Overwatch League ended their second season last September with the San Francisco Shock taking the championship home. Since that moment, teams made numerous shakeups with the upcoming travel schedule of the 2020 season in mind. Reasons for roster moves could be to attract fans to their respective homestands like the Toronto Defiant and Los Angeles Gladiators. At the same time, other teams made moves to rebuild like the Los Angeles Valiant and London Spitfire. Several players decided to hang up their keyboard and mouse for retirement. Lastly, Riot Games showed off a brand new game that enticed all fans of the FPS genre. Are all of these offseason moves a foreshadow of things to come in the Overwatch League? Or is this a new chapter in the Overwatch League?
Current State of OWL
In a region such as China, Overwatch is a big market. Evidenced by a viewing party from the Guangzhou Charge's tweet, many fans turned up to cheer for their home team. Fans in Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Chengdu do not get to experience esports like South Korea and the United States have for many years. In 2020 and beyond, they will catch a glimpse of the glamour that is the Overwatch League.
Inven Global's Chris Cuevo reached out to Michael Sun, former Shanghai Dragons' Operations Director and translator during the player interviews. During the 2019 season, he would often tweet out extracurricular activities that the Dragons did when they're not playing Overwatch.
"It's in a constant state of change and I think they are still trying to figure things out. There are still some growing pains, and it'll be interesting to see how the next season pans out with the homestand model and all the traveling required for the teams."
At the beginning of the 2019 season, fans started to become doubtful because of the meta at the time. Fans had to watch the GOATS meta for more than half a year before a new patch introduced role lock. By then, viewership dipped from the 6-digit numbers to 5, according to The Esports Observer. During the grand finals, however, numbers jumped dramatically, breaking the 300,000 viewer count and deteriorating the fact that Overwatch League is dying.
Fans' opinions of the Overwatch League appear skeptical in social media. Jacob Wolf from ESPN recently made a topic comparing the viewership between the LoL World Championships to the OWL Grand Finals.
Reactions to his tweet do not favor Overwatch League in the slightest. Most fans were doubtful because of reasons like in-game spectating and not catering to their audience with hype videos or championship skins like LoL.
Inven Global also reached out to Andrew Kim, former Los Angeles Valiant and Florida Mayhem Assistant Team Manager & Translator. For the past two seasons, he helped Korean players for the Valiant and Mayhem become acclimated living in the United States.
"OWL is on full make it or break it mode. The path to pro has been underwhelming, and the OWL itself, although not a failure, leaves a lot to be desired from production to drumming up consistent viewership. Now the buck is passed onto each team that will need to put butts in seats on top of everything else they were already expected to do. Since OWL is a unique format in esports, 2020 will either prove that it can work or fall short and cause some concerns among esports fans."
Former Overwatch pro, Brandon "Seagull" Larned also commented on the 2019 OWL Grand Finals viewership numbers, noticing a loophole that inflated numbers:
While there is a possibility that viewership numbers are misleading, another thing to look at is the number of roster moves this offseason.
One Crazy Offseason
This offseason saw a lot of roster moves from teams and players. Given that Overwatch League is going away from the Blizzard Arena to homestands, players and organizations need to find innovative ways to attract fans to buy tickets. Teams like the San Francisco Shock, Seoul Dynasty, and New York Excelsior have no issues selling seats due to team popularity, known players, or winning the 2019 Overwatch League championship. While others like the Paris Eternal, London Spitfire, and Boston Uprising could have issues selling tickets due to the opposite effect (i.e., unpopular team, lesser-known players, or underwhelming records).
Andrew Kim commented on what teams should be focusing on this offseason:
"After 2 seasons, teams have a better idea on what to spend their money on and how much to spend. Unlike some teams that have seen great success consistently, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the teams are thinking they need to make the necessary changes that they think will be the future, whether it be winning with top-class talent, getting players that will attract the attention of fans to sell tickets, or just going full save money mode."
Michael Sun discussed why there are a lot of roster moves this offseason:
"This is not anything new, and there will always be teams making moves in the offseason. Even championship teams such as London in the inaugural season and San Francisco in Season 2 had coaching and staffing changes. The league is a fast-paced environment, and it shouldn't be a surprise to see teams making any changes based on strategies for the upcoming season."
Michael added when asked about factors for players to move to other teams:
"I think there are several, but I think the key factors are the head coach, teammates, salary, and where the team is located. Often times the head coach is the most influential in building a roster. It's not uncommon for players who wish to follow the coaches they respect or go to another team even if it means a salary cut. The bond and trust between coaches and players are not things to be taken lightly. Other factors are the reputation of a team and its management."
