The Overwatch League is in trouble if they don't have homestands.
After Blizzard recently let go of Overwatch League staff working on live events, President of Sports and Entertainment at Activision Blizzard Tony Petitti stated last week that the Overwatch League plans to become "less dependent on live events" going forward.
This news immediately had Overwatch League fans — including me — quite on edge.
Last year, the Overwatch League 2020 Grand Finals had a 61% decline in average viewership when compared to 2019's Grand Finals. COVID-19 completely disrupting the league's schedule and planned structure and forcing OWL into largely online play was most likely the key factor. Blizzard had to abandon the concept of homestands entirely to adapt to the global health crisis — a fate almost entirely out of their hands at the time. But without the added element of teams competing on their home turf, with their city's fans in the crowd, and community-oriented events shaping the team's identity happening over that weekend, the Overwatch League was just a bunch of talented players competing online.
It no longer mattered that the New York Excelsior represented New York. There were no long lines of fans waiting to meet them at viewing parties circling the city block. It no longer mattered that the Washington Justice was from DC. There were no longer creepy, uncanny valley mascots of former presidents waving American flags around on stage.
Each team was basically stripped of the identities that made this franchise format special. All of the fanfare from the previous year was gone. Fighting to represent a city and bring pride to its community was gone. Each team having a certain vibe that represented their hometown was gone.
COVID affected more or less every esport on the planet, but it was a special kind of damage for Overwatch. Overwatch has always been different and Blizzard knows that. Overwatch doesn't have the hardened, seasoned feel of CSGO or the intensity and prestige of Dota 2, or the developed worldwide league system and polished product of League of Legends.
Overwatch was always meant to be a fun, community experience. And last year it was stripped to a basic online broadcast. I won't deny that the action wasn't fun to watch — it most definitely was — but numbers don't lie: The viewership had sunk catastrophically.
So the news about Overwatch League having less of a focus on live events concerned me and many other Overwatch fans. It was immediately speculated that homestands would be first on the chopping block if that were the case, something that made sense logistically. This would require a city to not only host a live event but have another team fly in to compete in it, a checklist you can't easily complete in a pandemic.
But Blizzard was quick to respond to journalists and fans reaching that conclusion. An Overwatch League spokesperson told InvenGlobal last week that "live events are still very much a part of both the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League strategies. We plan to get back to them as soon as it's safe to do so and logistically feasible.”
Does that mean homestands are back this year?
I certainly hoped so, which prompted me to call up an Overwatch League representative once again. I was told the same quote about live events being part of the strategy for Overwatch League, so I asked, "Does that include homestands?"
"The model is not changing. We don’t have any plans to change our model," Blizzard told me.
"I just want to be clear. The model includes homestands, correct?" I followed up.
"That can be implied from the quote," Blizzard ended, somewhat cryptically.
Basically, I am still unsure if homestands are going to happen. I can assume, guess, and speculate that they are possibly happening if the COVID situation allows it. But I am unable to actually confirm if homestands are being planned and have no confirmation that they are part of Blizzard's schedule and budget. It's unclear if Overwatch League has the budget to do it.
Esports journalist Richard Lewis expressed the same concern on a recent episode of The Four Horsemen. He agreed that the homestand model was "key to the league being successful." It was what Blizzard and the teams that bought into the league agreed upon when the Overwatch League was formed.
"There was an expectation that everyone would have a stadium, a venue, and have a production area for the broadcast in their home stadiums so it could be a traveling roadshow," Lewis said. "We get to this point where these layoffs happen and we hear the model is changing... There was so much expenditure already put in where the homestand business model is definitely coming... And now it's definitely not coming and the league will die."
But since Blizzard won't actually confirm whether homestands will be chopped off, we are not able to assume homestands are gone in 2021. Even the vocal OWL critic Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles told Lewis that the layoffs are most likely Blizzard's "secondary staff" back when they planned to have multiple homestands each weekend. MonteCristo believes homestands will still be a part of the model going forward, just not as often.
Either way, the argument here isn't whether or not it's happening. The argument is that the Overwatch League is in trouble if they ultimately decide to cut homestands out of the picture. Because I can tell you a lot more confidently that most Overwatch fans didn't care about the most recent announcement that the YouTube broadcasts can now be viewed in 4K.
What the Overwatch League actually needs to survive past 2021 is that missing sense of community. They need events for fans. They need community initiatives. They need to help the teams get their identities back and give fans a reason to fight for them and follow them. They need to make people proud to wear those jerseys. That's why I am quite positive that without homestands the Overwatch League is in trouble.
The Los Angeles Valiant is currently located in China and has an all-Chinese team. I'm not here to deny that the team may do well this season. I'm here to say that the "Los Angeles" in the team's name is pointless. This is not a Los Angeles team fighting for the pride of Los Angeles and its communities. And they won't have the LA-based/themed homestands to do so anyway.
Team identities are gone. Community spirit is gone. This strips the Overwatch League of what it initially set out to do. It strips the Overwatch Leauge of the only thing that sets it apart. This doesn't just mean the OWL won't be fun to watch this year. It means fewer spectators and fans. It means fewer stakes. It means less spirit and less community. It means trouble.
It's time for Blizzard to deliver on its promise to Overwatch League fans, teams, and sponsors: We need community-oriented events and tournaments, and homestands are their living heart.
Esports writer and editor with a passion for creating unique content for the gaming community.