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After losing its premier hosting talent, the Overwatch League is once again under scrutiny by esports’ netizens. The pricey franchised property and its owner Activision Blizzard weathered a number of high-profile exits in 2019—including one league commissioner and several veteran esports executives—and now, weeks before its decisive home-market era begins, the league’s top desk talent has also departed over “creative differences.”
The league is going into its third year with a precursor to the ambitious home-away structure originally outlined. This homestand tour, where one team will play host to its neighbors, has resulted in fewer events in year three than what was initially discussed. While the internal strife is its own issue, such planning changes were a recurring symptom of esports in 2019-20: over-ambition quelled by smart but overdue corrections.
The Call of Duty League, another Activision Blizzard venture, pivoted from its own homestand league blueprint to a set of tournaments spread throughout the year. Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that owners with franchises in both leagues (of which there are 10) were overwhelmed at the prospect of hosting both live Overwatch and Call of Duty events.
This isn’t just a trend in geo-location leagues. PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG) system will try a tournament-circuit in 2020, instead of the cumbersome local leagues of its first year. Mobile esport Clash Royale also scaled back in 2019; combining Europe, North American, and Latin America into a single Western competition.
Every esport, new or old, is in an experimental phase, and we should applaud more organizations trying out different structures and new business models. Most established sports are still throwing ideas at the wall, as seen by the proposed NBA in-season tournament, a concept long championed by European soccer, which is itself currently battling internally over what future direction it will take.
There’s nothing wrong with an esport making a sharp U-turn in its sophomore season, even if it comes with radical budget cuts. What’s unfortunate is this usually happens after a newcomer tries to immediately cut above its competitors, investing heavily in high production value, player stipends, and a killer sales team. These are essential in the longterm, but the initial seasons must focus on community retention; providing a consistent message for the hardcore players (or users, if you want to be blunt), before looking at a mainstream audience.
Theorycraft founder Lauren Flanagan wrote a superb thread on what most esports leagues neglect not only at launch, but throughout their lifespan:
You’re trying to hit four distinct demos when launching a new esports product: existing players, gamers more broadly, general esports fans, and the mainstream.
— Lauren Gaba Flanagan (@lgflanagan) January 5, 2020
In the Overwatch League’s case, a leadership team that was the envy of major sports leagues (with pedigrees from the NBA, NBC, and pro sports franchises) became a disadvantage. I don’t fully agree that “esports should not try to be like sports,” but we must acknowledge that it is fundamentally different.
The games are commercial products first and foremost, requiring a constant balance when catering for your player base and viewing audience. Do your partners and premium products provide benefit to those playing the game, or just those watching it? Does making your game accessible to new audiences water it down into a casual experience for the players?
Blizzard wanted a top esports product by day one, and a revolutionary industry model by year three. For better or worse, that’s why sports team owners and V.C. firms outweigh the endemic esports team owners in the final roster. The player base was certainly there from the outset, and Overwatch esports as a whole had a growing audience, but not necessarily one that could carry such a costly competition from the outset.
Perhaps Blizzard could have tested out what worked in regional leagues before collecting them in a global, city-based competition. It’s a tough line between knowing what you want to build, and learning what you should build.
It’s been just over a year, but does anyone still remember the H1Z1 Pro League? Launched in June 2018 and shut down in November that same year, it flew out of the gate promising many staples seen in long-established esports properties, including shared-revenue from team-branded game items, and minimum guaranteed salaries for the players.
It’s debatable how H1Z1, a three-year-old game already past its prime, would sustain viewer interest, but remember that low tier esports like SMITE or long-running competitions like the ESL Pro League waited years before splashing out on the dedicated studio setting.
The H1Z1 Pro League is just a micro-version of esports’ most infamous failed venture; the Championship Gaming Series (CSG). The Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. backed $50M into the league, which also launched in year one with city-based teams, base salaries, and a syndicated TV push, even though it only had a pilot episode as its core proof of concept. There are those who lived and worked through that period who can explain its faults better than I, but suffice to say, profitability was once again too far in the future to sustain the unnecessary spending in its initial seasons.
Competition organizers aren’t the only ones guilty of unrealistic expectations, though. Audiences also frequently magnify missteps. It’s folly to assume even a three-year esports competition brand will match the fanbase, audience, and sales of the NFL, NBA, or Premier League. We’re used to an uninformed mainstream media telling us this is the case, but esports’ best cynics are sometimes too quick to condemn if a league falls short of a few targets.
The Overwatch League’s neglected academy system, alleged viewership inflation, and insane travel schedules for both players and casters are legitimately concerning, but as departing OWL host Christopher “MoneteCristo” Mykles explained, the league has yet to even try to achieve its initial goal:
It is too early to discuss whether OWL is a success or failure because it has yet to do what it set out to do: enter local markets and generate ticket revenue.
We will have a lot more information over the course of 2020. https://t.co/dilMXP9Cgk
— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) January 4, 2020
I believe local teams and revenue are key to the future of esports, even if I am nervous to see how many homestand arenas are filled this year. At some point though, this model will be the norm. I spoke to several League of Legends European Championship (LEC) teams last year who want matchday revenue to feature in their PnL, including Alexander Müller of SK Gaming, Nicolas Maurer of Team Vitality, and Carlos Rodriguez of G2 Esports. All differ in how soon it should happen, but they align on the fact that there is no hurry.
In esports, a game’s golden window lasts less than a year, and today’s industry leader can be just another company asset tomorrow. But even in a hyper-accelerated vacuum where one year is equal to ten, there is a need to scale sensibly. One sold-out arena event doesn’t guarantee your competition’s future, but on the other hand, diminished viewership doesn’t instantly spell a league’s demise.
Gaming is undeniably an industry built on trends. There are many reasons behind the decline of StarCraft II and Quake esports, but one cause was that the audience had moved on to games in newer genres. That doesn’t explain why we’re now seeing several sleeper hit esports, like Rocket League and Rainbow Six Siege, which have both been out for nearly five years and are only now hitting their peak audiences. The publishers of both have made mistakes and neglected fundamentals over their esports course, but are still sticking the landing.
One of the best cautionary tales I heard in 2019 came from my interview with Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, host of the LEC. He’s spent over 15 years watching competitive video gaming, seen more tournaments, games, and events live and die than most people watch in a lifetime:
“A lot of time there are differing reasons, but there have been leagues that have believed that they would be successful and brought in sponsors with promises they couldn’t deliver on […] I think some caution and trepidation is what I would advise absolutely everybody,” he said.
“There [are] a lot of people out there that really do not understand this industry, do not understand the nuances of it, and can make bad decisions. Slow down, step one back, and make sure you really look at it and then commit to your decision making.”