the last 5–10 years, from League of Legends (slash StarCraft 2… only OGs remember) in Monte + Doa, MLG’s pretty boys Chris Pucket and MrX from Call of Duty and Halo, Dota 2 / general hosting badassery in Soe, and of course, who could forget, the world-renowned Battlefield 4 commentator Uber. Rumor has it that we’ll see famous Bloodline Champion…. er, CS:GO commentator Semmler make the switch soon as well.

Literally no other host or commentator in esports could give you a moment like Monte’s double heel turn at the World Cup… pure genius as far as I’m concerned. I truly think Uber is one of the best play-by-play commentators in esports, full stop. I don’t understand how his brain works at all, his in-jokes, references, and memorable one-liners are often hard to catch they are spouted so damn fast, mate.

I could go on, but this is already getting too long. My only suggestion to the Blizzard/OWL gods is that we see current/former pro players rotated in frequently to bring deeper analysis, which I’d argue is lacking at the moment.

Despite the nascence of Overwatch esports, we have a ton of popular, well spoken, and wildly entertaining pro players. Have you ever watched a a saebyeolbe stream? If not, you’ve missed out on the hilarious misadventures of the OneNippleMan as he conquests the NA ladder, overflowing with positivity, comedy, and broken Korean-English all in equal doses. Seagull’s instantaneous 20,000+ concurrent viewers any time he streams, ever, probably go without saying. Ever heard Jake wax poetic on podcasts or via his blog? He makes me feel intellectually inferior just about every damn time I hear from him (ok maybe a personal problem here). Follow Finland’s Taimou as he cycles between his boisterous ups (PMA) and shocking downs (NMA) and you’ll get more drama than a soap opera. And who couldn’t just adore Thailand’s Mickie? Seriously, he’s just about the most lovable pro player I could imagine, alongside Dendi or Pascha.

My point is, we’ve got a hugely diverse and marketable pool of players where NA, EU, Korea, even SEA, LatAm and OCE have decent representation. This is rare in esports, I think.

Finally we find the franchised teams, who have cumulatively hired at least a hundred supporting staffers (some well, some not so well) including analysts, coaches, psychiatrists, nutrition specialists, video editors, social media managers, GMs and more.

All of these folks play a part in Overwatch esports. All of these folks will be trying their hardest to make a mark.

 Seabyeolbe in all his glory (Photo: Robert Paul)

Seabyeolbe in all his glory (Photo: Robert Paul)

3. The Fan Base

We all know Overwatch sold well. I mean, really well. At least 35 million players in less than 18 months well. Don’t forget, Overwatch is not just a PC game like Dota 2 or League of Legends, it also has popular console releases on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 thus potential for an even wider install base. Overwatch is not free to play like Dota 2 and League, and is 2x more expensive to own than CS:GO, which I’d wager means that its player base has a bit more cash to throw at their favorite team/player to boot.

Typically, competitive games with large player bases tend to be the bigger esports. This has not necessarily been the case for Overwatch esports so far. But that, I’d argue, has far more due to the fact that most of 2017 was quiet for Overwatch esports than the game not being a viable competitive title. Outside of the Overwatch World Cup there were hardly any LAN tournaments at all in 2017. In fact, I would go so far as to say there was not even one single LAN in 2017 that featured top talent from around the world. Even Contenders Season 1 Finals in the Blizzard Arena felt like a small event.

This all changes for good starting this week, by the way.

But Overwatch’s fanbase is casual!

While it’s true that r/Overwatch has scantly acknowledged the burgeoning esports scene in the past, this has been changing, slowly but consistently.

OWL and OWL skins are a large part of that change. Blizzard is now advertising OWL and OWL skins in-game and in the Battle.net launcher, and will probably continue to do so for the entire season. This alone has been enough to get even the most uninterested casual Quick-Player to show interest. And if viewers can earn skins or loot boxes by watching OWL matches? Instantly, a casual player tunes in (this has worked phenomenally well for Dota 2, CS:GO, SMITE, and literally for every other game it has been attempted with).

Have you seen the billboards going up in every OWL franchise city? Shit is dope. Your non-gamer but sports-loving cousin might start watching just to cheer for her home team. As OWL materializes, it seems so will the fans. And this has a global scope with cities in NA, EU, and Asia (hopefully many more European franchises will be added in 2019).

Let’s talk about social media for a sec. Compared to its competitors, Overwatch is doing surprisingly well.

r/Overwatch has already hit over 1 million subscribers, a milestone that took League of Legends (a F2P game that happens to be the most popular game in the world) 6–7 years. /r/globaloffensive is barely half that of Overwatch with ~570k, and Dota 2, a free 8 year old game and one of the world’s biggest esports, has less 400k on its main subreddit. Even r/competitiveoverwatch is quickly gaining on what had traditionally been one of the biggest esports subreddits in r/starcraft with over 125k subs solely discussing the esports side of the game.

