Blizzard predictably axes Overwatch League to ‘revitalize’ esports program

Following the 2023 Overwatch League Grand Finals, Blizzard announced it would rebuild its esports program. After six seasons, the OWL never quite lived up to its grand vision of a city-based esports league.

The publisher largely telegraphed this move. In June, Overactive Media — parent company to the Toronto Defiant — disclosed that Blizzard forgave each team’s outstanding franchising fees. Soon after, the publisher offered each team a $6 million break-up fee if the league’s expiring agreement was not renewed. If teams paid on schedule — which was likely not the case — this was a least a $12-$13.5 million incentive per team to let the league crumble.

While there were a variety of factors outside of Activision Blizzard’s control that worked against the league, the publisher played a key role in the OWL’s (predictable) downfall.

Overwatch (League)’s sliding popularity

It’s nearly impossible to have a healthy esports ecosystem if a game does not have a thriving community. Sadly, Overwatch’s popularity has nosedived since the league launched in 2018.


GamesBeat Next 2023

Join the GamesBeat community in San Francisco this October 24-25. You’ll hear from the brightest minds within the gaming industry on latest developments and their take on the future of gaming.

Learn More

Throughout its lifecycle, Overwatch wanted to appeal to both casual players and esports competitors at the same time. However, achieving this balance proved to be a major obstacle for Blizzard.

For example, 2019 saw the rise of the “Goats” meta where teams played with three tanks and three healers. This team composition was highly effective but incredibly difficult to watch. Eventually, Blizzard killed the strategy by implementing Role Queue, but not before it took over most of the League’s second season. This not only killed the title’s momentum, but the solution introduced its own set of problems for the wider player base.

Moreover, Blizzard failed to fuel community interest with new content. Between Overwatch’s launch in 2016 and 2021, Blizzard added ten new heroes and 17 standard maps to the game. The pace of new content fell off between Overwatch 2’s announcement in November 2019 and its release in October 2022. Additionally, events could not offset this loss of interest — likely because Blizzard repeated most seasonal events rather than introduce new ones.

Ultimately, this led to Overwatch fans — and invested esports teams — to put all of their hopes on Overwatch 2 to revitalize the game’s community. In particular, fans eagerly anticipated the promised PvE mode with deep character customization.

While the title had a successful launch, Blizzard failed to deliver on its PvE vision. It pushed back the launch of PvE, later scrapping its most anticipated features and disappointing fans. Without new content to anticipate and play, Overwatch 2 couldn’t spark life back into the community. Between 2022 and 2023’s Grand Finals, the Overwatch League’s average viewership fell 58%.

Increasing competition for OWL

In the gap between Overwatch 2’s announcement and release, new competitors emerged to eat Overwatch’s lunch.

Apex Legends launched in February 2019 and merged Overwatch’s hero-based gameplay with the battle royale genre. While COVID was an obstacle, the Apex Legends Global Series had its second and third most watched events in 2023. While sustainability issues are a problem for the league, its 2023 Finals averaged 2.3-times as many viewers as the Overwatch League’s 2023 Grand Finals.

Similarly, Valorant from Riot Games appealed to Overwatch fans through its heroes’ abilities and tactical team fights. The title’s similarities to Overwatch actually drew top talent away from the OWL, harming both its commercial and competitive viability. If that wasn’t enough, Valorant’s ability economy made the game more watchable and thus, more esports-friendly.

Since the Valorant Champions Tour was announced in November 2020, it’s been far more popular than Overwatch League according to Google Search trends.

trends.embed.renderExploreWidget(“TIMESERIES”, {“comparisonItem”:[{“keyword”:”/g/11c5wx69kv”,”geo”:””,”time”:”2020-11-01 2023-10-03″},{“keyword”:”/g/11t2tzyxqw”,”geo”:””,”time”:”2020-11-01 2023-10-03″}],”category”:0,”property”:””}, {“exploreQuery”:”date=2020-11-01%202023-10-03&q=%2Fg%2F11c5wx69kv,%2Fg%2F11t2tzyxqw&hl=en”,”guestPath”:””});

Viewership is also in Valorant’s favor. The 2023 VCT Finals averaged nearly 5.2-times as many viewers as the Overwatch League’s Grand Finals.

Breakup with Netease (and China)

China was by far the most important market for Overwatch. Four OWL teams were outright based in China, while the LA Valiant operated from China for two seasons.

More critically, the vast majority of the Overwatch League’s Grand Finals viewership came from Chinese platforms. According to leaks, 85-90% of Grand Finals viewers in 2020 and 2021 were from China. If linear viewership is excluded for 2019, China had twice as many viewers than the U.S. that year too.

As a result, Chinese fans held significant sway with the league. In 2021, Chinese fans boycotted top player Jongyeol “Saebyeolbe” Park after he criticized Chinese Internet censorship on a Twitch stream. Of course, this isn’t new from Blizzard who also punished a Hearthstone player in 2019 for his comments supporting protests in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately for the OWL, Activision Blizzard suspended its agreement with its Chinese partner NetEase — which also operates the Shanghai Dragons — in November 2022. This left the Chinese teams in limbo as they were legally not allowed to operate in the country. Ultimately, the Chengdu Hunters pulled out of the league in June 2023.

What’s next

Without China to anchor the league, more competition and evaporating enthusiasm, Blizzard is sending the Overwatch League to its watery grave.

It’s not clear how Blizzard plans to revamp its esports program. Any options will have to operate leanly as about 50 employees were laid off from Activision Blizzard’s esports department in July. Any major future endeavors will likely take place after Microsoft completes its acquisition.

GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top