2018 will be, as every year has for the past decade, a landmark for esports. More money, more players, more attention, more games, and more competition than ever before... again. Overwatch is going to be a huge part of this, if Blizzard have their way, and the central part of that is the Overwatch League. Announced at BlizzCon 2016, it’s the official competitive scene for the game with some seriously large goals in mind.
For the future of the game itself, check our constantly updated list of Overwatch future plans.
There’s a lot of different parts to this, so we’ve broken it up into sections below, which you can skip to using these links:
This is the question on everyone's lips, minds, and other appendages – when does this whole thing kick off? Despite it being announced at BlizzCon 2016 and promised to begin proper in 2017, the official start date is January 10, 2018. Exactly what caused the delay is anyone's guess, though pick up for teams is rumoured to not have been as quick as desired.
"Preseason play will start on Wednesday, December 6, with a series of exhibition matches featuring all 12 teams," explains the official press release. These will be played at the Blizzard Arena, along with all other Overwatch League games for the first season.
The Overwatch Contenders season zero tournament, a pre-cursor to the pre-cursor to OWL, took place during June. Season one is due to start in August, with an American and European division each giving out money and, presumably, seeding into whatever form the first season of OWL takes.
The first nine teams have been announced. The cities and their owners are as follows:
- Boston, USA: Robert Kraft, chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group and the New England Patriots
- New York, USA: Jeff Wilpon, co-founder and Partner of Sterling.VC and COO of the New York Mets
- Los Angeles, USA has two teams:
- Noah Whinston, CEO of Immortals
- Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owners of the LA Rams and Denver Nuggets
- Miami and Orlando, USA: Ben Spoont, CEO and co-founder of Misfits Gaming
- San Francisco, USA: Andy Miller, chairman and founder of NRG Esports
- London, UK: Cloud9
- Shanghai, China: NetEase
- Seoul, South Korea: Kevin Chou, co-founder of Kabam
ActiBlizz CEO Bobby Kotick called the announcement of teams the "biggest milestone" in setting up the League. He also said we'll "hear more about future team sales over the balance of the year, but we couldn't be more happy with the progress that we've made so far and it's really exciting."
A second round of three were announced, along with the start date, in September 2017. They are:
- Comcast Spectacor (Philadelphia), the owners of the Philadelphia Flyers and massive telecommunications brand
- Team Envy (Dallas), an esports brand with many years in the business.
- OpTic Gaming (Houston), an ex-COD, now CS:GO esports brand.
A rumoured 13th team based in Chicago, USA and owned by FlyQuest was also on the table, but doesn't seem to have made it to the first season. Needing an even number of teams to break things down properly, Blizzard likely wanted to expand the League in 2018 rather than try to force it now.
Team logos, names, schedules and so on are all expected to be released in the coming months. See below for all the rumours so far.
Blizzard have also announced some rules about how teams can be formed, in combination with the contract rules laid out below.
- Rosters are between six and 12 players.
- There are no region locks on who can be employed where - expect Koreans.
- Player housing and training facilities will be provided by teams, and they will be up to a standard set by Blizzard.
- Players under the age of 18 can sign contracts and practice, but cannot play in games until they turn 18.
Overwatch League team rosters
Rosters have begun to be announced, as we are now into the signing period, which ends on October 30 - just in time for BlizzCon, what a great coincidence. Here's the confirmed rosters so far.
This team is made up of players from the Lunatic-Hai professional team, arguably the best Overwatch team in the world right now having won APEX Season 2 and 3. It is likely they will flesh it out with more players as substitutes before long.
- Kim ‘EscA’ In-Jae, South Korea, DPS.
- Ryu ‘ryujehong’ Je-Hong, South Korea, Support/Flex
- Yang ‘Tobi’ Jin-Mo, South Korea, Support
- Gong ‘Miro’ Jin-Hyuk, South Korea, Tank
- Kim ‘Zunba’ Joon-Hyuk, South Korea, Flex
- Moon ‘Gido’ Gi-Do, South Korea, Flex
- Baek Kwang-Jin, South Korea, co-head coach
- Chae Ho-Jung, South Korea, co-head coach
The announcement trailer above and official site have given some fairly clear indications of what Blizzard want out of the Overwatch League, how it will be structured, and the big differences (and similarities) between it and things like the League of Legends LCS system.