On YouTube, I’m consistently seeing pro player highlights and match VODs reach hundreds of thousands of views. And this is in a world where there has honestly been so little “premium” Overwatch esports content to pick from.

One thing that has been an immense surprise to me is, despite some positively cringe-worthy missteps (“This Is How We Do It In Philly”), the brand new OWL teams launched in the last 5 months have already gained what I’d argue as loyal fans and highly engaged fans, who seem to be clamoring for behind the scenes info and to learn more about their players and brand. Sure, overall followers are not earth shattering (although not bad), but social media and YouTube engagement rates for these teams have far exceeded my personal expectations. Quality content like Dallas Fuel’s “Who Are They?” video is pushing 220k views in 2 days, and there is much more quality content to had as the seasons progress.

 

 Team branding looks pretty good on the big screen (Photo: Robert Paul)

Team branding looks pretty good on the big screen (Photo: Robert Paul)

4. So Much More Than OWL

This post was meant to be comment specifically on Overwatch League, but it makes no sense to look at OWL in isolation as there is so much being built to support it. OWL’s Commissioner has been very clear in that OWL is just the top part of the ecosystem, but that the “path to pro” is an equally important part of the equation. In other words, Activision-Blizzard have set out to create something that no other esports can boast: a clear set of sequential steps that facilitate the transition from casual competitor to pro.

The path is as follows: Ranked (Competitive) → Overwatch Open Division → Overwatch Contenders → Overwatch League, with additional opportunities in Collegiate esports (Tespa) and the Overwatch World Cup. All run directly by Activision-Blizzard. Let’s break this down.

Participation rates for Overwatch Open Division is one of the most encouraging signs I’ve seen yet for the future of OW esports. Overall, there are 1,743 teams registered to play this season of Open Division. Again, no esports historian here, but that level of semi-pro engagement is something I haven’t seen since the old CAL/CPL days. This tier of play — large scale organized competition for the semi-pros — has in fact been one of my biggest concerns about the modern era of esports. Back in the early 2000s it was relatively commonplace to see huge leagues with hundreds of participating teams in games like Counter-Strike, Tribes, and Quake. In 2018, not so much. If you couldn’t tell already, I’M REALLY STOKED ABOUT THIS.

Contenders has been expanded drastically this year, and is set up to basically encompasses 100% of the pro-scene outside of OWL with Contenders leagues in China, Europe, Korea, North America, Pacific, South America, and Australia. I love that Activision-Blizzard is aiming to support traditionally underserved regions like SEA/OCE/LatAm. Buried deep in the Contenders rules .PDF you’ll find that the prize pool for Contenders is extremely significant, enough to support a tier 2 esports scene in my opinion, where even the losing teams make money. The main question in my mind is will Contenders bring enough viewership and hype for endemic esports teams to pick up squads? Could we see a fully-fledged T2 scene that actually rivals that of other major esports in terms of sponsored players, viewership, revenue? The only red mark I can see in the Contenders system is that there will be no cross-region play whatsoever, which IMO misses out on opportunities for story lines and hype. But hey, that’s what OWL is supposed to be for.

The Overwatch World Cup at BlizzCon 2017 was a sea change moment for Overwatch esports. Not only was the viewership record-breaking for Overwatch — well over 300,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch — it got that level of viewership because the games were incredible, the production value was on a new level due to the debut of new spec mode and more experienced producers, and the show was just 10x more entertaining than anything we’ve seen before, in every way. But beyond a spectacle, the World Cup offers yet another amazing opportunity for players to be discovered and make a career for themselves. The prime example of this is Mickie, who I can guarantee you would be playing in relative obscurity if not for his breakout performance at the 2016 World Cup. Today, he is Dallas Fuel’s all-star D.va specialist.

 I sat close to this group during the World Cup. They were LOUD. (Photo: Robert Paul)

I sat close to this group during the World Cup. They were LOUD. (Photo: Robert Paul)

Collegiate esports has never gotten a lot of exposure and seems to be growing at a snails pace. But Tespa has been busy behind the scenes growing their reach. Did you know that there are over 200 Tespa chapters in North America alone? I expect Collegiate to continue growing slowly but steadily. Who knows, maybe one day it can reach the prestige of College Football?

 

5. The Game Itself

The final and most important factor to Overwatch esports’ success is obviously the game itself. Players need the to be able to showcase their talent and viewers need to be able to understand the action. And traditionally, at least according the the majority of OW detractors I know, this has been the primary issue with Overwatch esports. I can’t tell you the number of folks who I’ve talked to, including even seasoned FPS esports veterans, who’ve claimed that Overwatch has a low skill ceiling or is too hard to watch.

