With big changes on the way, the sudden loss of Commissioner Nate Nanzer leaves the Overwatch League in an uncertain position. In March, the League announced plans for localization: starting next season, teams will play games in their home cities. It’s an exciting idea for most fans, but some fear such a demanding change is unwise. After all, the League is gaining traction fast, but it’s still in its infancy. Fans may look forward to seeing their favorite teams play in person, but they also have questions about how Blizzard plans to handle this transition – and the answers don’t seem promising.
Planning Around Three Continents
The framework for home and away games is a logistical nightmare. You have four games a day, four days a week, in three continents; it’s near-impossible to host each match of the day in a different home city like most televised sports.
The most promising option is regional stages, where each quarter of the season is based in a different area. Teams would travel from city to city across the region each weekend. It’s still an inconvenience, but not as taxing as flying from Atlanta to Seoul to London and back. But this isn’t a flawless system: with only two current teams, the EU is far too isolated for home games. It will never be efficient to play in London or Paris when the next stadium is eight hours away. A wave of expansion teams could fix this problem, but at the moment, there are too few teams in the League for localization to work without agonizing commutes.
Working out the model is just the start of the headache: once that’s decided, scheduling comes next. The second season of the League saw the addition of 8 new teams and a schedule that has already drawn criticism. This season, two teams may play each other twice in one stage, even back-to-back (the Charge, who played Shock two weekends in a row, seemed doomed before the stage even began). Yet another two teams may only meet once or twice in the entire season, like the long-awaited Titans vs. NYXL. These conflicts are necessary to factor in bye weeks and broadcast times for EU and Chinese fans. So how much more nonsensical will next season’s schedule be with games spread across three continents?
Rising Prices for Teams and Fans
Money is another issue. The League boasts a steady viewer count and merchandise sales. Yet it’s rumored that teams like the Houston Outlaws are still suffering from budget issues. Next season, the Outlaws’ shareholders need enough money for a stadium, overseas transportation, and accommodations. Shareholders may recoup some of the cost with merch and ticket sales, but filling the stadiums is a problem of its own.
Fans should expect ticket prices to skyrocket next season. They’ll be closer to the Dallas Homestand Weekend’s $50 price tag than the current $30 floor-seat tickets. Blizzard Arena is respectably full on most weekends, but it’s much easier to fill a crowd when prices are on-par with a movie ticket. Next season, with ticket costs more than doubled, Blizzard may struggle to fill those pricey new arenas.
Mounting Stress for Players
The biggest concern is the players’ health. Most are freshly-graduated 18 to 22 year olds who have never worked full-time jobs, lived apart from their families, or supported themselves. Jumping straight into a 50-hour work week is hard enough, let alone one that requires weekly international travel. Players scrim for 8 hours a day, play matches every weekend, and set aside time for PR events. Next season, they’ll have to factor in travel time as well.
Either the players’ performance will suffer as they spend valuable scrim time sitting in an airplane, or they’ll tack more hours onto already-bloated schedules. There is no players’ union, no contract previsions for access to personal trainers, dietitians, or mental health professionals. The job is clearly a stressful one – over the past two seasons, several players have retired or taken leaves of absence. Next season, that number could rise to a worrying extent.
Promoting Growth and Preventing Failure
On the surface, localization makes a whole lot of sense. It’s what mainstream sports do, and most importantly, it could build fanbases and raise revenue, as Blizzard has already seen. The beta test for localization, the Dallas Homestand game, had an audience of 4,500 and hosted Stage 2’s most viewed matches – even higher than the Shock vs. Titans rematch.
Overwatch League and the esports scene are growing faster than ever before, but Overwatch can’t compete with the giants yet. At 24.3 million hours watched, the Overwatch League was the fourth-most popular esport in 2018. Still, these numbers aren’t as impressive when compared to competitors’: League of Legends (102.4 mil), Dota 2 (46.5 mil), and CS:GO (29.5 mil) still rule the scene.
Blizzard aims to fill that 5 million hour gap to third place with home-grown teams and city loyalty. It’s a bold plan, and it just might work. But why not plant more teams, let the finances stabilize, and add support resources for the players beforehand? Can the League really survive such a huge adjustment right now? The Overwatch League is one step away from the path to global relevance, and stepping forward with the right foot is key. This decision is a double-edged sword; either ascension to fame or a fall to failure awaits.
Graphics credited to Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment, SullyGnome.com, and MapCustomizer.com