How the world’s most ambitious esports league shrank to nothing: An oral history of the Overwatch League

The Overwatch League is officially done with, but the story of the “Overwatch” community isn’t over yet. With a successor on the horizon in the form of ESL/FACEIT Group’s Overwatch Champions Series, some industry observers are looking back at the OWL to figure out exactly how things went wrong.

When Activision Blizzard initially announced the Overwatch League in 2016, esports fans and investors alike believed the league would help usher the esports industry into an era of unfettered growth. Billionaires such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft bit the bullet on the league’s $20 million franchise fees, making the OWL the most valuable esports league in the world — at least before teams accepted a $6 million buyout to exit the league in late 2023.

Eight years later, the esports industry hasn’t evolved far beyond where it was back in those early days of excitement and hype. Having thus far failed to crack the nut of broadcast rights, esports leagues and teams remain reliant on brand sponsorship revenues to stay afloat, but brands aren’t spending as much on esports as they used to, facing diminishing returns on investment and broader economic headwinds. When the Overwatch League folded in November, it came as a surprise to few.

But the death of the Overwatch League did not mean the end of “Overwatch.” Hundreds of thousands of players still log in to play the game every day — and as of today, ESL/FACEIT Group has partnered with Activision Blizzard to run the league’s official successor.

Here’s the story of the rise and fall — and potential future — of the Overwatch League.

01
Days of glory

During the early days, the Overwatch League was suffused with a sense of long-awaited destiny. Veteran esports fans were excited by the prospect of seeing more money flowing into their favorite passion, while esports executives saw a potential payday in the offing. The entire community was united in its support for what was then the largest first-person shooter league in esports history.

Amid all the hubbub, however, there were some indicators that the Overwatch League’s financial needs were not fully in concert with the desires of the community. When Activision Blizzard launched the OWL, the community hoped that it would roll pre-existing community-led “Overwatch” tournaments, such as the popular Korean event series Overwatch Apex, into the nascent league. Instead, the company decided to work with its own broadcast partners, effectively killing the community events that had previously been the lifeblood of the scene. 

Scott Smith, veteran esports host and analyst and co-founder of Do Not Peek Entertainment: It was exciting when it first came out and it was very community driven. Guys like [Rod] “Slasher” [Breslau] and [Ben] “FishStix” [Goldhaber] were throwing cups and getting people to cast it and figure out how to observe it. We all had that warm and fuzzy feeling we always get when a new esport drops.

Connor Knudsen, esports director at Oklahoma City University and a former journalist covering the early days of the OWL: For the first Dallas homestand, being able to go and see an esports event in person — I think everyone kind of has this experience when they go to an esports event for the first time and they’re like, “holy shit, this is legit.” Being able to go to grand finals in Philly and some of the other homestand events were just really powerful for me in 2018 and 2019 — so those, to me, were the golden years of the league, before COVID.

Richard Ng, founder of NYXL Overwatch fan club 5 Deadly Venoms: It was nuts. Within 30 days, we started to blow up. The Overwatch League came on site and made a video about our events. It was all like, “you’re paid fans, fake fans,” and I was like, “I wish we got paid for this.”

Erik “DoA” Lonnquist, esports caster and former host of official Overwatch League broadcast show “Watchpoint:” We were in California for most of 2017, helping kind of plan things. I would work with the spectator team in the Blizzard offices and help work on the spectator interface — give them input and all that. We’d be looking at prototype logo designs for the teams, just basically there to give our input as esports professionals as they built this thing.

Jason Baker, longtime esports event producer and former head of the OWL observation team: In Korea, the Apex league defined what an “Overwatch” broadcast was. They did a really, really good job of creating an audience for “Overwatch,” and then Blizzard comes in and says “you can’t do it anymore, and part of it is you’re doing it better than us, we want people to watch us.” And that’s just terrible. I think trying to shut down all the competition and control their game is the thing that kills esports, from here to eternity.

02
Cracks in the facade

The Overwatch League’s first season commenced in 2018, and for the first two years, viewership of the league continued to grow. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to pivot from its homestand model in 2020, there were early signs that the league was not living up to its promises as a business, despite the flashy broadcasts and big-name brand deals. In early 2019, fans decried the game’s so-called “GOATS metagame” for turning high-level play into a slow grind; in May of that year, league commissioner Nate Nanzer announced his departure to take a role at Epic Games; and in January 2020, Twitch declined to renew its $90 million broadcast deal with the league.

Yohan Yun, Overwatch League fan and 5 Deadly Venoms member: The GOATS meta went on for way too long, and there were a lot of issues that didn’t get addressed quite as fast as they should have. [Activision Blizzard] have come out and said themselves, they weren’t the best at communicating and addressing issues players have, which they’re doing a lot better in “Overwatch 2.”

Smith: There is a world-famous deck floating around about how great the Overwatch League can be — it’s a report that takes the monetization of football jerseys in the NFL and stands up right next to it what “Overwatch” will do. All these comparisons are so wrong — and a lot of us always said this is a bad idea. I will go to my grave saying this was a bad idea. 