I disagree on both points, but I’m not a good example of the average esports fan. I do have over 1000 hours in game and have ranked in the top 4% of players, after all. But I did understand those point at times — following the action for hours on end can be difficult, and even I got blurry-eyed after watching events like Contenders for 6+ consecutive hours.

But things have changed. The Overwatch World Cup 2017 proved to be so much better to watch and anything before it.

 The audience was packed for nearly every match of the 2017 World Cup (Photo: Robert Paul)

The audience was packed for nearly every match of the 2017 World Cup (Photo: Robert Paul)

Spectator mode and production techniques have improved by incredible margins. More legible team colors, instant replays with slow motion and from multiple perspectives, a top down minimapall of these are game changing improvements for spectators.

  1. Despite how some people feel about Junkrat or Mercy (pssst… both are nerfed on PTR as of the last week), I believe the “meta” has improved consistently over time. I’ll agree that D.va/Winston/Tracer/Mercy has been the norm for too long, but more heroes are viable in certain situations than ever before, and this comp is generally more dynamic than most previous metas like triple tank / solider, quad tank, or (shudder) even the days of no hero limit.
  2. The level of play has gone through the roof. I mean seriously, watch guys like Flow3r on Widowmaker and tell me again that this game has a low ceiling. You’ll be lying. Or blind. Or both. And I hate you (jk but not rlly).

No single matchup has exemplified how exciting and skill based Overwatch can be than USA vs. South Korea at the Overwatch World Cup 2017. Particularly, Hanamura blew my freaking mind. The antics from Flow3r on Widow. Sinaatra’s pokes and prods to pull Korea out of position, and USA’s decision making to take advantage of those moments. The fact that it went to the very brink and was close as it was. The crowd ooh-ing, ahhh-ing,m and yes, even “REEEEE”-ing in response to every big play.

Everything about this map was beautiful. Seriously, if you’re still on the fence about Overwatch esports and have somehow read this far, please watch this map and let me know what you think.

 Korea #1 (Photo: Robert Paul)

Korea #1 (Photo: Robert Paul)

I’ve been to dozens of esports events, everything from LCS to Evo to the biggest MLGs, DreamHacks, and ESL events, and can say without a doubt that the fan engagement for Overwatch is comparable to the best of the best. The passion for the game IS there, and will soon be unleashed with OWL.

In summation…

Sweet lord did this get long. Let me try and summarize.

Some folks think OWL could be the worst thing to happen to esports since the era of unpaid prizepools and organizational implosions of CGS, CPL, WSVG, WCG, ESWC, and so on. You’re not wrong that Activision-Blizzard are taking a huge, unprecedented risk with Overwatch League, and it could all blow up, damaging the entire esports industry. But I highly doubt it.

I highly doubt that one of the most popular competitive games of the last decade will not fly as an esport.

I highly doubt that the literal hundreds of new hires (across Blizzard and also the 12 franchise teams) won’t be able to push things forward with social media and content creation like we’ve never seen.

I highly doubt the game isn’t esports ready after all the progress that has been made, and the continued iterations we know are in the works.

I highly doubt that the city-based franchising model won’t bring in fans who would not otherwise have been interested, or that the largest marketing budget ever seen in esports will not reach hundreds of millions of new potential eyeballs.

I highly doubt that in-game skins and promotion won’t convert oh, so many casuals to watch OWL.

Above all, I am excited for the future. It is REFRESHING to see the envelope pushed and risks taken, and (again………. NOT a historian here) it seems like the ripples are already being felt across esports as Riot is now testing the franchise model for LCS.

I mean, seriously, esports has been having a bit of a moment with sustained growth in interest and investment every year since 2009. But Overwatch League could take that a step further and usher in a new golden era. Think about the opportunity this has already spawned for players, tournament organized, analysts, coaches, video editors, content creators, social media managers, GMs, advertisers, and yes, the fans as well. It’s actually mind boggling to compare esports in 2018 to practically any year beforehand.

Do I think Overwatch will supersede all others and become the world’s biggest esport? Nah, at least not any time soon. Will all of the 12 franchise teams be able to make a return on their $20 million investment? Depends on oh, so many factors, and is impossible to say at this point. I do, however, see Overwatch easily securing a top 4 esport (from a viewership perspective) right off that bat, and creating incredible and vast opportunities for thousands of esports hopefuls. Which, as a fan of esports, is the best I could possibly ask for.

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GG

Note: these views are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect my employer or my position at Twitch. Duh.