Activision Blizzard executives were entitled to feel upbeat as they looked forward to the third season of the Overwatch League. They had just tied up a lucrative streaming rights deal with YouTube, major sponsors like Coca-Cola and Budweiser were on board and their grand vision was about to come to fruition.
The Overwatch League is designed to follow a similar format to the NFL by leveraging fan allegiance to a geographical region and not just a team. The third season was the first time it would adopt the traditional home and away format, with games taking place across the world. The focus was firmly on ticket sales, team travel and local partnerships alongside broadcast rights, and this ambitious project looked poised to finally take the esports world by storm.
Yet the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray when a pandemic turns the world on its head. Activision Blizzard’s grand design was scuttled before it really got going. First homestands in China and South Korea were cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak, and then all Overwatch 2020 homestands were called off after it developed into a full-blown global pandemic.
A Global Crisis
No esport has emerged unscathed from the coronavirus crisis. The LPL season in China was ravaged. Dota 2 publisher Valve was forced to cancel The International, the richest tournament in the world. CS:GO’s first Major of the year was scrapped. There will be no Fortnite World Cup this year.
However, the Overwatch League has arguably been hit harder than any other competitive gaming tournament. No other esport placed such a heavy emphasis upon mimicking a traditional sports league. The Overwatch League has reverted to online play, so fans are still able to enjoy exciting action, but Activision Blizzard’s grand vision lies in tatters.
Sports leagues around the world are starting to resume. The Bundesliga in Germany led the charge in May, followed by the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A in June. MLB players have finally agreed to a 60-game season beginning in late July, while NBA stars have gathered at the Disney World campus in Orlando, where they will see out the remaining games of the season. The NFL still plans to begin in September.
However, all of these games are taking place behind closed doors, with no fans to watch the live action and a thoroughly sterile atmosphere. There is no end in sight for Covid-19, so sporting events will be held in empty arenas for the foreseeable future.
The Overwatch League could follow suit, as it would be a shame to see venues like the $50 million Overwatch stadium in Philadelphia going to waste, but it seems somewhat pointless when the action can simply take place online. That is the route taken by CS:GO and LoL, and the Overwatch League may have to continue online until a vaccine is found or herd immunity is reached.
Overwatch now faces another significant challenger in the form of Valorant, the five-on-five tactical first-person shooter from LoL publisher Riot Games. It looks a lot like Counter-Strike, but there are also striking similarities to Overwatch, putting Valorant in direct competition with both titles.
Twitch viewers spent an astonishing 470 million hours watching the game in beta, and the buzz around Valorant is enormous. Overwatch League pros certainly took note. Jay “Sinatraa” Won, named Overwatch League MVP last year after leading San Francisco Shock to glory, was the first big name to abandon Overwatch in a bid to make it as a Valorant superstar. Washington Justice captain Corey Nigra then became the next star to defect after falling in love with Valorant while playing it in beta.
It would be hyperbole to call it an exodus, but Damien “HyP” and some other talented players have also switched to Valorant. It does not have a concrete esports scene yet, but Riot has enjoyed great success in the world of competitive gaming – LoL is easily the world’s most popular esport – and it has laid out plans to turn Valorant into “an esport worthy of your lifelong attention and interest”.
That should set alarm bells ringing among Overwatch League executives. Before Valorant came along, CS:GO and Overwatch were the dominant FPS titles in the competitive gaming sector. Call of Duty lacks the skill ceiling to challenge for CS:GO’s crown, and it follows a different format – releasing new games periodically, on a paid-for basis, rather than constantly updating the same free-to-play game. The hero-based Overwatch is a different proposition to CS:GO, and the two could peacefully coexist, but Valorant falls somewhere between the two, so it can shake up the genre and steal players and viewers from both games.
Hanging in the Balance
It would be unfair to call the Overwatch League a failure. Nobody could have foreseen the Covid-19 pandemic, which has crippled the global economy and ravaged all sectors of the sports and entertainment industry. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, as fans could be allowed inside some sporting arenas soon, and Overwatch League could rebound.
It has long-term deals in place with advertisers like Coca-Cola, YouTube is in for the long haul as a broadcast partner and major companies like Comcast are investing heavily in infrastructure. It remains a great game, and it has every chance of future success.
New titles are always going to come along and shake up the esports scene. Sometimes they stick, and sometimes they flop. Blizzard knows that as well as anyone after watching Heroes of the Storm fail to break the LoL-Dota duopoly within the MOBA genre. Apex Legends was supposed to herald the death knell for Fortnite, but that did not happen.
Blizzard Entertainment execs can still feel quietly confident about the future health of the Overwatch League. New players like Han “Sp9rk1e” Kim show great promise. Matches still attract large audiences. Overwatch betting is extremely popular.
Meanwhile, the overall esports industry continues to enjoy double-digit annual growth. Global viewership will hit 495 million in 2020, according to NewZoo, and continue to soar in the years ahead. There could well be room for Overwatch, Valorant, CS:GO and many more newcomers to flourish alongside one another in future.
However, Overwatch League execs clearly face a ferocious challenge as they bid to stay relevant and popular during these times of great uncertainty. They must display agility, flexibility and diligence to secure the long-term health of the league.