Lonnquist: With Nate Nanzer leaving fairly early on in 2019, that was a situation where I think the creative head was sort of cut off the league, and there was no one really there to fill it. And the people that were put there to attempt to fill it were resistant to listening to the esports personalities on the show, that had good ideas and knew what to do. So that was kind of what pushed me out of the league — I felt like it was very collaborative in the beginning, but then it turned to a situation where not a lot of what we had talked about doing ended up happening.

Liz Richardson, longtime “Overwatch” journalist for Dot Esports and other outlets: As the league revealed its ambitious plans for the 2020 season, I could start to see things shift. Organizations would be on the hook to plan and execute huge events with the planned homestand model while players and coaches would be clocking thousands of miles of travel, sometimes internationally. Behind the scenes, players were worried about burnout and organizations were concerned with footing the bill.

03
Annus horriblis

Whether or not the Overwatch League had already begun to dig its grave by the time the COVID-19 pandemic rolled around in early 2020, there’s no denying that the pandemic was the true beginning of the end. Pandemic lockdown forced the league to move away from a live event model intended to take advantage of its location-based teams, as well as making it difficult for international teams to travel to compete against one another.

The nail in the OWL’s coffin came in 2021, when Activision Blizzard found itself embroiled in scandal following reports about the company’s toxic and sexist work culture. As the controversy reached a fever pitch, prominent sponsors such as State Farm and T-Mobile quietly ended their sponsorships of the league, and the OWL’s partnerships business never fully recovered from the blow.

Smith: The sponsors all signed up for one or two seasons and went, “we’re out, we did not get our ROI, we’re not going to sign back up.” And they lost all their sponsorships, or quite a bit of it. You can blame venture capital for not doing their due diligence — they lent their money into an industry that had no ROI anywhere near that kind of money.

Richardson: In my mind, the 2022 and 2023 seasons were fueled solely by the passion of the people left. Those seasons may have been rough around the edges, but everyone at OWL stepped up to make something out of basically nothing. People who were part of the original grassroots “Overwatch” scene before OWL really, really tried to do what they could to give fans something to enjoy. If there’s anything I wish fans knew, it’d be that nobody “gave up” or phoned it in; the money and support ran out and they still had a show to put on.

Knudsen: All of the things going on at Activision — that was certainly not a good look to be associated with that, from the Overwatch League’s perspective. And so, when they started losing endorsement deals based on that, and when they made the shift to YouTube, some cracks started to appear. It just continued to get worse and worse, and obviously COVID didn’t help. It was around that 2020-2021 time frame when it just seemed like things changed for the worse.

04
New beginnings

The Overwatch League is over, but the game itself still boasts millions of fans, many of whom would gladly tune into a high-level competition if given the opportunity. And where eyeballs go, so do the dollars — so it’s no surprise that another entity has already stepped in to take the reins of the “Overwatch” community. As of today, the Saudi-Arabian-owned company ESL/FACEIT Group has partnered with Activision Blizzard to announce the Overwatch Champions Series, a competitive “Overwatch” league that an EFG representative described as “the successor to the Overwatch League.”

The news will likely come as a relief to some of the “Overwatch” fans left feeling unmoored by the end of the Overwatch League — but it comes with potential friction, too. As the Saudi Arabian government invests more money into the esports industry via both EFG and the Esports World Cup, its involvement has sparked pushback from members of the gaming community concerned about the country’s human rights abuses. Given these sticking points, time will tell whether the Overwatch Champions Series will manage to attain — or supercede — the heights reached by its predecessor.

Richardson: I’m absolutely still an Overwatch fan and a huge fan of Overwatch esports in whatever form it takes in the future. The game itself is hit or miss for me these days, but the developers are making compelling changes to things that players dislike the most and that has to count for something. 

Andy Miller, CEO of the esports organization NRG, which owns and operates the OWL’s San Francisco Shock: I’m trying to figure out what to do with our socials, which are phenomenal. There’s no teams, or leagues, or games, or tournaments or anything. So I don’t know — I imagine that it’s going to end up at the World Cup or whatever we’re calling this thing.

Lonnquist: If Activision Blizzard gives the license to EFG, they’ll run something, they’ll do it right now. Are teams going to run out and spend a whole lot of money to roster up, like they do for “Counter-Strike?” Nope, I don’t think the viewership will be there. I think it’s going to be a niche esport, in that sense.

Baker: If you were to ask me two years ago, I could have given you a rosier outlook, but everything from the financial world is completely different — the numbers aren’t there. Why put a million dollars into the Overwatch League when you could put $500,000 into [Twitch streamer] Tarik and get twice as many viewers? xQc has probably made more money than the Overwatch League — like, the guy who got kicked out of the Overwatch League.

Craig Levine, co-CEO of ESL/FACEIT Group, in the company’s press release announcing the Overwatch Champions Series: OWCS introduces a new era of “Overwatch” esports while honoring the traditions and passion built by “Overwatch” esports. Together with Blizzard Entertainment, EFG is well-positioned to create a truly global experience on the FACEIT platform and at DreamHack festivals.

https://digiday.com/?p=532502

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