OWL Is Better Than Ever, But Is That Enough?
2020 was undeniably a trying year for the Overwatch League. After the global pandemic scuttled the planned Homestand system, OWL was left floating rudderless for a time in a sea of online games that felt meaningless and excited no one. An awkward and ever-changing Hero Pool system only served to confuse viewers and place undue stress on teams. Quality dropped on every front as production and competition went remote.
The point here is not to criticize the league or anyone involved. No one could have foreseen how the last year played out. By season’s end, many of the issues were solved. Tournaments gave players and fans something to break up the monotony of the regular season, and the broadcast steadily got its bearing in a new setup. So far, that momentum has carried into the 2021 season and given the league something to celebrate.
Parity Has Finally Arrived
For much of its history, the Overwatch League has been dominated by a single presiding team. In the inaugural season, NYXL were the undisputed gods until a playoff patch brought them back down to Earth. After they ascended in Stage 2 of 2019, the Shock didn’t release their stranglehold on the league until this year.
This year has been something of a different story. Yes, Dallas and Shanghai have been a cut above the rest as reflected by the comfortable leads in their respective regions. However, they’ve both been entirely mortal during the regular season. Neither has the best map differential in their region, and one map was all that separated Dallas from watching the May Melee at home instead of winning the first tournament of the year.
Based on their tournament showings, those two are clear favorites. But there are still half a dozen more teams that have to be taken seriously as title contenders for any given tournament. If teams like the Shock, Gladiators, and Outlaws can translate regular season performance into Knockout success, the West could have a second juggernaut to deal with. Further down the standings, Washington, Atlanta, Florida, Seoul, Philadelphia, and Hangzhou are all primed to step up if the meta swings in their direction.
At the bottom of the league, there are also fewer abjectly terrible teams than we’ve seen in the past. The league will always have its punching bags. But outside of the three winless teams, no one feels hopelessly lost this year.
As the league grows more competitive, there are far fewer free wins even for the best teams. Week to week, fans see more close, important contests. Duds that pit two teams with nothing to play for, once a regular occurrence, are now a rarity. Quality of play is up big time and the league is flush with compelling teams to follow.
A Format That Works for Everyone
No small piece of the credit for the league’s abundance of interesting storylines must go to the 2021 format. Already, this season has twice crescendoed during Grand Finals featuring teams that never had the chance to meet last season.
This season the league has brilliantly taken the lessons learned from 2020 – tournaments excite fans and dot the calendar with big events to keep players motivated – and iterated to make improvements. They’ve trimmed the fat by only including the top half of the league in Knockouts and added cross-region play at the highest level.
The ability for teams in Asia and North America to play on even footing alone is a technical marvel, but its effect on the league is massive. In 2020, the two regions developed along separate, parallel tracks until finally meeting at the Grand Finals. Effectively, there were two Overwatch Leagues. Now, the regions cross-pollinate periodically, and fans and teams can compare how the two regions approach the game. What was once a liability is now an asset as regional storylines can flourish without splitting the league in two.
Just about the only criticism that can be levied against the 2021 format is the overall decrease in the number of games played. 16 games go by in the blink of an eye, especially when teams play twice per weekend. A single bad week can mean an eighth of your total games are down the drain.
Already, we’ve seen good teams miss tournaments because they start slowly during a given tournament. Four qualification matches per tournament don’t leave room for error, especially when the meta shifts so drastically with hero pools.
No one wants to go back to 2018 when teams played 40 matches per season, but a couple more qualification matches would give teams a bit more time to find their sea legs. Given the overwhelmingly positive reception to this year’s format, it’s a mild complaint, and one that could easily be fixed if the league returns to the February start date they’ve used in past seasons.
The Future of OWL
All of this paints a very rosy picture, right? From the broadcast finding its footing in a remote landscape to the talent worth rooting for across the league to a format that elevates and nurtures their stories, the OWL product is undoubtedly the best it’s ever been.
So when the Grand Finals of the June Joust, one of the greatest OWL matches we’ve ever seen, peaks at 85,000 viewers on Youtube, a question looms. What happened for Overwatch to go from one of the biggest launches in gaming to an esport that can barely be called Tier 2 at this point?
There’s no smoking gun here, but many culprits. Unpopular metas were allowed to fester for much longer than they should have. The game is notoriously difficult to watch and understand at times, especially for casual or new fans. The franchise model funneled esports interest toward big money orgs at the cost of stifling early organic growth. The move from Twitch to Youtube excised part of the audience and left Overwatch on the outside looking in at Twitch’s pandemic boom.
At some point though, the simplest explanation is the one that remains: Overwatch has failed the Overwatch League. While the league has been consistently working to improve itself, the game has been essentially lifeless for nearly two years. Since the announcement of Overwatch 2 at Blizzcon 2019, there’s been just one new hero and zero maps released. How can the OWL be expected to thrive when the game itself has been placed in limbo?
All eyes are eagerly trained on the upcoming sequel. The decision to go 5v5 will certainly cut down on visual clutter and improve watchability. A new game inherently means an end to the content drought and renewed interest across the board. At that point, the challenge will be converting that audience to Overwatch League fans. Right now, they have to hope it’s not too late.