If T2 Overwatch Fails, We Only Have Ourselves to Blame
Similar to the professional sports model, Overwatch Contenders is the minor league to Overwatch League’s major. It’s a place where players who dream to be professional esports players can finally get a shot at the big time and show off their skills, as shown time and time again. Well-known players such as Dogman, Fusions, and the two-time champion tank Smurf have cultivated successful OWL careers simply by starting in T2 Overwatch.
Yet despite the best efforts of its growing community and the support of Overwatch players and content creators, Contenders still has issues with its viewership and support. This largely stems from Blizzard’s continued lack of support for something so crucial to its existence. However, last year, a lot has occurred since then to make the situation more complicated. From the dissolution of various academy teams, to producing a season that is entirely remote due to a global pandemic. Blizzard marginally improved their backing of their minor league via promoting skin drops, but results are still far below expectations and it’s leading to questions as to what will happen this year, as unlike APAC, which has a steadily growing fanbase, all eyes in this region are on NA and EU.
A True NA Production
Overwatch League’s viewership has decreased since the move to YouTube for Season 3, and the same could be said for Contenders as well. Due to a combination of lack of interest in the game itself, the move of popular pro players to VALORANT, and the pandemic obliterating any live and Homestand events, viewership dropped a shocking 61.4% between 2019’s and 2020’s Grand Finals Contenders viewerships didn’t fare much better, averaging around 1,000 to 2,000 viewers per broadcast.
The lack of viewership made it easy for a lot of OWL teams to drop their academy, or T2 teams due to lack of funding or interest. Out of the 12 NA teams in the league, only ONE team has an academy team. Boston Uprising’s Uprising Academy produced star players such as Fusions and Punk. All of the others have been dropped, raising concerns by players, content creators, and casters alike.
It also didn’t help that technical issues plagued The Gauntlet this year, with viewers understandably upset with problems like pixelated visuals, delayed productions, and desynced audio and video. Due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year-end showcase tournament of the top T2 Overwatch teams from each of the regions was held entirely online.
The culminating event was produced by ELO Hell Esports, a company well-known in the Overwatch scene. According to Alex “Mierst” Lessard, the Managing Director of ELO Hell, the technical issues are easily explained.
“At the scale of a production like Gauntlet, you now have multiple streaming feeds that need to be kept in sync,” he explains. “You’re splitting off that feed as well to be used by localization broadcasts, French, Spanish, and German. The more staff you have, the more feeds you’re working with, and with everyone being in different places with different ISPs, all of these are opportunities for issues or failure.”
But despite these setbacks, Mierst was very happy with the results. “Overall, I’m very happy with the production. The team was positive, upbeat and worked diligently to solve problems. You can’t ask for more than that.”
The technical drawbacks of hosting tournaments in a pandemic, a lack of professional OWL faith in T2 teams, and the inevitable strain placed on the teams themselves render them more likely to shoot themselves in the foot. Unlike in OWL, T2 Overwatch teams are self-funded, and there is not a lot of money in competition, despite Blizzard proudly boasting a $2,500,000 prize pool throughout all the regions.
Jayda “Jaydasch” Schroepfer, Owner and Manager of European Contenders Team Avoided, provided Hotspawn with payout figures from the official Contenders rules showing the unfortunate icing on the unsettling cake. Jaydasch also noted the numbers may not have been updated, as there were eight teams at the event, not twelve.
Combine that with most of these teams being run by young, and frankly sometimes inexperienced, staff it turns NA T2 Overwatch into a recipe for disaster. A noteworthy example being Malibu, whose mistreatment and blatant antagonization of their players by their staff after they were dropped ultimately resulted in their demise. Without a proper structure and financial stability, most teams cannot handle the stress of organizing a Contenders team while being virtually penniless.
As much as players and staff alike would love to stress their desire to do so in the hopes of reaching their dreams or to provide experience for future educational pursuits, the fact remains that dreams and experience do not put food in their mouths. The grind is real and it may be the trend, but it doesn’t make it any more healthy and beneficial in the long run.
EU Isn’t Much Better
Last year, Activision Blizzard shut down their offices throughout Europe, effectively laying off their entire European esports division. We have yet to see what effect this will have on T2 Overwatch in 2021, if any, given that the base of operations is most likely to be centralized in the UK. But within the EU T2 Overwatch scene itself, it is seen as a region with little fanfare or talent, despite boasting some of the best players in the region like the British Hurricane.
