Blizzard’s new Overwatch league: Merits and Questions

Last Updated July 15th, 2021

At Blizzcon 2016, Blizzard announced the brand new Overwatch League, an organization dedicated to changing the face of e-sports as we know it. The goal is to turn e-sports from a Wild West of assorted competitions into a respectable career that parallels traditional sports leagues like the NFL. Through Blizzard’s efforts in the Overwatch League, they hope to drastically increase player stability and job security. They also hope to provide new resources for scouting new talent and increasing the sport’s life-span and spectator interest.

Unfortunately, details about this new league are slim at the moment. While it appears that Blizzard has a good framework, the devil is in the details. Here are some of the things we like about Blizzard’s new league, and the important questions we still have. The answer to these questions could mean the difference between a league that fizzles out in a year or two, and a revolution in the world of electronic sports entertainment.

Merit – Overwatch is still young

The biggest strength the Overwatch League has going for it is the relative youth of Overwatch as an e-sport. Mike Morhaime said it best in an interview with ESPN:

“This is about doing what we can to allow Overwatch e-sports to achieve its full potential, and I think we have a big opportunity with Overwatch since the game is newly launched, we don’t have an existing ecosystem and we can really design our league upfront in a way that’s best for players and teams.”

The Overwatch scene hasn’t even figured out the best tournament structure yet, and while most would see that as a weakness, Blizzard can turn it into strength. They have an unprecedented amount of space to experiment with their new league without causing massive desertion from one or two rules changes. They also have very few competitors in the scene. Establishing a league would be much harder to do if they had to usurp an already existing tournament series from its seat of popularity. There is much more potential for this league to succeed than there would be if, say, Valve suddenly tried to do the same with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Question – What will Blizzard do to guarantee its life-span?

One of the big dangers of a young e-sport is uncertainty. We have no idea if Overwatch will remain popular enough to be an e-sport in the next few years. Sure, 20 million players are playing now. However, a ton of arcade-style shooters are set to release in the next few years, saturating the market. For the league to succeed, Blizzard has to take action to ensure that Overwatch remains a profitable and entertaining e-sport in the future, and that’s easier said than done.

Merit – Teams will be locally fielded

E-sports have needed local teams and team narratives for ages. The ability to root for your home team is a huge aspect of traditional sports. The prospect of seeing income from their local teams is what gets major cities to build stadiums or other sporting facilities. This is a huge step in making e-sports more of a mainstream activity and will begin to intertwine e-sports, local governments, and general fandoms.

Merit – Team Owners will bid for their location

Just a note, being able to bid for your location is a great idea. Not only will it generate revenue, but it will also allow all teams the opportunity to represent the city that they think has the best talent and provides the best business opportunities.

Merit – Teams will have guaranteed stability and secured spots in the league

E-sports today are super risky. You could be the biggest team in the world yet a few random losses could kick you out of major competitions. Imagine an entire NFL season without seeing your local team play a single game! Secured spots give teams leeway to fail every so often. This will make them less likely to treat players as expendable, ditching them after a single bad performance.

Question – How will all of this interact with the international scene?

Blizzard hasn’t revealed what counts as a “major team.” International e-sport teams routinely scout multiple players from the same small region. Will there be enough “major teams” to support them? Will these teams be limited to their own region when scouting players, or can they ship in players from all around the world? Will there have to be a certain amount of teams per region? Or per country? All of this will factor in to how accessible the league is to an international audience and player-base.

Question – Will there be enough players to field local teams?

Take our previous questions and reverse them. Will there be enough Overwatch talent for every team? Not every city in the United States, for example, is known for its e-sports talent. While I have no doubt that there will be plenty of players in, say, New York or California, I have worries that there will be enough talent to create a team centered around, say, Tennessee. If not, then the league might begin to feel exclusive to a metropolitan audience, when the goal is to make it universally accessible.

Merit – All players will get a baseline salary

Finally, someone put their foot down and said: “Professional gamers deserve to be paid.” Even as e-sports have exploded into the mainstream spotlight, players still have a hard time getting paid. Many teams will sign players for free “trial periods,” and others pay players only based on performance.

Some e-sports competitors fall from being one of the most up-and-coming stars to a complete nobody in just a couple of losses. They push themselves super hard for very little reward, and it’s just not fair. An actual salary will allow the players to devote themselves to their craft, despite losses, once again reducing their expendability. It will also allow them to truly live off of their sport, without having to necessarily devote time to streaming, content creation, marketing deals, or other secondary methods of income.

Question – What will that salary be?

While a baseline salary is a great idea, Blizzard has to make that salary respectable. Frankly, no e-sport competitor could survive on minimum wage with the hours they have to put in. Whether this will actually be a boon to players or an excuse for teams to shortchange them will be decided by how much Blizzard thinks e-sport competitors are worth.

Question – What benefits will players get?

