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Why the Overwatch League is over

Activision Blizzard will pay out a total of $120 million in fees to teams

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 29: A view of The San Francisco Shock and Vancouver Titans will face off at the Overwatch League Grand Finals 2019 at Wells Fargo Center on September 29, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (From Getty) Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The Overwatch League is no more. Activision Blizzard is moving away from the esports league to take its competitive Overwatch 2 scene elsewhere, the company announced this week.

“We are transitioning from the Overwatch League and evolving competitive Overwatch in a new direction,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told Polygon. “We are grateful to everyone who made OWL possible and remain focused on building our vision of a revitalized esports program. We are excited to share details with you all in the near future.”

When two Overwatch League teams — Houston Outlaws and Florida Mayhem — stepped onto the finals stage in Toronto in October, the future of Overwatch 2 esports was unclear. Activision Blizzard fired dozens of people in its esports department and announced that the future of the league was up to team ownership. Overwatch League owners were to vote to continue; if they voted no, Activision Blizzard would pay out $6 million in termination fees.

Now that the votes are in, Activision Blizzard will pay out $120 million to the 20 contracted teams. Founding Overwatch League teams paid Activision Blizzard $20 million each, according to an ESPN report from 2017. Eight expansion slots were later sold for prices up to $35 million, The Jacob Wolf Report said, adding that Activision Blizzard was owed $400 million in franchise payments from the Overwatch League and its similar Call of Duty esports league. Those outstanding fees have reportedly been waived.

Activision Blizzard is reportedly looking to run its next Overwatch 2 esports program with ESL FACEIT, Jacob Wolf reported in November. ESL FACEIT was sold to Savvy Gaming Group, backed up the Saudi Arabian government, in 2022 for $1.5 billion.

When the Overwatch League was announced in 2016, it was billed as a way to legitimize esports. It imagined an esports program that operated like the National Football League or National Hockey League, where teams — tied to cities — had a permanent spot and traveled to the home areas of other teams across the world for games. Though traditional sports owners bought into the Overwatch League, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, that vision never really came to fruition.

For the first few seasons, the Overwatch League operated primarily out of the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, save for a few “homestead” weekends where teams tested the home-and-away game format. Some teams even planned multi-million dollar arenas, like Philadelphia Fusion’s $50 million Fusion Arena. (The lot remains empty, but owner Comcast Spectacor said it intends to build a multi-use arena, still.) The home-and-away setup fizzled out as the Overwatch League transitioned into strict online play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things got much, much worse for the Overwatch League when big sponsors dropped support for Activision Blizzard following the California Civil Rights department’s sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit, which is still ongoing. In-person events kicked up again in 2022, but interest in the league — and Overwatch 2 — continued to dwindle into 2023.

Activision Blizzard is adamant that competitive Overwatch 2 isn’t done for, whatever this new format may be. The big, expensive bet on the Overwatch League, though, has finally been called off.

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