The implications of Overwatch League
We sometimes forget that professional gaming is extremely new territory, and the pioneers working within it are still figuring a lot of stuff out. Over time, eSports must eventually gain more security and structure. Overwatch League could be a huge step in the that direction. Regionally-based teams, a player draft, a skills combine, and salaries for full-time players are a few of the radical changes that Blizzard announced last year at their annual convention, Blizzcon. These changes, if successful, would make the structure of competitive Overwatch strikingly similar to the structure of professional football or baseball— something unheard-of in competitive gaming.
While we don’t have definitive details regarding how all these new features will work, many players are speculating about how this new competitive makeup will affect the current team and player structure. Two of the big factors include how ranked players will measure up to current competitive players, and how regionally-based teams could push the most dedicated players to the forefront of the community.
One of the most impactful changes coming with Overwatch League is a draft that will allow official teams to recruit eligible players, some of whom could come straight from the leaderboards of the game’s ranked mode. Right now, one of the most common ways to get into a professional team is to play with amateur teams often, gaining experience and exposure. But ranked players— who may have never been in a tournament or competitive environment before— may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to players with this background.
“I don’t think you can look at a player statistically and say “they definitely can or can’t make it. There is so much more to the game than raw stats,” said Team Method member Eric “Krawnnic” Beaugh. “I’ve seen people that come from no roster that look really good on the leaderboard, and they just don’t perform with a team well.”
“There are times in ranked where you have players that don’t want to work with you,” Beaugh said. “You need to be perfectly synced with your six man roster to succeed in competitive play. If you aren’t, then some of the top tier teams will just pick you apart.” Near-perfect team synergy is a requirement to succeed at the professional level. A player may have really good ranked play statistics, but being able to communicate effectively at the high speed that top players compete at is another thing altogether. Stats don’t capture everything about what makes a pro player good.
None of the players I spoke to said that ranked players wouldn’t be able to catch up eventually.
“I think teams will need at least a couple veterans in order for their newer players to quickly learn,” said Team Spicy Boys member Ryan “syckness” Mitchell. “Overall, the players who have been playing on teams since release will have a big edge.”
And that’s the core of one of Overwatch League’s biggest unanswered questions: where will all the veterans of the game end up? Both the draft and the prospect of regionally-based teams threaten the security that a lot of players currently have within the competitive community.
“We don’t know if they’re going to break contracts with the existing organizations and put every player in the draft,” said Team EnvyUS member Jonathan “HarryHook” Rua. “I want to keep playing with my team, but we don’t know if we can. I think everyone is scared because of that.” Rua played with Team EnvyUs for nearly a year before officially joining the organization. The success he’s found with them could become little more than a memory if Blizzard chooses to break up existing teams.
We don’t know if Blizzard will offer to pay off contracts between active players and teams, if those arrangements will need to be terminated, or if teams will be allowed to stay together. And if established players get pushed into a draft and picked up by a team from one of the newly minted Overwatch regions, they may have to relocate if they want to continue playing at a high level. With some players currently in college, raising a family, or living with other obligations outside of the game, the possibility of relocating to another part of the country for the duration of the league is practically impossible.
To some players, though, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “There are certain things that a professional athlete can't avoid,” Mitchell said. “Players should expect to devote a huge part of their life to the game if they want to be successful.”
And players will be more like professional athletes if Blizzard is successful with Overwatch League--it would be the closest an eSport has ever been to traditional sport structure. With that in mind, many are ready to go all in for the new system.
“We’re going to see a lot of guys reconsider if they are really one hundred percent invested in this,” Beaugh said. “And we’re gonna see the quality of play increase partly because of that.”