Blizzard is definitely making waves with their ambitious plan for the Overwatch League. With just an announcement and very little information, the speculation and anticipation has made it a very hot topic across the community. However, there have definitely been some interesting developments on this front. The biggest news is Blizzard’s announcement of a new ‘minor league’ they are calling “Overwatch Contenders.” The timing of this announcement is suspicious, as it comes on the back of several major eSports organizations, including TSM, dropping their Overwatch teams. Many of the organizations are citing the pricing of Overwatch League spots as a key factor in their decisions.
What is Overwatch Contenders?
Overwatch Contenders is an interesting and unprecedented attempt at knocking down the barriers that may be preventing unknown talent from blowing up in the world of eSports. Season Zero of Overwatch Contenders will be an open sign-up, meaning if you and 5 friends have hands and an internet connection, you can prove your worth. Sign-ups are only available to teams in the North American and European regions and will close June 2nd. On June 3rd and 4th, Overwatch Contenders will be hosting an online qualifier to determine the top 16 teams from the North American region. Europe will be having their qualifier on June 10th and 11th.
After the qualifying round, the top 16 teams from each region will advance to a two-day group stage. This group stage will be taking place between June 17th and June 25th. The top eight from each region’s group stage will advance to the playoffs. Overwatch Contenders playoffs will be taking place in Europe on Saturday, July 1st, and in North America on Sunday, July 2nd. Each of these playoff tournaments will have a prize pool of $50,000, a substantial pot for potentially unknown teams.
The next step for Overwatch Contenders and the teams that are participating will be to advance to Season One, which as of yet has no beginning date. However, Blizzard has already announced that the top six teams from Season Zero NA Playoffs will be advancing to a six-week, round-robin group stage for Season One. The remaining two spots in Overwatch Contenders Season One will include APEX Season 3 participants Team EnVyUs and Rogue. The top four teams from the group stage will advance to a playoff bracket with a prize pool of $100,000.
Overwatch Contenders, Going Forward.
Overwatch Contenders Season One Europe will be slightly different. The proposed structure will include all eight teams from Contenders Season Zero, no professional teams, and will be a regular season structure rather than a round-robin. The top 4 teams, however, will similarly advance to a playoffs bracket and fight for a share of $100,000. This plan may change, as many of Blizzard’s competitive Overwatch plans still seem rather tentative.
The final interesting portion of the Overwatch Contenders announcement are the plans for the Overwatch Open Division. There is little information, but it appears that Blizzard plans for this to be some kind of challenger division. Likely we will see a structure similar to how Riot Games handles their amateur, semi-pro, and professional teams. Open Division will feed into Overwatch Contenders, making Overwatch Contenders a player farm for the pro teams of the Overwatch League.
Problems With The Overwatch League.
The Overwatch League is still very much under construction. You wouldn’t know though, given how tight-lipped Blizzard is being about it. The prospected start date for the Overwatch League is still a very vague “2018.” Their ambition for this is unrivaled in eSports, but with Blizzard’s direction, they are generating a fair bit of skepticism. As Blizzard moves forward there have been some pretty controversial developments for the Overwatch League. For starters, he Geo-location aspect that they intend to implement tremendously limits the talent from regions outside of North America. With only five teams of the proposed 16 to be representing other regions, there will be minimal representation of talent from those regions. Furthermore, some regions like China and Korea, already have established Overwatch leagues with steady competition. These regions will have less incentive to send talent to compete in a predominantly North American competition.
Secondly, Blizzard and Activision have not hidden the fact that they are looking to established sports franchises as investors. There have already been sign-ons from the owners of both the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins. However, the pricing per spot and the contract terms are only manageable for large corporations. Existing eSports franchises seeing success in games like LoL and CS:GO won’t be able to afford a $20 million buy-in. For some perspective, a spot in League of Legends’ NA LCS sold for just shy of $2 million. On top of this crazy steep buy-in, that $20 million doesn’t even guarantee revenue sharing until 2021. This means that only established major franchises can afford the long term investment.
Finally, Overwatch has the problem of trying to establish a massive presence in an industry dominated by games nearly a decade old. Overwatch has only been around for a year, and the kind of loyal community that could support this isn’t there. Blizzard may be trying to ride a wave that is still a couple of years behind. They are trying to get ahead of eSports, and shape the growth of the industry. This will be very difficult: they are banking on a game that has nearly zero eSports following.
Why Overwatch Contenders?
With the obvious hardships that Blizzard is facing with their propositions for the Overwatch League they needed something to establish an e-sports presence in North America and Europe. The broadcasting of the Overwatch Contenders qualifiers and subsequent stages will create an interest in eSports for the casual players. In addition, the ease of access it presents to players breaks two very important barriers for potential talent.
First, Overwatch Contenders will allow for small franchises to prove their worth and may prompt potential roster and brand buy-outs from the bigger players. As these small teams play in Overwatch Contenders they will develop talent and brand recognition. The larger franchises that are currently in talks with Blizzard will see this and want to capitalize on that growth by thrusting a loved brand into the limelight of the Overwatch League as it develops.
Second, as we start to see more attention being placed on the Overwatch Open Division there will be more potential for the individual player. One of the largest obstacles for players who want to go pro is getting on a stage to prove themselves. Another problem these young players face is proving the viability of their dreams. Blizzard is definitely ahead of the curve on this, and as things develop there is really only one predictable pathway. First, Blizzard creates a global league for professional play worth hundreds of millions. Then, Blizzard creates a minor league team to allow for organization and brand growth. Next, Blizzard creates a clear path to professional play for the individual, similar to how college sports prospect young players. Finally, your mother accepts that you can have a successful life playing video games.
The Future of The Professional Overwatch Complex.
Blizzard will undoubtedly continue to see a large amount of criticism, at least until they succeed. Blizzard definitely does not care, at all. One of the most creative and successful video game developers of all time knows their vision. They see through the fog of war and will continue to be ahead of the industry. Blizzard will surely shape the eSports industry in a way that players and organizations have only hoped for. Failing to realize the potential of this monumental undertaking, and finding your place in it, will see you left behind.
If you are trying to break out into the Overwatch scene, Blizzard is reaching out to you. If you and your friends are smart enough to hear the call, register your team for Overwatch Contenders. Be a part of the movement that will destroy the stigma of eSports. This is not a game. It’s an industry.