Despite a promise of possible normalcy for esports sometime in 2021, a lot of competitive scenes are heading toward disaster and might not be able to recover from a chaotic 2020 full of unforeseen challenges. One of those esports is Overwatch.
With a delayed start to Overwatch League this year as well as Blizzard casting doubts on Overwatch 2's release, there's already the worry whether the esport would survive the year. So the Overwatch Path to Pro update we got heading into the weekend was exactly the news nobody wanted: Overwatch's competitive scene is drastically dwindling. Confirmed.
Path to Pro update highlights Tier 2 struggles
Overwatch's Path to Pro team took to Reddit to bring the community an update for 2021. As expected, fans on Reddit easily saw through the carpet recap of the few positives of 2020 and focused on the troubling implications of the 2021 update.
"We’ve made the difficult decision to end the Contenders program in South America," Path to Pro rep Dan McHugh said, offering himself as a sacrifice. "The program hasn’t been performing to the level we expect and we want to thank those who have been a part of such a passionate scene the past few years."
McHugh attempted to explain that this decision was in line with Path to Pro's vision of "developing talent for the Overwatch League" Basically, about 100 Contenders players became coaches, players, and even on-air talent for the Overwatch League — but not enough of them were from South America.
One Reddit user put it best: Contenders is a battle royale where the weakest region is removed every year. While the purpose is to obviously find top Overwatch talent, it's clear that the Overwatch scene just doesn't have the capacity to support regions that don't have as much promise as North America, Korea, China, and Europe. It's less about the promise of a region's esports scene, but about which one Blizzard can safely remove to save the most money and receive the least backlash.
But the regions lucky enough to remain in the chaos that is Contenders will also have a lot fewer opportunities to prove themselves this year. Due to the pandemic, McHugh claimed, the Showdowns and Gauntlet will be "on hold."
To ease the blow of another year with no LAN tournaments, McHugh noted that they will be working to better incorporate third-party events into the Path to Pro. You know, for regions that Blizzard themselves don't feel like supporting, like South America and the Pacific. But that did little to lessen the concerns from the Overwatch community.
Nothing new for Tier 2 Overwatch
What's worse than the cancellation of an entire region is that the writing has always been on the wall. The announcement might've only dropped a few days ago, but it's been long clear that neither SA nor OCE were getting enough attention from Blizzard in 2020.
South American Overwatch fans and players have been completely ignored by Blizzard for years. Contenders tournaments were only aired and translated for South American viewers thanks to crew members who had a passion for the region. But the Overwatch League itself made no effort to support the growing esports community and talent in South America, leading to the question of how regions like it can even breaking into OWL or nurture top tier talent.
And it wasn't only fans that noticed Blizzard's lack of effort when it came to regions outside of North America, Europe, and Korea.
Even teams participating in the Overwatch League knew that Contenders was a non-lucrative endeavor that wasn't worth the effort. Already In 2019, New York Excelsior, Florida Mayhem, San Francisco Shock, and the Los Angeles Gladiators booted their Tier 2 staff and rosters.
One of the most shocking moments from the 2019 Contenders panic was when former OWL pro Felix "xQc" Lengyel said he wasn't even aware that Gladiators Legion had decided to stop competing.
"Does that mean I'm fired?" xQc asked his fans during a live reaction to the shocking news.
After recovering from the sudden news, xQc quickly turned the blame on Blizzard, explaining that the developer wasn't marketing Tier 2 at all and isn't making it exciting to watch or be a part of. He noted that Tier 3 (which xQc claims is full of poverty and depression) and Tier 2 will slowly become merged, leaving Tier 1 as the only viable option for competitive Overwatch.
And he wasn't the only one with these sentiments.
"I love Overwatch — but the current state of Tier 2 plus COVID and academies pulling out, it doesn’t feel like there’s much left for me here right now," former Rebellion player Seb "Numlocked" Barton said in a TwitLonger soon after.
Despite the backlash, Blizzard didn't seem keen on making any improvements and the scene continued to implode in 2020. Last year, many other big Contenders teams decided to drop their Contenders teams, including Team Envy and Clockwork Vendetta, as well as Atlanta Reign and Paris Eternal's Academy teams. Currently, only eight of the 20 OWL teams have active Contenders teams.
The pandemic played a part, yes. But it was also Blizzard's lack of support. Without the Overwatch League putting real effort into the Tier 2 scene, many potential Overwatch pros decided to make the jump to VALORANT instead. Even before Riot announced an esports scene, it was clear it would have more financial gains and viewership than Contenders ever would. Overwatch Contenders Season 1 only had 16,248 average viewers — and it only got lower from there.
After all, if Overwatch League MVP Jay "sinatraa" Won was confident enough to take that chance with the Sentinels, why not?
Overwatch League is most likely next
Some readers might be thinking, "Sucks for them. But I'd much rather watch the top players compete in the Overwatch League anyway."
But "fun" or having well-known players isn't what Contenders is all about. The issue is that there won't be an Overwatch League without Path to Pro. Contenders was a way for players to prove they were ready for the "big leagues." Without any support, Tier 2 teams can't fund players. Without any money, most top players aren't able to dedicate enough time to the game. Without any talented players attempting to prove themselves, who will be signed to the Overwatch League teams, especially if the wave of retirements continues?
It's tough to say. Most of the top FPS players, especially in North America and Europe, decided to stop pursuing their Overwatch dreams when the VALORANT beta came out. After all, why wouldn't you leave a "depressed and in poverty" scene for a new one full of promises of greener grass and better paychecks? With VALORANT, chances were that top players would be signed to a larger team — one that wouldn't suddenly drop all of its players unexpectedly due to a continuously crumbling system that can't survive the challenges of the pandemic.
Still salty about the competitive Overwatch scene for valid reasons, xQc even weighed in on this one:
"You guys always tried keeping moral high ground from Immortals/Noah to Valiant. Always tryharding for good PR. Then you guys pull shit like this? Disaster. Next time, try something else than MS Paint."
It's a shame. Overwatch League is my favorite esport to watch. Over my time as a journalist, I didn't only enjoy watching impressive plays from the pros, but I cared about the players. I loved the astounding climb of the Shanghai Dragons, from their 0-42 losing streak to becoming champions. The vibrant gameplay and passionate community made the Overwatch League an intoxicating esport. Even during GOATS.
I took a break from watching the Overwatch League to cover VALORANT. And when I tried to return to Overwatch I barely knew any of the players. I kept hearing about teams getting dropped, some without warning. It just seemed like a mess I couldn't keep up with.
Gone were the crowds of New Yorkers lined up to meet the NYXL or Philly fans including the Fusion into their ravenous sports scene. For me, a lot of the magic of the Overwatch League is gone and I feel the crumbling Contenders scene plays a huge part in that slow decay.
I hope the Overwatch League in 2021 reinvigorates the love fans have for the scene — whenever they plan to start.