Overwatch League's Outsized Problem: 'Overwatch 2'
Hedging its bets on the game's so far lackluster sequel will prove problematic for the world's most costly esports league.
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The Overwatch League 2022 season kicks off on Thursday.
It’s the first time in eight months that a high-level competitive “Overwatch” match will air. This time, though, matches will be played on the “Overwatch 2” beta, which was released on April 26.
So far, the reviews for “Overwatch 2” beta are mixed. The beta itself is incredibly barebones—it’s missing competitive play and didn’t deploy with the promised single-player offering, which is one of the two main differentiators between “Overwatch” and the sequel. It includes five-on-five matchmaking, one new hero, four new maps, a new game type, and graphic and gameplay reworks.
Simply put: To the average player, it feels like a major seasonal “Overwatch” update, not another game in itself. It does make quality-of-life changes that, to high-level pros and streamers, are noticeable. But to the casual player, it doesn’t feel like this is the game that the Overwatch League is supposed to be hanging its hat on.
Is this year’s plan for “Overwatch 2” enough to save the Overwatch League?
That’s the problem. The League made headlines in November when it promised its players and franchises that the 2022 season would be played on a version of the new title. “Overwatch 2” is supposed to revitalize the player base and, by extension, drum up more interest in the most costly esports league—by team buy-ins—of all time.
It’s hard to see that happening, though, with what on the surface are minimal changes and with a game that won’t even be available for the general public to play during most of the 2022 Overwatch League season.
The “Overwatch 2” beta launch drew a lot of attention. It hit more than 1.3 million concurrent viewers across all channels streaming the game on Twitch on April 27. Granted, that’s with the rollout method to get into the beta—if you’re not a pro, an esports team employee or the media—which required you to watch those streams and link your Battle.net account to your Twitch account (the same method as “VALORANT” two years ago).
The difference between “Overwatch” and “VALORANT” is the latter was completely new and from a company, Riot Games, that to the casual player has earned a lot of good will. Activision Blizzard holds little good will and is iterating on a game that’s been out for five years and received no major updates or characters for two years.
The “Overwatch 2” beta goes away on May 17. We don’t know a solid permanent release date. The pros will continue to compete on the beta, but the casual players will have to continue playing the original game. It’s more likely they’ll just log out and forget about the franchise again.
Not to mention, the Overwatch League is disabling the selection of one of the game’s tank heroes, Wrecking Ball, due to game-breaking bugs. That, admittedly, won’t affect competitiveness a ton—Wrecking Ball is, according to game experts and pros, one of the weaker tank heroes in the game meta right now. But, it’s an awful look for the game to be even further restricted ahead of the season open.
Ultimately, the rollout of the “Overwatch 2” beta feels half-assed. Yes, betas are supposed to be rough around the edges and used to garner feedback from the audience for correction before release. But the stakes here are so much higher than a normal game beta. The Overwatch League is the most consequential product in all of esports.
The league and Activision Blizzard executives artificially set a $20 million franchise price in 2017, despite critiques from industry veterans—including yours truly—that it didn’t match the financial trends of the industry. Activision Blizzard, even as high as CEO Bobby Kotick, recruited millionaires and billionaires to the space, selling them on the success seen by “League of Legends” and others, and promising that “Overwatch” would see the same metrics (spoiler: It hasn’t).
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Five years after that recruiting spree, we sit in a time of industry correction for overspending, and Overwatch League is one of the worst offenders.
The Overwatch League is surviving because it stopped collecting payments on those $20-plus-million price tags. In September 2020, Activision Blizzard deferred the payments because of COVID-19 significantly hurting some of its franchise partners. The company never resumed collecting those payments, league sources tell The Jacob Wolf Report. It’d likely cause a mutiny if they did.
The ecosystem around the league has been hurt too, by bigger issues at Activision Blizzard, such as its ongoing litigation for gender discrimination.
When the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed its first suit last summer, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and State Farm all withdrew ad dollars from the league. None of those will sponsor the league in 2022, they told The Washington Post in March. Even Comcast, whose sports arm owns the Philadelphia Fusion, isn’t re-signing for 2022. The league has zero sponsors on its website as of Tuesday. Games start on Thursday.
Not to mention the overarching question: What will happen to the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League when Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard closes in the summer of 2023?
I’ve speculated that the motivations for being in the esports industry differ drastically among Activision Blizzard leadership and current Microsoft top brass. Kotick is all about status—golfing with his franchise owners’ top brass is important. Xbox head Phil Spencer and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are likely to be far less forgiving when it comes to profit-and-loss margins.
Costs are already being cut on the Overwatch League, even before the acquisition closes. This year, the broadcast is fully third-party produced, by Dome Productions, which in March landed the production contract for the 2022 season.
Live events are returning this year, with the first set for Arlington, Texas, in June, and will likely draw decent in-person attendance. But that component of the league—the fact that geolocation, like traditional sports, would “revolutionize” esports—is a far less significant part of the business model now than it would’ve been in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
So where do we stand? Is “Overwatch 2” going to be the savior for the Overwatch League? Likely not. Let’s just hope there’s more in the cards.