If you have been following competitive Overwatch, you may have heard of the Overwatch League (OWL) along with the speculation and fear surrounding it. In just the past week, five teams have left the competitive OWL scene completely and some tournaments, such as Alienware’s Monthly Melee, came to an abrupt end. Many suspect this is part of a larger strategy by Activision Blizzard, to build a league that will look a lot more like one of the big four (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) and have less of an eSports structure.
Economically, having OWL follow a model similar to the big four makes sense for Blizzard as this would give them Riot-like control over rules and players. Moving away from an eSports structure would also provide the opening to charge a nearly unlimited amount for team slots. Already there are rumors of slots going from $6 to $20 million dollars and high profilers such as Robert Kraft (New England Patriots owner) and Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins) rumored to have purchased some of the first slots.
While moving towards a big four model may be smart economic move for Blizzard, it is also seen by some as the main reason for the mass exodus of major players like Complexity from the Overwatch scene. Unlike games such as CS:GO and League of Legends who have huge global followings and viewerships with proven high revenue capabilities for the teams invested, Overwatch is seen as a relatively new, smaller eSport in the early development stage. The viewership is highly North American-based, with the EU and Asia showing fairly low overall interest. This makes it a hard sell for investors to pony up big money for something so new, while being given little guarantee for the return on their investment.
With other eSports like CS:GO, teams are able to supplement their incomes through ad revenue from streams, merchandising and sponsorships. This lightens the blow of large tournament buy-ins and travel expenses, an area Overwatch has yet to develop. Leaving teams with a huge bill they can only hope to pay off by winning the few tournaments that are able to get licensing is a huge risk; a risk some teams are not willing to take anymore. I believe the five teams that have bowed out of Overwatch are doing so until they feel it becomes a better investment, and they probably won't be the last to make a similar decision over the coming weeks.
Blizzard has been very tight-lipped about their overall plans and cryptic in their responses to teams leaving and to speculations flying around. We don't know for sure what the long-term effects of the new OWl will be on the games viability as an eSport, but if Blizzard does pull it off, it will be something we have never seen before in the world of eSports. I am excited to see where this goes and encourage all of you to keep an open mind, even if this means your favorite team has taken a step back for the time being. Remember, it is very early in the life of Overwatch; there will always be growing pains when trying to build a league, just look at how much the NFL has evolved over the years.
Since posting this piece this morning, three more teams have exited the league bringing the total up to eight professional teams that have decided to focus their efforts on other games in the Esports world. Although some of these teams would be considered tier 2 or 3 we have also lost some major players today such as LG-Loyal and Fnatic which in my opinion is a major blow to the league as a whole.