A year ago, esports pundits were pondering the possible fall of League of Legends at the hands of a surging Overwatch scene which featured unprecedented hype and early growth. These days, some of the top Overwatch players are starting to hedge their bets by entering other games, and there is a growing concern that cash will literally rule everything. League of Legends viewership is still number 1 on Twitch, and Overwatch has the fewest viewers out of the five major esports, trailing behind LoL, CS:GO, DotA 2, and Hearthstone. Of course, things are likely to change when the Overwatch League launches, but before we discuss the future, let’s take a moment to reflect on the foundations of these competitive scenes.
League of Legends: Grassroots Support
If you talk to any old old veteran of the League of Legends scene, I’ll personally guarantee that they’ve played in a Go4LoL (actually, they’re still running today). Riot Games built League of Legends as a game mod of a game mod, by gamers for gamers. They had just a tiny warehouse of a studio, and the game’s early esports scene was quite fitting. Weekly tournaments from ESL and various small esports organizations made up the majority of competitive play. The Season 1 World Championships at DreamHack was a makeshift affair.
There were virtually no restrictions on what players could participate in. Riot went out of their way for six years to support grassroots tournaments by contributing to prize pools and promotion efforts whenever they could. Even in the past year, several major Challenger tournaments, like the Carbon Winter Invitational, have served as proving grounds for up-and-coming professional players. All this, of course, is in addition to the incredibly robust Challenger series.
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Of course, LCS/LCK/LPL/etc. players these days no longer need to look elsewhere for sources of income. There are plenty of regions, more than enough games in a season, and sister squads for practice. Most recently, the announcement of $10 million dollar franchise spots is a step towards the creation of a traditional sports league architecture, but this comes as a supplement to existing systems, teams, and, ultimately, the individual players who will be participating.
Overwatch: Trying to Skip the Growing Pains
It’s an ambitious plan for sure, and Blizzard announced the first seven teams in the Overwatch League on July 12th. They’re going all out to try and emulate traditional sports Leagues right off the bat, and frankly, I’m not sure they’ve thought things through.
All of the organizations which have been approved for OWL have likely paid a huge bill just to participate (several estimates suggest that teams have paid around $20 million apiece), which has left many players stranded due to their smaller organizational affiliations, or in some cases, no sponsorship at all. In fact, of the teams that have been announced, only a single one–Immortals–is currently fielding a complete roster. It’s a risky affair, but that isn’t really the problem.
Rather, it’s that any non-Blizzard organization previously involved with Overwatch tournament hosting has been effectively shut out of the scene they helped create. The Monthly Melees, GosuGamers weekly tournaments, and the sort are all dead. Don’t expect to see any teams forming again–ever. Of course, Korea is off doing their own thing, and busy being the best region in the world (by far) with the OGN Overwatch Apex League. The primary way for new talent to compete is the Open Division, where the player who’s in first place at the end of the season will win a $50 dollar Blizzard gift card. That’s not going to pay anyone’s bills.
Despite the gigantic investment behind the Overwatch League, it simply doesn’t have the same kind of sturdy foundation as the League of Legends esports scene. There’s too much uncertainty in Overwatch, and player stability remains questionable. Localization makes no sense when it comes to esports, and Blizzard’s model neglects European esports fans entirely.
We’ll know sooner rather than later whether this venture by Blizzard and friends will pan out. For now, at least, Overwatch isn’t an esport, it’s just business.