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The History of the Overwatch League

Brandon Howard  | 
Overwatch League

The London Spitfire reign triumphant as the 2018 Overwatch League Champions. (Patrick Dodson for Blizzard Entertainment)

The 2020 season of the Overwatch League brings the fulfillment of what Blizzard envisioned for the scene since its inception; a franchised, location-based league with a home/away format showcasing the highest level of talent competitive Overwatch brings. It’s been a long journey filled with ups-and-downs, naysayers, moments of triumphs, bitter tastes of defeat, and passionate fans. Let’s take a journey through the history of the Overwatch League.

The Beginning

Before the Overwatch League was even announced, the game itself, released in late October of 2015. Overwatch became an instant success with critics and fans. Because of its unique, engaging multiplayer gameplay and diverse cast of heroes, it went on to win numerous “Game of the Year” awards. Incredibly team-based, the first person shooter had the promise of being a solid esport for Blizzard hoping to capitalize on its critical and commercial success.

It was during Blizzards annual convention in 2016 – BlizzCon – that the Overwatch League was announced.

The Overwatch League announcement sought to make waves in the esports industry with a format similar to traditional sports rather than many fans of esports were accustomed to. It was essentially the scene that might finally thrust esports into the mainstream limelight with investors from a variety of different industries including professional sports owners, esports organizations and more. The $20 million buy-in for a franchise was a large investment, but the potential was there.

The first seven cities announced for the Overwatch League were Seoul, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Shanghai and Florida. The league would start their inaugural season with a total of twelve teams as London, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas and another Los Angeles team joined the fray.

As for the investors, Gen.G (formerly KSV eSports) scooped up the Seoul Dynasty. Immortals purchased a Los Angeles franchise that became the LA Valiant while the Los Angeles Gladiators came to be from Kroenke Sports & Entertainment primarily known for being owners of the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots bought up the Boston Uprising and the Florida Mayhem come from Misfits Gaming — an Berlin-based esports organization. NRG Esports purchased the San Francisco Shock. The Shanghai Dragons came from NetEase, a Chinese internet technology company.

Another sports owner, Jeff Wilbon (New York Mets), joined in on the action and became owner of the New York Excelsior. Comcast Spectator purchased the Philadelphia Fusion. The London Spitfire came from Cloud9 – another prominent esports organization. The Houston Outlaws were purchased by Immortals Gaming Club – the parent company of Immortals but were sold to the Beasley Broadcast Group years later. Team Envy, one more prominent esports organization purchased the Dallas Fuel.

With the 12 locations set, the league was taking shape and the start of the inaugural season was soon to come. The Overwatch League matches would take place in the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California for the first season and the vast majority of the second season while the league found its footing.

2018 – The Inaugural Season

The inaugural season of the Overwatch League would be played across four stages with “Stage Playoffs” acting as a buffer between each of the phases with bragging rights and prize money up for grabs. Each team would play 40 matches throughout the season. The overall records would factor in determining which teams would participate in the season playoffs between six of the twelve teams in the league.

On Wednesday, January 10th, 2018, the Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty faced off in the last match of the day for the new league that saw a peak of over 430k viewers. The interest was there and an exciting match-up of Dallas (formerly Team Envy and APEX Season One Champions) and Seoul (majority of players from Lunatic Hai, back-to-back APEX Champions) in a match that would set the tone for the rest of the season.

From its first matches on January 10th to the Grand Finals conclusion on July 28th, the twelve Overwatch League teams did battle over the course of 40 matches each. The London Spitfire made history as the first team to win a Stage Finals in their 3-2 victory over the top-seed New York Excelsior.

Though some teams found themselves at the bottom of the standings throughout the entirety of the 2018 season, only the Shanghai Dragons pulled off the heartbreaking 0-40 record. This made them the first (and only team) to go winless throughout an entire season.

The New York Excelsior would go onto win both the Stage Two and Stage Three Finals against the Philadelphia Fusion and Boston Uprising. They were the only team to make it to the finals of each stage, winning two and losing two. They dominated the competition all year and earned the best record in the league at 34-6. Their very own Sung-hyeon “JJoNak” Bang took home MVP honors for the season for his outstanding flex-support play, making him the first MVP of the league.

Despite their dominance all season, the Excelsior found themselves coming up short of the Grand Finals. They were on the receiving end of an upset defeat by the Philadelphia Fusion in the semi-finals of the season playoffs. The Stage One Champions – London Spitfire went on to beat the Philadelphia Fusion in the Grand Finals and hoisted the trophy along with $1 million in winnings. The Grand Finals was broadcasted to the world on Twitch, Disney XD and ESPN. Joon-yeong “Profit” Park took home Grand Finals MVP honors and the Spitfire cemented their legacy as the first Grand Finals champion in OWL history.

2019 – The Expansion

After a successful 2018 inaugural season, Blizzard was ready to take the Overwatch League even further. Eight new expansion teams were announced for the 2019 season including Atlanta, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Toronto, Paris, Washington, Vancouver and Chengdu. The leagues franchise-reach expanded to cover even more of the globe including a second EU team alongside London and three additional Chinese-based teams to tap into the potential of the Chinese viewer market.

These expansions came at a hefty price, though. Gone were the days of a mere $20 million franchise buy-in. Instead, rumors indicated a price range of $30-60 million and if the higher numbers rang true. The 2018 season proved successful and more companies, organizations, and investors wanted in.

