The Overwatch League’s third season has been a bumpy one. Like every other professional gaming league, OWL has been forced to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting to an online format in lieu of in-person games.
Meanwhile, viewership is down after the league moved from Twitch to YouTube, star players like Jay “Sinatraa” Won have retired and moved on to other games (most notably Riot’s just-released team shooter Valorant), the once-dominating Vancouver Titans dropped their entire roster midseason, and the ever-changing hero pools have been taxing for teams trying to refine their strategies.
Amid all of that turmoil, there has been at least one bright spot. Last month, OWL put on a tournament — appropriately dubbed May Melee — that began with several weeks of qualification, followed by a tense weekend-long knockout competition. It was a hit, more than doubling the previous week’s average audience with 63,000 viewers. Meanwhile, a peak of 88,000 people tuned in to the North American finals between Florida and San Francisco.
Because of this, the league is restructuring the rest of the 2020 season with a focus on more tournaments. “We think the May tournament went really well, so we’re going to run it back accordingly,” says Jon Spector, VP of Overwatch esports.
As citizens across the US and the world participate in protests against police brutality after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, several Overwatch League teams have posted messages supporting Black Lives Matter, condemning racism, and in some cases offering financial assistance. A small number of players have similarly spoken up as well.
It’s a stark contrast to last year, when Hearthstone player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung was banned and had his prize money withheld for showing support for the Hong Kong protests in a post-match interview. (The ban was later reduced, and the prize money returned.) However, despite the difference in overt messaging, Blizzard doesn’t appear to have changed any of its policies between Blitzchung’s ban and the more recent statements from OWL teams and players.
When asked what would happen if a player voiced support for Black Lives Matter during an official game, Spector didn’t answer directly, instead pointing to the league’s public code of conduct. When it comes to political messaging, the code says that:
Throughout the period on match day that a player, team manager, or owner is visible to the league’s and / or team’s live and camera audience(s), they may not wear, display or otherwise convey personal messages without express league office approval, which approval shall not be granted for political messages.
The rest of the OWL season will consist of two more monthly tournaments, structured the same as May Melee. Each will begin with three weeks of qualification leading up to two regional competitions: one for teams in North America, another for those in Asia. (There will also be a handful of matches afterward for teams that, due to the pandemic, need to catch up and play more games before the playoffs begin.) There are a few small tweaks to the formula — the June tournament will increase the overall prize pool to $275,000, a boost of $50,000 — but otherwise the goal is to replicate the May tournament’s success. Matches will start on June 13th.
Spector believes that one of the reasons OWL struggled early on in 2020 is because of its disjointed structure. “When we were first forced into moving to online play and cancelling homestands, we had to go to a space where we were kind of planning week to week,” he explains. “We didn’t know what two weeks from now would look like, we certainly didn’t know what a month from now would look like. We needed to sort of do the best we could this weekend, and then make a plan for next weekend.” But with the tournaments that changes: suddenly fans have a larger storyline to follow on a weekly basis. “It’s hard to latch on to that when you don’t really know what happens next,” Spector says.
The new structure is also reminiscent of earlier OWL seasons. In its first two years of existence, each Overwatch League season was split into four stages, each with their own mini championship. It added extra moments of excitement throughout the year, but the concept was scrapped for 2020 as the league planned to move to a new “homestand” format with games played in various cities across the globe. “It’s a step back in that direction,” Spector says of the new structure. “When we talked about the 2020 format, my biggest regret was that we had to drop the stages concept because I thought that over our first few seasons the stage playoffs were some of our best moments.”
Elsewhere, the league is making other changes. Hero pools — a relatively new system that bans certain characters from competitive play — will now change every two weeks, as opposed to weekly, to allow teams more time to practice. There will also be no banned heroes during the knockout stages. OWL also recently reinstated token drops, a long-requested feature that was lost when the league moved to YouTube.
These changes don’t solve all of the league’s problems. While viewership was up last month, it’s still far behind most other major esports, and it’s not clear what changes are necessary to keep star players from jumping over to the hottest new game. But the new tournament structure at least shows that OWL is willing to be flexible and adapt. They saw some success last month and are immediately trying to build on it. “Let’s do more of that,” says Spector.