City-based structure with franchises
This is the biggie, really – Overwatch teams will be based around cities, much in the same way NBA, NFL, or soccer teams are. In fact, those sports teams are exactly who Blizzard want to own the Overwatch squads. The aim is to, eventually, have a local team for major cities throughout the world, from LA to London, Seoul to Shanghai. They’ll be as relevant and valuable to that city as a well-performing major sports franchise.
What this also means is that there’s unlikely to be relegation from the league. Teams may move city, dump most of their players between seasons, or generally restructure, but they won’t ever be removed – the Golden State Warriors didn’t make the NBA playoffs for 12 years in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, now they’re one of the strongest teams of all time. That’s the ebb and flow that’s wanted.
Exactly how this works in 2017 is still a little up in the air. Don’t expect mid-tier teams and smaller cities to immediately have partnerships up and running while the system is still developing. It might be years before Overwatch League has a sizable presence in the US, Europe, Korea, and APAC, but that’s the endgame.
However, the up-shot of this is that those teams that have signed must create new brands for their Overwatch League team. There will not be a 'Cloud9 London Overwatch Team' - it will have a new name, backed by Cloud9 and their investors. This is identical to how the NFL, NBA and other American sports leagues operate - just because Robert Krat owns two teams doesn't mean they have the same name, or are even obviously connected.
50/50 revenue split with teams
A sports league has to be valuable to two parties: those who own it and those who take part. Money is made from "media rights and consumer products" as ActiBlizz put it, plus sponsorships and in-game merchandise. The plan for splitting it between big blue and the teams is that, once marketing and production costs have been taken off, it'll be even.
On top of this the teams will have their own revenue streams, especially as the system develops. "The more traditional areas like ticket sales and concessions and local sponsorships and local merch sales" said Spencer Neumann in the Q2 earnings call, "but they'll also have more unique opportunities such as the ability to host certain nonprofessional Overwatch matches." This was elaborated on in a blogpost on the Overwatch League site.
As for the in-game merchandise, Nate Nanzer said in an interview with PCGamesN that Blizzard weren't announcing the details yet but "it will definitely be its own thing" as opposed to borrowing the systems of Dota 2 or League of Legends. "I think it will be really exciting to give all Overwatch players the chance to show off in the game who their favourite team is."
To read between the lines a little, that says to me that skins, highlight intros, player icons and more are all on the table - but Nanzer also wouldn't give a timeframe on whether these team-funding microtransactions would be this year or later. "I don't have a timeline I can share at this point but I can say we are working on it."
Regular broadcasts, plus a “primetime game”
Once you’ve got your teams and your game, you need to get it to the people. Obviously, a large amount of this will be through Twitch, YouTube, and other online video broadcasts in a traditional manner. However, the pull of TV and other paid-for platforms is strong, in terms of money to be made and developing a reliable ecosystem.
In that regard, there’s mention of a “standalone primetime matchup between top teams” as part of the broadcast schedule. Speculation is that this will be an Eleague-style national broadcast, using the Sunday Night Football formula of having a “big game” as the focus of all international broadcasts at that time. It’s even possible it won’t be available for free at all.
Players taken from a global talent pool
Also mentioned on the announcement site is plans for teams to be constructed from a global pool of talent. While some readings of this suggest existing teams would be dissolved to run a draft, that’s not a realistic scenario that team owners, players, viewers, or anyone else is going to be happy about. More likely, this confirms that there will be no region locking, and that creating future teams or adding players to a team will have a more formal process.
In late June 2017, Blizzard began the process of actually forming this talent pool with a letter sent to all of the game's best players – the top 500 from each region with more competitive leanings, as well as any players that had done well in the limited tournaments so far. This letter asked for various pieces of information, as well as confirmation that those pros were interested in taking part on the Overwatch League. The intention was to build a big pool for the first draft.
Solid contracts and a plan to go from amateur to pro
The other half of that is making sure players are treated fairly. Blizzard have released details on the components of player contracts, here's a summary:
- Guaranteed year-long duration, with options to extend.
