As the Overwatch League heads into its third year of existence, it’s becoming more and more important that the league doesn’t lose sight of its original blueprint and cave in under its own expectations.
After two years of failing to reach the exorbitant marks that Blizzard set out to achieve, it’s time for OWL to kick things into high gear in 2020. While the last two years have been somewhat admirable, it’s clear that the scale that the league has in mind for itself is clearly not on the same plane as the league’s current state. Back in early 2018, it appeared that the Overwatch League would have enough hype behind it to propel the game into the stratosphere. Now, the competitive scene is lucky if it stacks up to its contemporaries.
With 20 global franchises and hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) invested into the product, it’s obvious that this year will have to be a turning point for the Overwatch League – the future of the game at the competitive level depends on it.
If the league experiences another year of stagnation, the interest level in Overwatch as a product on a more general scale could diminish greatly. Historically, there’s always been a correlation between the success of a game at the professional level and the success of a game on a more generalized basis.
Institutions like the Overwatch League serve as reinforcements in the esports sphere for games that could use boosts at every turn. If someone turns on Overwatch League, they might be encouraged or inspired to go play some Overwatch.
Of course, there was a massive disconnect between the product on the screen at the competitive level and the quality of gameplay in the actual community, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.
What’s really important here is that, heading into 2020, the league can’t lose faith in itself. Those who developed the foundations of the competitive scene should be the ones who nurture it into its next stage of maturation. Unfortunately, for the most part, many of the major players and personalities who laid the foundations of the Overwatch League won’t be there to see it develop in its third year of existence.
Major talent in all aspects of the league was lost this offseason, as some of the pioneers of the game on the competitive level such as Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles and Do-hyeon “Pine” Kim, just to name a couple, moved on from OWL this past offseason. Whether it was on the stage or in the broadcast booth, this offseason quickly turned into an elephant graveyard.
There’s a significant changing of the guard in the Overwatch League going into 2020, and while it’s certainly intriguing to see plenty of new faces take the stage, there’s definitely going to be a bit of a void where the league’s most pivotal pieces once stood.
We’re only in year three and the turnover rate for OWL is unprecedented in comparison to almost any competitive esports league ever. When you look at other leagues around the world (and the sphere of competitive gaming as a whole) – take League of Legends’ LCS for example – many of the players who brought into the scene early on stuck around for the long haul. It takes much longer than two years for the average esports athlete to retire, but in the Overwatch League, it’s considered an accomplishment if you can make it to your third season.
When players as storied and recognizable as someone like Jacob “Jake” Lyon are hanging up the mouse and keyboard just a couple of years into their careers, there’s obviously going to be questions of Overwatch League specific burnout and sustainability that come to mind. And now, as the league starts to add a factor such as travel on a global scale into the mix, those same questions will be raised on an even stronger level.
Most importantly, the players in the league can’t lose faith in the infrastructure that Blizzard is developing here if OWL is going to have long term success. Leagues like the aforementioned LCS leaned on its most prominent players in its early stages of development, and many of those players stuck around to give the league structure and support. Pieces of talent like Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg got in on the ground floor and were able to not only see the league succeed around them, but play a pivotal role in that success, as well.
If the Overwatch League wants to succeed down the stretch – let’s say 7 or 8 years from now – it’s going to have to hold on to its most valuable players. If players like Jay “Sinatraa” Won, Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park, and Joon-yeong “Profit” Park, for example, were to leave the scene altogether, the value of the league would go down immensely.
It’s in trying times like this where the Overwatch League needs to take its most marketable faces and bank on them for a victory in the sector of longevity – the integrity of esports depends on this league lasting a while.
With so many big names investing in OWL before it even existed, it’s of utmost importance that the league returns those margins back to the deep-pocketed individuals who took Blizzard’s leap of faith. For many of the OWL owners, this league is the only attachment that they have to the world of esports. If OWL fails in their eyes, then esports as a whole fails in their eyes.
Of course, that’s not to say that esports would hilariously fall flat if not for big time investors like the Kraft and Wilpon families – in fact, the industry has done quite well without them (if anything, they’re just late to the party). However, the amount of money that they bring to the table could be put to good use in a scene that’s already starting to boom.
And yet, while the owners and investors who fuel the leagues definitely play a pivotal role in the financial success of esports as a whole, it’s the players and personalities that give the scene a sense of overwhelming and undeniable stability. From Doublelift to Sinatraa and everyone in between, it’s important to remember that the ones behind the keyboards are the ones that drive the scene forward.
In the case of the Overwatch League, it’s reasonable to say that if the project is going to be successful, then in five years, Stan Kroenke should look at Ji-hyeok “birdring” Kim through the same lens as Jared Goff while Jeff Wilpon should look at Sung-hyeon “JJoNak” Bang with the same lens as Pete Alonso. The players on these teams should have as much value as the name of the team, itself.
It’s obvious that this year will be a “make or break” season for the league, but if there’s going to be any sort of focal point that could potentially put the Overwatch League over the edge, it’ll be the function which the players serve in the greater scheme of the landscape as a whole. While the future of Overwatch on a competitive level hangs in the balance, those who drive the game forward will most definitely be the ones to save it.
Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment, The Overwatch League, Robert Paul