Those investors included Cox Enterprises who purchased the Atlanta Reign, Nenking Group for the Guangzhou Charge and Bilibili, an online entertainment company who bought the Hangzhou Spark. The Toronto Defiant were purchased by OverActive Media. The second European team, Paris Eternal, are owned by DM-ESports. Washington Esports Venture purchased the Washington Justice. Another company dealing predominantly in traditional sports, Aquilini Group purchased the Vancouver Titans and the Chengdu Hunters were purchased by Huya Inc., a popular livestreaming platform in China.

The 2019 season would play out much like 2018 with four stages and Stage Finals continuing to act as a buffer between each of them. Unlike in 2018, though, the Stage Four Finals were bypassed for a play-in tournament system to determine which two teams (ranked 7-12) would compete alongside the top six ranked teams in a double-elimination playoff bracket with the Grand Finals to close everything out. Alongside the change in the playoff format, the teams would lighten their match load from 40 matches to only 28. This was in hopes of reducing player burn-out and making each match that much more important.

While the New York Excelsior were still one of the top teams in the league, the 2019 season held even more talent than the inaugural season. The Vancouver Titans came in as an expansion team and remained the top-seed throughout the entirety of the season, finishing with a staggering 25-3 record. They won the Stage One Finals against a San Francisco Shock team that would compete with them every step of the way as the season progressed. The Vancouver Titans went on a 19-match win streak which is a record for the Overwatch League. The Titans didn’t win anymore Stage Finals after losing Stage Two to the Shock and getting knocked out in the Stage Three Semis to the Shanghai Dragons.

Speaking of the Shanghai Dragons, they completed one of the best comeback stories in esports history. After an inaugural season where they went 0-40, the roster shifted around and won their third match of 2019. Eventually the Dragons were able to secure a Stage Three Finals victory over the heavily favored San Francisco Shock. It is a moment that will live on forever in Overwatch League history.

The San Francisco Shock were the true kings of the 2019 season, though. After a heartbreaking Stage One Finals loss to the Titans, the Shock bounced back for all of Stage Two and completed a “Golden Stage” where they didn’t even drop a single map. They finished the stage with a 7-0 record, a map record of 28-0 and a Grand Finals victory over the Vancouver Titans.

Jay “sinatraa” Won took the MVP crown from JJoNak and the San Francisco Shock were the favorite heading into the season playoffs. They were upset by the red-hot Atlanta Reign in their opening match of the playoffs and were one lost match away from going home. In true dominant fashion, the Shock ran through the loser bracket with a 4-0 sweep of every team in their way securing their spot in the Grand Finals against the Vancouver Titans.

The Shock came out victorious in the 2019 Grand Finals with an assertive 4-0 sweep of the Titans, bringing home the trophy and the $1.1 million in winnings. Hyo-bin “ChoiHyoBin” Choi received Grand Finals MVP honors, joining Profit from the previous year.

The Overwatch League introduced one more aspect in the 2019 season – Homestands. Dallas, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Valiant hosted in their own cities for a weekend in Stages Two-Four. There were only three homestands in the season, but they proved to be incredibly successful and set the stage for what was to come in 2020.

2020 – The Homestands

There were no new expansion teams coming into the 2020 season. Instead, the league put all their focus on what they had been building towards since the inception of the Overwatch League – homestands every weekend, all season. Finally the location-based franchise would be able to represent their cities and hear the cheers from their passionate fan bases around the world.

Despite some of the early season Chinese homestands cancelled due to the Coronavirus, the beginning of the 2020 season has shown the homestand method is an exciting new way to experience the league as both New York and Dallas hosted the opening weekend to sold-out crowds. The roaring cheers and thunderous boos bring an entirely new level to the Overwatch League experience and a sign of good things to come for the league in their possible “make-or-break” year.

Aside from the full homestand format, the league made some other changes including not renewing their Twitch contract and instead will broadcast exclusively with YouTube for the next three seasons. There is also an update to their season format. The teams will still play 28 matches, but instead of the season broken up into four stages, a midseason tournament will be played with the two conference leaders (Pacific and Atlantic) and two wild-card teams facing off for over $1 million during the all-star weekend.

 

The journey of the Overwatch League has done a lot for the esports industry as a whole. It has truly (and successfully so far) introduced the home/away franchise format that many traditional sports follow and paved the way for the beginning of the Call of Duty League, another blossoming esports league that follows a similar franchise, location-based format. It’s helped bring esports closer to becoming mainstream after a handful of big broadcasting deals that included ABC, Disney and ESPN as well as brought in a ton of money to the esports scene through prominent investors that might have not been interested in before. Now, more than ever, esports are being taken more seriously in the bigger picture and the league was a driving factor in that.

The Overwatch League has come a long way since it was first announced at Blizzcon in 2016. The road hasn’t always been smooth and slip-ups have happened over the course of the first two seasons and into the 2020 season. Still, the scope of the league is breathtaking and the vision of home matches around the world has come to fruition. For fans of the league, there has been a lot to love from the very beginning.

Brandon has worked with a variety of clients in his freelance writing career before transitioning into the esports scene where he obsesses over the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League. He enjoys good conversations, concerts, reading, writing about/playing Overwatch, night drives, movies, and laughing. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose.