Photo by Robert Paul
Despite prior concerns stemming from budget cuts, the Overwatch esports team seemed to have hit a solid home run with their announcement of cross-region live events for Overwatch Contenders. The Pacific Showdown, Atlantic Showdown, and The Gauntlet will give Tier 2 Overwatch something it has long since deserved: an audience and a major stage available to all eight Contenders region.
Thanks to strategic scheduling between key OWL breaks, the events aim to capture much higher viewership than a normal Contenders broadcast. In addition, the double-elimination format allows for more consistent team placings, less sour upsets, and more stage time to attract fans and sponsors
Despite the good news, one question still remains. Are three events enough to quell serious concerns about the sustainability of Tier 2 Overwatch?
Contenders are supposed to represent players that are one step below the Overwatch League. It has been marketed as the amateur division preparing a "Path to Pro" that allows any team who succeeds in contenders a good chance at entering the league. In the past, the value of this promise has been called into question by several pundits, including our very own Amelia-Mary-Justice:
"You can determine the health of an esport by looking at its Tier 2 scene and, like it or not, Overwatch is in dire straits. Despite the League’s grandeur and wavering 100k+ Twitch viewership, Overwatch Contenders viewership hovers in the low thousands, and the rare non-Blizzard funded Tier 2 tournaments offer even less in the way of money and audience.
A handful of legitimate organizations, mostly those owned by Overwatch League teams, are involved in Contenders and manage to pay their players during the season, but otherwise, there is little money to go around. The situation was considerably worse prior to the Overwatch League, as tournaments were scarce and organizations habitually failed to pay their players on time, if at all."
Just hours before the announcement of live LAN events, one Contender player took to Twitter to share his frustration:
On the Twitter thread, other Contenders players agreed with him and expressed similar worries. After all, the path to pro that Blizzard is keen on advertising has never been guaranteed. Success in Contenders only really ensures more opportunities to play in Contenders, which doesn't mean much if viewership and payment are low. For how hard and demanding Contenders competition can be (especially when teams are crucially lacking the big backing and support of a major org), it is easy to surmise that competing with the intent of making Overwatch a career isn't worth it.
The importance of Viewership
Low viewership and interest have always been the Achilles heel of Tier 2 Overwatch. While a reliable portion of die-hard fans will swear over the excitement of a Contenders broadcast (in many cases they are right in doing so), the much larger OWL audience doesn't seem to care about anything but the city-based teams and famous players they have invested in.
When you also consider that, presently, the majority of competitive Overwatch revolves around the infamous (and boring) GOATS strategy, it becomes even harder to convince your average Overwatch fan to tune in. Contenders teams are, generally speaking, worse than Overwatch League teams and they compete for smaller stakes against less popular players. Unless viewers have actively keep up with Tier 2 Overwatch on their own time, there isn't much narrative structure or emotional appeal to keep them watching.
Frequent online only matches only and some regions lack of LAN Final also make it difficult for fans to connect with the Contenders players and become loyal Conteders viewers.
However, these problems have a real chance of lessening with the announcement of multiple LAN events. With the two regional events (Pacific and Atlantic) that conclude during the internationally populated Gauntlet, Contenders teams, players, and content creators have something to look forward to and build a narrative around. When the stakes are raised and the spectacle of the event increases, the likelihood of outside fans permanently converting to Contender viewers increases.
Blizzard would be wise publicize these events well and clearly position Overwatch Contenders as another official source for OWL style entertainment. They are already off to a great start scheduling the event during peak "I miss OWL" weeks which will likely secure a large number of viewers looking for more action.
Ultimately, this is a good thing for Tier 2 Overwatch and considering how bleak prospects were before this announcement, Blizzard can chalk this up as a win. LAN events aren't a magical thing that suddenly turns the idea of chasing Contenders wins in search of a career a good idea, but they are a crucial start at rewarding the pro teams that already have achieved Contenders recognition.
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