June 16, 2024
Overwatch Open Esports Ecosystem
(ESI Illustration) Image credit: OWCS, Shutterstock

It’s incredibly rare to see a franchised esport abandon its previous business model in favour of a completely open ecosystem. 

Thanks to a few bad decisions, a pandemic, viewership declines, a troubled sequel and new ownership, that’s exactly what happened to Blizzard’s competitive FPS Overwatch.

ESI London 2024

During Overwatch’s beta phase in 2015, the game had the making of a flourishing esport scene with teams from all over the world eager to compete once the game was fully released. Whilst an open system was quickly established, Activision Blizzard opted to lock everything up behind a franchised system quickly with slots on sale for a reported $20m (~£16m) each for its inaugural season in 2018.

The plan was very ambitious: create an esport league similar to North America’s NBA, with a travelling circus made of city-based teams. After a slow start in 2018 and 2019, which saw its inaugural league primarily compete in Los Angeles’ Blizzard Arena, franchises gathered enough attention to start travelling between cities for its 2020 season. However, then the pandemic happened, forcing competitions to go online. 

Meanwhile, at the end of 2019, Blizzard announced a sequel to the original game, Overwatch 2, which would eliminate a role and shift the gameplay from 6v6 to 5v5. The game suffered delays, content cuts and received a lukewarm response once it was released in 2022. Meanwhile, Overwatch League teams were systematically losing money in the scene due to a lack of promised revenue that the franchised league aimed to provide. The sexual harassment scandal that plagued Blizzard in 2021 — driving established sponsors like State Farm and Coca-Cola away — certainly didn’t help.

All of this resulted in mounting pressure from teams to cut their losses and recoup some of their initial investment. So, months before Microsoft’s $68.7bn (~£50.5bn) acquisition of Activision Blizzard, teams were offered the chance to exit the franchise. This marked the end of the Overwatch League and, a few months later, the arrival of a new, open, circuit that lifted the spirits of fans and pro players. 

Overwatch Champions Series
Image credit: ESL FACEIT Group

ESL FACEIT Group entered the Overwatch scene with the promise of democratising the discipline in the style of more open ecosystems such as Counter-Strike, through the Overwatch Championship Series (OWCS). This new competition would have in-person majors and be part of the Saudi Arabian government-backed Esports World Cup, with open qualifiers providing potential participation for any aspiring team.

“We used to have a team in 2017-2018, and we’ve been following the circuit over the years,” ENCE CEO Mika Kuusisto told Esports Insider. “There has been lots of turmoil around the Overwatch ecosystem since Blizzard stopped the league. There’s a lot of great talent looking for opportunities, fans are eagerly waiting for what’s to come and organisations like ENCE are trying to take their part in developing the ecosystem to be more sustainable for all. 

“ESL FACEIT Group being active in the scene is making us excited about the future although there’s not much visibility yet for the long term. Making a comeback to Overwatch is part of our expansion strategy: we saw an opportunity to help the ecosystem but also to get a very competitive team to represent our jerseys”.

The OWCS isn’t just for returning organisations. The cancellation of the franchised league has attracted new teams and new investments from all over the world. 

“Now that the franchise era has ended, Team Falcons has been able to do a full entry with a Korean roster capable of playing at the highest level, alongside a MENA fully female roster entry, which is something we’re very proud of,” Grant Rousseau, Global Director of Esports at Team Falcons, told Esports Insider

Team Falcons, among other teams like ENCE and SpaceStation Gaming, have qualified for the first major — set to happen at Dreamhack Dallas from May 31st to June 2nd. As more details regarding Overwatch’s circuit come to light, globally recognised organisations such as Fnatic and TSM have announced their entry into the scene. 

Rousseau continued: “Our objective is pretty simple, that is to win all there is available in Overwatch. We recently won the Korean Contenders league and now we have our sights set on qualifying for and winning, the Dallas Major along with the Esport World Cup. We want to use this game to promote Falcons and Overwatch combined and show our capabilities as an esports organisation.”

Fnatic Overwatch
Fnatic is the latest major organisation to announce its entry into Overwatch 2. Image credit: Fnatic via X

The launch of an entirely new esport circuit has also completely opened up talent pools, with Overwatch League franchise players looking for other opportunities and athletes in Contenders, the game’s previous tier 2 circuit, now able to compete on the biggest of stages.

The Toronto Defiant is the most prominent Overwatch League brand that stayed alive after the cancellation of the franchised league and is now competing with a new roster in the OWCS. Meanwhile, Overwatch’s integration into FACEIT has created a clearer path-to-pro for up-and-coming players.

“We worked relentlessly once we realised there was an opportunity to land a Contenders team with a Finnish core,” Kuusisto added. “But it wasn’t a particularly easy process due to the scene having so many unanswered questions about the Overwatch roadmap, prize pools and so on, so we had to be very precise on what we wanted to build and with what kind of budget.” 

The OWCS’ number one problem, right now, is doubts over its stability as an investment. Prize pools for the entire season are still unclear and the roadmap is not well defined. 

“First and foremost we wanted to create a team who can challenge the best teams in the world,” Kuusisto concluded. “Secondly, we need to find a commercial sense to operate within Overwatch. The latter will take some time and there are still lots of uncertainties. Competitively we have had a superior start and hopefully we can deliver the results and excitement to the fans throughout the season”.

According to Esports Charts, the Overwatch Champions Series 2024 is generating between 61,000 to 31,000 peak viewers across its regional stages. Whilst these are modest figures, it’s hard to compare against the Overwatch League due to the leagues being regionally focused. Dreamhack Dallas will be the scene’s true viewership benchmark. The Overwatch League 2023 playoffs recorded 157,689 peak viewers, highlighting a clear goal that the OWCS will want to beat. 

Currently, the ecosystem is populated with a mix of well-established organisations (Twisted Minds, M80 and Crazy Raccoon), unsigned super roster (Students of the Game) and lesser-known teams (Team Peps) which populate the circuit’s three main regions: NA, EMEA and Asia. The latter is organised by Korean company WDG.

From a player standpoint, the ecosystem is already populated by former Overwatch League stars (Lee ‘LIP’ Jae-won) and emerging talents (Diego ‘Vega’ Moran), creating a scene that is buzzing with excitement. 

The scene’s true litmus test will be the Dreamhack Dallas event. Only there, fans and analysts will find out if the game’s original promise of being a competitive powerhouse is on its way to becoming reality.

Riccardo Lichene

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