Overwatch League Launches Ambitious Home-and-Away System
“I love it when a plan comes together.”
Those words, spoken frequently by Hannibal, the leader of “The A-Team,” are the penultimate bit of sage wisdom to emerge from that 80s viewing staple – second only to Mr. T’s sympathetic feeling toward anyone who opposed him or his organization (i.e., “I pity the fool.”).
“I love it when a plan comes together” is also the perfect summation of the Overwatch League’s announcement that all teams will move to headquarters in their home town and play a home and away schedule for the 2020 season. Currently, all teams reside and play their matches at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California.
Having the teams relocate to their “home towns” for the 2020 season (the league’s third year in existence) was always the Overwatch League’s intent.
“Our goal was to create something easy to follow for fans, that people would understand. One issue with esports in the past 20 years is that it’s big, people have heard of it, but no one could understand it,” Commissioner Nate Nanzer said in an interview with Adweek.
“That city-based anchor is something we’ve seen catch on quickly. It’s given millions of gamers a reason to care. … If they’ve been on the periphery of esports but never engaged. ‘You guys have a New York team, and there’s Boston, so I know who to hate!’ Those rivalries are built in, and it’s caught on.”
The Overwatch League was the first esports organization to attach teams to cities – and it is the first to try to build regional pride by housing teams in their host cities. This will also a great opportunity for teams and the league to acquire regional sponsorships.
“It’s really taking a page out of traditional sports scheduling,” Nanzer was quoted when making the announcement at the 2019 South by Southwest Gaming Festival. “This isn’t just an important step for the Overwatch League; it’s an important step for esports.
“You look at the esports club model where everyone is playing in a central studio or online, the business model is global sponsorships, there’s some competition there, and then monetizing content through YouTube and Twitch and other platforms. But if you look at the way teams drive revenue in traditional sports, it’s because they have a venue. They can sell tickets, VIP experiences and boxes, and all of those things – concessions, parking, merchandise, and local sponsorships – which to date have had no reason to invest in esports.”
This could be a gamechanger. Currently, contestants for esports competitions are either in two separate locations playing online or meet in a neutral venue. If the home-and-away format for the Overwatch League proves successful, it is not out of the question that other esports leagues will adopt the system. The in-development Call of Duty World League is already mirroring the format (granted, the same developer, Activision Blizzard, manages both leagues).
Esports is a growing industry, and the Overwatch League intends to be a central aspect of that growth by reaching beyond diehard esports fans and attracting casual viewers. The league believes the way to achieve this goal is by playing off regional pride and existing (traditional) sports rivalries.
“I think to start to attract and educate casual fans and bring the geographic connection in — I think of people who don’t love hockey but say, ‘The Bruins are my team because they live in Boston.’ I think you have to be in-market to fully take advantage of that,” said Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group, which owns the Overwatch League’s Boston Uprising franchise, said in a Washington Post story last year. “Once it comes into the market, those less-than-avid fans then have a reason to start paying attention.”
Currently, there are 20 Overwatch League teams in 19 host cities, including:
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Chengdu, China
- Dallas, Texas
- Miami/Orlando, Florida (According to the Liquipedia Overwatch Wiki, The Florida Mayhem are said to represent two cities: Miami and Orlando. It’s safe to assume that matches will be held in one of those municipalities.)
- Guangzhou, China
- Hangzhou, China
- Houston, Texas
- London, England
- Los Angeles, California (home to two teams)
- New York, New York
- Paris, France
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- San Francisco, California
- Seoul, South Korea
- Shanghai, China
- Toronto, Ontario
- Vancouver, British Columbia
- Washington, D.C.
The league is not expecting to add any new teams between the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
“It’s safe to assume that in 2020 we will launch with the 20 teams we have right now,” Nanzer said. “It’s a huge lift at the team and league level to take this step, and adding additional complexity at this point, I’m not sure it makes a ton of sense.”
Which is a good point since the league will have plenty of complexity to deal with in the first year of the home-and-away schedule. Four teams in China, two in Europe, and another in South Korea mean some serious international travel is in store for all the teams. Even when teams are not traveling internationally, they still may be legging it across vast swaths of their home continent.
The teams were consulted on the potential inconvenience of the travel. While the 2020 schedule is still being finalized, it is likely that travel will be arranged so that the away team will play multiple matches in the same general geographic region, such as a trip scheduled against all Canadian and northern U.S. teams. It’s also likely that teams with a long stretch of travel will be compensated with a bye week or at least an extended period of rest.
In addition, the league is already split into two divisions – Atlantic and Pacific – with 10 teams in each. So, the plan is to have divisional teams play each other more often – again, like the structure of a traditional sports league – which should minimize some of the more extreme travel.
The 2019 Overwatch League season will feature a few test runs of locally held games. The first is occurring in Dallas, where the Dallas Fuel will host eight Overwatch teams including the only regular-season match between the Dallas Fuel and their in-state rivals the Houston Outlaws. This first “homestand weekend” will occur April 27-28 at Allen Event Center, a venue located in a suburb of Dallas that can seat 7,000 people. Additional homestand weekends will take place in Atlanta this July and Los Angeles in August.
The Overwatch League is trying to do something no esports or traditional sports league has attempted – to hold a competitive season while teams travel across three different continents. The end of the 2020 season could be an unrivaled accomplishment. There will likely be some hiccups along the way – that’s natural when attempting anything for the first time. But the teams and the league seem prepared for the challenge.
“Our teams recognize that we’re not trying to build something for five years,” Nanzer said. “We’re trying to build something that stands the test of time. … No one has any expectation that we’re selling out the Staples Center on 20 dates. That’s not the goal. The goal is to build this over time.”
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