- $50,000 minimum salary
- Health insurance plan
- Retirement savings plan
- A minimum 50% share of performance bonuses from winning leagues and competitions given to players (so with six players, at least 8.3% each)
- This will amount to at least $3.5 million in season 1.
Blizzard also outline how the best ladder players will compete in online tournaments, then attend combines – essentially proving grounds – to show their worth to prospective teams. In fact, they consider anyone who is of-age, eligible to play and owns the game as a free agent. That includes anyone currently on a team, and nothing ties them to that team besides their own legal contracts.
This is a much more structured process than the normal hope-to-be-noticed system in other esports, though details are thin on the ground what a combine, for example, will actually entail.
The first major contract to get a lot of notice was for Sinatraa, who will be playing for the NRG Esports team out of San Francisco. He's making $150,000 a year at 17, something we can all relate to, no doubt. This came about as part of a bidding war, according to ESPN, between Cloud9 and NRG. That's a lot of cash on the line.
Ex-MLG are running the show
The MLG were purchased in full in late 2015 and so they've now been consolidated under the Activision Blizzard banner and will be running the Overwatch League, serving as the "operation foundation, partnership hub, and media production network" for both this and the COD World League. It will retain the MLG name.
It's a long-term project
While the above, along with all the hiring, should be evidence enough for this, Blizzard have said as much themselves. In their Q2 earnings call Spencer Neumann, CFO of Activision Blizzard, said "with the recently-announced sale of seven teams, we do expect some revenue upside to Q4, but it will be modest given the recognition of team sale proceeds over multiple years. Further, from an operating income perspective, the revenue recognition of team sales will be partially offset by the investment required to launch the league including inaugural season marketing.
"As we look ahead to the first season, we see a number of important upcoming milestones, including standing up league operations, supporting team's development of player rosters, attracting sponsors, elevating the viewer experience and securing media distribution. We're investing in this league for the long term. Over time, we expect to recognize additional revenues related to both more team sales and multiple league revenue streams. We see this as a substantial long-term value driver for the business."
For investors, that means they shouldn't be looking at a big W in the green column until a few years down the line. For players and casual viewers, it means that not only is this not going to disappear over night if it doesn't prove successful by the end of 2018, but it will grow. Depending on your opinion on how watchable Overwatch is, that's either going to lead to a massive league, a great slow growth or an incredible, self-multiplying train crash.
The post-Blizzcon delay wasn't a major issue
After the initial announcement at BlizzCon 2016, there was a long holding period before teams began to be announced and schedules locked in. During that time, rumours flew about problems getting the League together, complaints from teams about the cost of buying in and a general lack of interest. Blizzard, perhaps unsurprisingly, say it wasn't really an issue.
"I don’t think we really view it as damage that needs to be repaired," explains Nanzer. "We are very focused on building something that is very robust ecosystem that sits below the Overwatch League. If orgs want to participate in that they absolutely can, for us it is very important there is a development league for players.
"It is a really exciting time and I think that once Overwatch League launches people will forget about the time between last Blizzcon and [then]."
Esports brands and traditional sports brands are working together
With the split interest from esports teams and more traditional sports organisations, it's not obvious exactly what each part brings. Nanzer breaks it down between traditional sports being the masters of "building local brands, hosting events, selling local sponsorships and building generational fandom in a location" while esports is more of a global market. All the teams involved have been working with their own traditional sports investors to facilitate their place in the League.
Cloud9 have been working with their internal investors in a similar way, as CEO Jack Etienne explains:
"Cloud9 opened ourselves up to investment last year, end of last year, and we brought on not only traditional sports owners, but several retired and current players, and a host of media-related folks. They are bringing their experience to make sure Cloud9 is properly equipped to handle the challenges of the future.
"One of the largest owners of the Dodgers is a part of the Cloud9 investment team, and I literally speak with those guys on a weekly basis, on how are we going to handle the future and the issues that come up."
Blizzard’s official announcements aren’t the only source and much of what they say has implications we can infer. There’s also separate interviews, leaks, and more. Here’s what we’ve gotten from that.
Year one won’t be global, or have home and away games
This is more of a common sense situation. The league hasn’t started yet, and even the combined might of Big Bobby’s Big Wallet and the world’s most skin-hungry community isn’t going to magically produce a world-spanning league within a couple of months. America, Europe, SK and China are the focus for early teams, and while they may be based around cities, it’s unlikely they’ll be packing out a stadium every few days to host their rivals. Nate Nanzer extrapolated on this to us:
"There is a lot that goes into hosting home games right? You have to source a venue, you have to staff it, you have to sell tickets and concessions, you got to figure out how to run a show - there is a tremendous amount of operational capability required to host these home games. We will play the entire season out of a studio in LA [so that] teams have time to build the capability required.
"We hope to start having home and away as soon as possible, we don't have exact timelines to share on that but I know all of our teams are working on that building out those capabilities so they are able to host home games, as soon as possible after the first season."
The lack of surity and security in the League proved a problem for some investors, as revealed by the Reunited closing-down AMA. That same AMA showed that the US focus of the League was proving problematic for EU teams at the time, forcing them to move to North America.
Buying in is a high cost, but not unreasonable for esports teams
Rumours have swirled for a long time that getting into the Overwatch League takes a significant amount of investment. Numbers from $2 million to $30 million have been thrown around, though no confirmation has yet been heard. These prices are pointed at the billionaire corporations behind the world's largest sports franchises - hence why men like Robert Kraft and Jeff Wilpon own teams. The latest buy-in rumours say $20 million, which isn't exactly pocket change for average Joe.
However, Cloud9's CEO, Jack Etienne, says it was affordable in mid-2017, even if he wouldn't reveal quite how much it cost. "I’m not going to get into the details of how the deal works, I'll leave that for other folks to reveal. Obviously there is a capital component, and we already have the capital needs in house."
Blizzard have finished hiring for top positions
As part of that growth, Blizzard needed to hire for the Overwatch League. In fact, when the program was initially announced, they were hiring for all but the most senior positions within the department. See the above screenshot for what we mean, all of which have now disappeared and been filled.
This includes a fairly huge effort for editorial content focused on the Overwatch League, much like the LoL esports site does for Riot’s game. This was mentioned in the explanatory trailer embedded above, and will presumably operate out of the Overwatch League website. Currently, Blizzard are hiring for seven new positions in the League.
The global structure means higher viewership
Most games run regional structures with a global finals, partly to help with travel costs and partly to stop the Koreans winning everything. Overwatch League, at least to begin with, will operate a little differently, as Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne explained to us in an interview:
"Usually it's regional leagues so the North American vs North American teams, and maybe once or twice a year you will have an international event - but what is special about this is that every single game is an international event. At those international events you see a huge spike in viewership, to put it into comparison most games will have a 10 to 20 times increase in viewership when it is an international event because it's a global audience. So the fact that this is always going to be a global audience [means] I expect the viewership to be very strong."
Exactly how long the non-regional structure will last, as well as whether the same gains will be seen without regional games to compare to, remains to be seen. For C9's London team, they're unlikely to be joined by another squad for some time. Meanwhile LA, for example, has a local rivalry with two teams already set up there.
Outside the game, there’s a lot of work to be done – but the same is true in Overwatch itself. An ecosystem cannot be built around a game without help from the game itself, and these are ideas suggested by the community or we’ve come up with ourselves, mostly inspired by other games, that will help with just that.
In-game spectating of pro games
This is, arguably, the best thing Dota 2 has done for its own pro scene, and Heroes of the Storm has a similar system. It isn’t as widely used as you might expect, but what it does allow for is a lot of recognition by your average player as to what is happening on the pro scene. With 30 million players, which must have growth targets in the hundreds of millions, that’s a lot of eyeballs you want to be giving the best possible chance of getting invested in esports. This can also work cross-platform once the spectator system is implemented fully.
Improvements are also on the way to the spectator system in general, with Blizzard thinking hard about how it should work.
"We are still figuring out what is the best way to do even simple things," says Nanzer. "What number of observers should we have? What is the observer work flow? Is it more first person or third person? Should we be using free cam more? Do you want to see first person on just the DPS or on all characters? There is so many things we are working on, and that the game team is focused on, and I am so excited to see how it evolves."
That’s the info we have so far on the Overwatch League, but there’s likely to be far more popping up as we head towards BlizzCon.