And yet despite this, many see Europe as often overlooked, especially since there are only two professional OWL teams located in that region. Thankfully, the rather remarkable efforts of Paris Eternal’s General Manager Avalla and the western rebranding of the London Spitfire helped shine a light on the talent there for the first time with big signings going into the 2021 season.
Harry “LEGDAY” Pollitt, veteran Contenders color commentator, saw this problem since the beginning and the reasoning behind it is quite simple.
“It might’ve not made so much sense for many teams [to sign EU players],” he explains. “Spitfire was built out of a pre-purchased pair of Korean cores and until now they wanted to try and build off of that or keep pieces here and there so they didn’t use much EU talent.As for prior and EU scouting in general, it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem. Many EU players got scouted after moving to North America, so many more high tier EU players tried to make the jump assuming it would be a more fruitful ground for pickups. And that makes sense in a way.”
I also asked about how the previous oversight may cause more undue stress on aspiring players, especially those who have less-than-stellar reputations during ranked games. LEGDAY believes that while those behaviors are repugnant, cancel culture isn’t always the right solution.
“I’m a big believer in redemption, personally. I believe that everyone has room to change and to grow, and that might be a symptom of naivete but I think that to eternally condemn people is to not punish but to simply try and purge people from your own existence and, frankly, the world doesn’t work that way.
“The question that drags up for some people obviously is ‘What after?’ I think that can descend into a moral quagmire which honestly isn’t worth touching. If they behave disruptively in-game after their ban, it’ll get flagged pretty quickly, but the public aren’t owed updates on these situations, they’re not public hearings or some kind of broadcasted monitoring of previously disruptive individuals.
In my opinion, after the initial ban, I look for players to keep their head down and just grind through their scrims and practices. If they apologise and change their behaviour they don’t deserve to be harassed for their continued existence and participation.”
More Money, More Problems
And also like NA, Blizzard is still lackluster in investing in its EU players financially. If the recent layoffs weren’t enough to show that, it’s the income players and staff receive during the season that shows it the most. Jaydasch pointed out that the lack of a playoff structure made things a bit rough.
“They need to rework the [Contenders] system,” she told Hotspawn. “That seems so weird. It’s rough on teams who are constantly going in and out of Trials Tendies or even OD Trials Tendies.”
Providing the actual payouts for her team Avoided, the amount of income is almost night and day when compared to OWL Pros:
The $2,500,000 prize pool Blizzard has on its Contenders page in bold black writing does stress this being spread across all seven regions, but compared to their profits, it’s just a drop in the bucket. Sadly, no one is stressing that the amount of time taken for VOD reviews, scrims, practice, streaming, along with schoolwork in COVID times, can be much more mentally straining if finances are unstable or low. And that needs to end.
The Real Threat of Moral and Financial Bankruptcy
If there is one thing that can be gained from all of this, it’s the fact that there is still hope for T2 Overwatch in 2021. No one believes for a second that Overwatch League is going anywhere despite the falling viewership. Depending on how quickly vaccine distribution occurs, there could be hopes for a more interactive season in 2022. And with events like FOCC and the addition of new skins rewarded after hours of watching, it’s clear that there is still an audience begging to be pulled in.
But it is also important to remember that financial support from Blizzard is important. They need to pump the millions that their CEO earns back into this minor league. They need to show that the future of Overwatch esports is incredibly important, and this is one of the few times money needs to be thrown at the problem to fix it.
Along with this, the mental stability of players needs to be recognized, especially with players as young as 13 trying to not only sharpen their skills and grab attention from teams, but also to build their brand. This can lead to an impossible amount of pressure for a still forming mind, which can lead to disgusting behavior and disastrous results. Teams need to hire copywriters and mental health professionals. They need to have greater access to mentors and peers who can provide them with the structure that is so desperately needed for them.
Finally, with all the good that the community has done for them, they also have to remember how unforgiving social media can be. They are willing to cheer for you in the YouTube chat one moment and utterly destroy you in a Reddit forum the next, due to the flippant nature of the fanbase and internet culture in general. The Overwatch community is composed of a diverse group of ages and backgrounds that is turning much more progressive, yet also needs to reckon with their own actions regarding virtue signalling and to not hold underage persons to a standard they haven’t reached themselves.
Because if this scene dies, Overwatch League dies. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.