The Overwatch League has officially entered the off-season, but unlike in recent years, something feels different. After this month’s Grand Finals, which saw the Dallas Fuel beat the San Francisco Shock in a 4-3 banger, the league has a sense of hope that had been missing in recent times.
For the past few years, no entity in esports has had a bigger chip on its shoulder than the Overwatch League. When it launched, it was Bobby Kotick’s bizarro dream to own an NFL-style competition. It had an absurd amount of money flowing through it, both in and out with huge sponsor deals and the league asking teams for $20 million to be part of. With a combo punch of a long and draining GOATs meta throughout Season 2 and a Covid-hit Season 3 though, that original gluttonous vision became a pipedream.
Throughout Seasons 4 and 5, the league continued, but it was in an awkward place. It was clear it could never compete with tier-1 esports like League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. That was especially true when it left Twitch in 2020, a platform it’d spent two years building on, for YouTube, a platform lesser known for its live streams.
Its fans remained dedicated though. While potentially dwarfed by other esport audiences, Overwatch League fans are fiercely loyal to the community and the game around it. Even through its toughest times, the core audience remained. However, there had been a growing sense, even in the most optimistic, that while it may coast for the time being, it would need something big to shake it out of its sleepwalk towards inevitability.
Many had hoped that would come with the league being played on Overwatch 2 this year, and while there was interest, it found itself in a bizarre situation. Players couldn’t play the game they were professional in unless they were in scheduled practice games with other teams. Meanwhile, viewers were watching a game they ultimately couldn’t play. While exciting and likely invaluable to the developers at Blizzard to see how Overwatch 2 was played at the top level, Season 5 was an awkward vanity project.
However, that spark everyone was hoping for reared its head in this year’s playoffs. With a mixture of the release of Overwatch 2, a strong marketing push, a hero reveal during the final day, genuinely exciting games throughout, and a relatively packed audience at the Anaheim Convention Center, it finally all came together. The Overwatch League found its groove again, thanks to games like one of the best Grand Finals the esports will ever see. When Dallas lifted the trophy at the end of the night, it became clear Overwatch esports was rising through the ranks once again.
And with Overwatch League head Sean Miller claiming that the final broke the esport’s all-time live global viewership record, and the tournament posting strong numbers throughout the playoffs, there was a feeling that permeated the league that hadn’t been there in a long time. In all my conversations at the venue, be they with fans, content creators, League personnel, or team managers, the one word that kept coming up was hope.
The 2022 Grand Finals felt like the most important night in the esport’s history. Not just a resurgence of enthusiasm, but a rebirth into something worth getting excited for. A cathartic moment for everyone still involved with the game to assure the wider esport scene, “we’re still here.”
This stopped being Bobby Kotick’s vanity project. Instead, its heart was wrestled away by the fans, casters, analysts, and players. The redemption arch of Dallas Fuel’s Tank Lee ‘Fearless’ Eui-Seok and his tears at becoming the Grand Finals MVP, a journey that started with him on the 0-40 Shanghai Dragons in Season 1, is as far away from the manufactured initial pitch as you could get. It was instead, incredibly personal, vulnerable, and human. It was his story, but it’s one everyone walked with him. Everyone shared a piece of it as he became overwhelmed with emotion. His tears were ours – he was our protagonist.
Now the season concludes and the hulking beast returns to its slumber. In the past, this break has been difficult for plans and players alike. Too often, League officials have gone silent for too long – up to over half the year – causing any momentum to ground to a halt. That’s not the case this year. I’ve been told by multiple sources that the Overwatch League is targeting a start around February or March 2023 – this is a moving target, though. However, it’s clear that officials want to capitalize on this momentum much faster than in previous seasons by only having a four or five month break.
To iterate that, I’ve heard that teams will be tasked with securing a playable roster (five players) by the end of the year, with a close date sometime in December. That’s why we’ve already seen massive team changes over the weekend, with contract options being exercised or passed on.
There are other important considerations this off-season too. Chiefly, the league’s YouTube broadcast exclusivity is up, meaning that a long-anticipated return to Twitch could be on the cards. While the playoff viewership will help in negotiations, the Overwatch League is unlikely to command the huge exclusivity prices it had previously. This leaves it in an interesting position, as Activision Blizzard could decide to risk it and forgo any exclusivity deal, making it (and possibly the Call of Duty League) available on multiple platforms, giving fans the freedom to co-stream as they please.
The Overwatch League has been the awkward child of esports for a few years now, but as the years have gone on, it has matured. While it first started out as a deeply expensive investment for teams, sponsors, and broadcasters that never quite reached its grand vision of a legitimate sport, hope is on the horizon. While there are a lot of questions for the off-season, such as the aforementioned decision on the broadcasting deal, as well as how much the excitement over the playoffs transfers into investment from teams, there’s an overriding sense that the league is in as good a position as it’s going to get.
Now it’s on those in charge to capitalize on this off-season where the decisions could well decide the future of the entire esport.
This is Overwatch League’s second wind, and it needs to strike.