Retirement on the Horizon
This offseason saw a profound amount of players moving from one team to another or leaving the Overwatch League. Scott "Custa" Kennedy, Jacob "Jake" Lyon, Do-hyeon "Pine" Kim, and Dae-kuk "KuKi" Kim are a few names we won't see in the stage next season. Why is this the case? These players can still perform at a high level, given attributes like mechanics or in-game leadership.
Michael Sun commented on the possible reasons why players retired this offseason:
"I think it is a combination of things. It could be burnout, other life obligations, falling out with a team, or just simply losing interest in the game. It might even be a meta that discouraged them from showcasing their skills and preventing them to shine on stage (or even getting to be on stage for that matter). This probably discouraged a few individuals and made them doubt their own abilities. This is unfortunate because you just can't grade a pitcher's performance based on how many home runs they hit in baseball. But then again this is esports and patches and updates will force a pro gamer to adapt far more than an athlete in traditional sports."
Andrew Kim added to the topic:
"OWL and player burnout seems to go hand in hand. The difference in this season is that people are expected to relocate to cities they may or may not be interested in going, or they don't see themselves doing this for more time. I do think relocation has a huge part to this."
You can say the meta during the 2019 season did not favor these players, mainly due to GOATS. However, not many people doubted their mechanics. Other esports like League of Legends and Fortnite often refreshed their meta by releasing patches every couple weeks or once a month.
Overwatch, though, did not see a new meta until Stage 4 after enduring the GOATS meta since the preseason last year. Overwatch League teams and players needed to adapt, be creative, or die with the GOATS meta. In effect, you saw notable players like Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangchod and Jong-ryeol "Saebyeolbe" Park go inactive for most of the 2019 season, which possibly messed their confidence to perform. Furthermore, for players to play the same team composition, every game may feel like a burden as they are creatively limited to discover other ways to play the meta, which can lead to burnout.
A New Challenger Appears?
Last October, Riot Games announced one of its newest games temporarily titled "Project A." In summary, it is a first-person tactical shooter that utilizes special abilities to help teams meet specific objectives. After this new game announced, many people including myself, cannot wait to see more of what Riot needs to offer.
Project A may lead to past and present Overwatch League players inquiring about Riot's newest shooter. Project A may be the game that Overwatch players wanted Overwatch to be. The question on everyone's minds is if Project A will be the Overwatch killer? Or is it only a curiosity?
When asked about the possibility of Overwatch League players moving to Project A, Michael Sun commented:
"Possibly, but we need to realize OW players are gamers and gamers can simultaneously be interested in multiple games. And from what has been revealed by Riot, Project A looks pretty promising and is anticipated by many gamers including myself. It's also not unheard of for pro gamers to be competing in different games. A good example is the fighting game community where you often see a player competing in multiple different games of the same genre. Of course, there are also examples of pro gamers switching games entirely (i.e. Gamsu from Dallas Fuel and Bischu from Los Angeles Gladiators going from LoL to OW)."
Andrew Kim also added into the discussion but did not dismiss that players are exhausted from Overwatch:
"OWL players like to play games. I don't think it's weird that they ask about it since it's a shiny new toy, but at the core, they just want to play it. Even if we assume that the players are tired of OW, that doesn't mean they think Project A at this point in time will be something they will be dedicated to. The game's still in alpha. I think it's just healthy curiosity.
We saw people go from SC to poker, LoL players go for OW, etc etc. if they like it and see a future in it, why not?"
Overwatch League Season 3: A New Hope
Arguments are saying the Overwatch League is dying due to talent leaving, players retiring, or a stale metagame. The other side of the coin can make a rebuttal that these moves will not make any significant impact on the long-term plans of the Overwatch League. You can add to the argument that this is the time for up and coming talent, whether it is a caster, analyst, or player, to step up to the challenge and fill the holes left behind.
To fans, there are always concerns about players retiring or even thinking about playing another game like Project A or APEX Legends. You have to keep in mind that these players are passionate about Overwatch; they want this game to succeed in every way possible. If there are other opportunities players wish to explore, the best thing fans can do is support them wherever they decide to go. Hyung-seok "Bischu" "Aaron" Kim and Young-jin "Gamsu" Noh are examples who went from one major esport to another, and their fans supported them throughout their entire journey.
Here are wise words from Michael Sun:
"Once a gamer, always a gamer, and hope these talented individuals never give up pursuing their passion and dreams."
Despite the countless amount of doubt clouding over the Overwatch League, the fans, players, and many individuals involved with the league are all gamers. As gamers, they remain passionate about the Overwatch League. With that passion, they remain optimistic that the Overwatch League is here to stay for years to come.
Follow me on Twitter @itsjustchris for more coverage on Overwatch League and various games.