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Don’t worry about the Overwatch League, worry about its workers

A problem of time and talent

Overwatch League - fans cheer at the Blizzard Arena during a match between the Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Depending on who you listen to, the Overwatch League (and Overwatch writ large) has been dying or dead since its arrival.

After a second season dominated by complaints about its meta, low viewership figures compared with other esports, and a clutch of the broadcast’s most familiar faces like Erik “DoA” Lonnquist and Auguste “Semmler” Massonnat dropping out, speculation over the League’s imminent demise has flared.

But there’s little evidence to suggest that this is really a make or break year for the Overwatch League. According to Activision Blizzard’s 2018 annual report, in a record year where they generated $1.8 billion in total cash flow, the League financially overperformed compared to their “original plans.” Because of this, it was able to sell new franchise slots “at substantially higher prices than [the] first team sales.” The company hasn’t yet released its 2019 annual report, but in the first quarter they reported a 30% increase in viewership hours, while their third quarter filing claims an overall 18% increase in average minute audience for the League’s second season.

Blizzard is now investing in the same structure for the Call of Duty league, whose inaugural season just began. It’s unlikely it’d try the same thing twice if it believed OWL to be on its last legs. And even Overwatch’s second tier competitive league, Contenders, limps onwards despite having all the League’s meta and gameplay issues, far fewer familiar faces, and comparatively tiny viewership. So as the League enters its third season, branching out of Los Angeles into the teams’ local markets, it seems to be working from a relatively healthy foundation.

Overwatch League - a player from the Los Angeles Valiant enters the Blizzard Arena, surrounded by cheering fans. Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Profits and costs

As Contenders flounders, it’s the players who suffer, not Blizzard. With reports of months late payments, the loss of LAN events that provide crucial experience, the end of third party broadcasting that gave them some ability to be seen, and the shuttering of six of the 17 original academy teams that once provided side by side growth with League players and the easiest opportunity to make the leap into top tier play, it’s little wonder that competitors have been leaving in droves.

The same is true of the more prestigious and highlighted Overwatch League. About 50 players have fully retired from the League during its first two years — or one dropout around every two weeks. While some were players who chose not to look for new teams after their contracts ended, many left mid-season citing stress, depression, anxiety, and similar issues. In one two week period in late August, four players dropped out, three of whom had commented on the competition’s negative impact on their mental health. The same goes for certain organisational staff, like the Washington Justice’s assistant GM Kate Mitchell.

Not only has the League seemed unwilling to address these issues, it’s likely to be compounded this season. Most obviously, this is the year the League’s grand travelling plan kicks into action, with teams jetting between Europe, Asia, and North America to play in homestands. For Upcomer, Eric Doerr roughly calculated that Washington Justice would require the least flight miles, at around 21,000. All other teams will require 30,000 or more, topping out with London Spitfire at 77,000. (According to early reports, the Paris Eternal will be playing out of New Jersey in an attempt to mitigate this issue.) By comparison, the Raiders are likely the only NFL team this year that will be required to fly more than 30,000 miles, according to CBS.

Just like esports writ large, the perceived glamour of high-flying constant travel doesn’t account for loss of sleep, general aches and pains from being crammed in an airline seat for hours at a time, or the jet lag associated with crossing several time zones. Travel time, as well as associated practical considerations like packing and jet lag recovery, will also either cut into players’ practice schedules or personal time, and given the reportedly intense workload put on players in seasons one and two, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was the latter.

Overwatch League - Brandon “Seagull” Larned poses with a fan dressed as a seagull
Brandon “Seagull” Larned has transitioned from pro play to streaming.
Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Promotions and progression

Meanwhile, even without all the travel, players’ jobs remain precarious. An unfavorable meta for their preferred heroes may see them benched or dropped entirely. And Blizzard’s rapid, sweeping changes to the game may cause further upsets. Where early 2019’s triple tank, triple support meta left many damage dealers on the bench, the 2020 season will begin in the two damage, two tank, two healer role lock, and teams have presumably hired accordingly. But Blizzard have been discussing introducing an alternative three damage, one tank, two healer lock. With tank professionals generally specializing in either the main or off-tank roles, it could cause a subset of players to become redundant.

Other dramatic changes, like hero bans, have also been in discussion among fans lately. Jeff Kaplan recently stated that he and other developers are “reluctant” on the idea, but that “we’re not of the mindset that we’re opposed to the idea entirely and will never add them.”

Some players may choose to retire because they see an obvious career path outside competing. Those with large fanbases, like Daniel “dafran” Francesca and Félix “xQc” Lengyel before them, may be able to transition into full-time streaming. The League’s darlings, like Jacob “Jake” Lyon and Scott “Custa” Kennedy, can continue on as casters. But those without this opportunity afforded to them may feel unable to quit, even if they’re suffering mental or physical health issues.

Even if they do, each of these options comes with their own stresses. Streamers are also constantly reported as burning out, and many casters and broadcast personnel chose not to renew their contracts this year. Caster Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles cited this season’s travel commitments as part of his reasoning, demonstrating that it’ll affect other League workers as well as players. “Casting will never be exclusively the thing that I do,” he told the Washington Post, “and with that travel schedule, it becomes difficult to do anything else.”

Mykles is one of several broadcasters not to renew their contracts. Host Malik Forté told Kotaku that the salary offered to him wasn’t satisfactory. “I was expecting a little more than what was proposed for 2020,” he said, noting he was also taking into consideration all the work he’d put in so far.

This leaves room for a few new faces — Jake and Custa included, as mentioned earlier. But if the League can’t come to agreements with them after a couple of years of work, there’s a good chance that turnover in the broadcast department will be high, in order to keep salaries low. There will always be newly retired players to fill out the desk, after all.

Blizzard is a penny-pinching company — just look at how it’s been crowdfunding some of their other esports events, or their 800-person mass layoff announced right as they cheered their record financial year. The League itself is far from collapsing. Its churn through players, broadcasters, and other staff, however, only seems likely to pick up pace.

Update: A previous version of this story briefly mentioned that a role lock had been added to the public test realm. This is incorrect, and the story has been updated to reflect the current state of a potential 3-2-1 role lock.

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