Along with the baseline salary, players in the Overwatch League will get a baseline benefits package. Once again, the devil is in the details. Will competitors get health coverage? Dental coverage? Travel insurance? Will they get time off? Will they get compensated if they are injured? Don’t laugh! Hand injuries are a real issue in e-sports!

Question – Where will Blizzard get the money for this?

For every team to pay a salary to every player and every coach, they’ll need the money for it, and that money has to come from somewhere. Blizzard probably can’t foot the bill themselves, and professional gamers aren’t going to be featured on the front of a box of Wheaties anytime soon. There has to be some strategy for revenue generation in order to make teams even capable of following these rules for compensation.

Question – How will Blizzard force teams to abide by these rules?

It’s unclear what measures Blizzard will have in place to prevent teams from simply not giving a salary to their signed players. Sure, they can kick those teams out of the league, but remember that teams have to want to play in the Overwatch League.

Right now, The Overwatch League isn’t any better than any other tournament scene, and without participating teams it will remain nothing more than a dream. So the big question is, are there enough teams that will play ball for the league to be a success and, if not, what can Blizzard do to keep them in line while also keeping them a part of the league?

Question – What will Blizzard do to create job security?

Even though the Overwatch League will provide a baseline salary and benefits for its players, there appears to be nothing in place preventing teams from treating their players like expendable commodities. In e-sports, it’s not uncommon for players to be traded and let go in a matter of months, or even weeks. Will the contract that players sign guarantee them a certain run of service, or can they be ditched as soon as they lose a game or two?

Merit – Blizzard will run a scouting combine to field new talent

Getting picked up by a team these days is really just a matter of luck. You have to go to a qualifier, show off your stuff, and hope that somebody watching gives a damn. There’s no established path to an e-sports career, nothing you can do specifically to up your chances of being noticed by a professional team. You just have to play your hardest and hope for the best.

The scouting combine changes all that. It introduces a process into talent scouting. Now up and coming players will know where they have to play, what they have to do, and how they have to do it to really stand a chance of making it as a pro.

Question – Other than playing Overwatch, what will players do at the combine?

In the NFL, amateur players don’t just play games of football. They are run through a series of tests for athletic fitness and even mental ability! Will Overwatch players do the same? Will we be seeing would-be professional gamers taking IQ tests?

Question – What role will “editorial content” take in scouting?

Blizzard has mentioned that “editorial content” will factor in to whether or not players can get signed at the combine. This seems to point toward a player’s popularity on the internet, i.e. whether or not they have been routinely noticed by streamers and commentators. Unfortunately, this might cause the combine to become reduced to a popularity contest, in a worst case scenario.

One of the strengths of having a league is that players get to focus on the game rather than their online image, but if online image factors into scouting then the league is basically counteracting its own benefits.

Question – What role will online leagues and “third party events” have in scouting?

Another thing that will factor into scouting is an athlete’s performance in other “third party” events, aka other Overwatch tournaments. However, if the Overwatch League isn’t as popular or profitable as these tournaments, they will quickly overshadow it. This puts the Overwatch League in a vulnerable position. Why spend tons of time and money playing in third party tournaments in an attempt to enter the Overwatch League when you may be able to earn a living on third party tournaments alone?

Question – How much will Blizzard and professional teams assist in getting amateurs to the combine?

Not everyone can hop on a plane and travel to a combine to get scouted. Will Blizzard give amateur players any assistance at all? Will we see Overwatch scholarships get issued the way football scholarships do? Or are players on their own in financing their rise to the top?

In the traditional sports world, a good enough athlete can get a scholarship to college and get scouted from their college team while spending only a moderate amount of their own money. If we don’t see similar paths to success in the Overwatch League, it may end up a playground for the rich.

Question – What will tournaments and seasons look like?

E-sports competitors have already had issues with Overwatch’s patches seriously changing the game before major events. Will the Overwatch League help to release patches in such a way that doesn’t disrupt an e-sports season? Will Overwatch seasons be scheduled in such a way that they don’t conflict with other major e-sports events? Will the tournament structure and schedule give players enough time to relax and train without travel?

Question – Will preference be shown for specific platforms? Is this PC only?

For now, Overwatch has only been a successful e-sport on the PC platform. But the 20 million players are scattered between Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Will the Overwatch League scout players from the console market? If so, will they be forced to learn to play with a keyboard and mouse? What version of Torbjorn will they play against – console or PC?

Question – What will Blizzard do to help this format spread to other e-sports?

Finally, we have the million-dollar question: can Blizzard standardize this league format? All of these ideas are fantastic, but if they are confined to just Overwatch then they do little to help e-sports as a whole. By attempting to form the first serious league modeled around traditional sports, Blizzard also has taken the responsibility of being a trailblazer onto their shoulders. They kind of have a moral imperative to attempt to spread this format as far as they can. If they don’t, then the dream of professional e-sports being treated like traditional sports will die when Overwatch does.

What do you think? Will this help change the word of e-sports? Or are there far too many questions left unanswered? Let us know in the comments.