Overwatch is hitting its stride with preseason content, but it can’t stop now.
History smiles fondly on the preseason celebrations ahead of the start of the Overwatch League, but the openness and freedom of the 2021 preseason is a breath of fresh air. Giving space for third parties to work directly with Overwatch League teams is not only proving to be successful, but will be vital for the scene as a whole to thrive.
This year’s Overwatch League preseason has done a fantastic job at providing content ahead of the league’s most competitive season but also showcases an avenue of future possibilities for the league. The 2021 Overwatch preseason has done us all proud.
The 2018 Preseason
It feels like forever since the 2018 season. We were all waiting to see the Dallas Fuel take their pre-established core and battle the best talent that Seoul Dynasty had to offer. What this iteration of the offseason did well was actually creating fair, decent competition. Did the teams come in with prepared strategies tailor-made for their opponents? That remains to be seen, but it wasn’t completely worthless competition either. Not only was this a minor trial run for the inaugural season, but it began to establish narratives that the regular season could call back to.
Seoul and Dallas led the pack, but could the Valiant push into playoff territory?
Should the London Spitfire fans be worried after their 2-3 loss to the Los Angeles Gladiators?
These are all conversations that the preseason gave us and that we all argue incessantly about for months after the fact.
On the downside, we also cannot forget that the Philadelphia Fusion weren’t actually able to make the preseason festivities due to “player logistics issues”. Their absence not only hampered the event as a whole, but it took away from the excitement of seeing such a diverse team finally get to compete.
All in all, the 2018 preseason did a great job at providing tangible content and competition to fans that were excited to see their teams finally play. However, the following year seemed to take a step in the wrong direction.
2019’s Community Countdown
The 2019 Community Countdown was an interesting trial run that fell flat. Instead of the previous format, the 2019 preseason was “adding some competitive spice” by showcasing teams during an open scrim environment. This was viewed through individually produced streams, with a provided clean feed, and included popular community members, experts and pundits. In theory, it not only feels like a great gesture towards the community, but it also gives fans a peek behind the curtain to see what a professional Overwatch scrim even looks like. However, the execution missed the mark.
At least play your real roles and try to put on a show.
What was billed as a more competitive format quickly became milquetoast. This continued to reinforce the problem with how close the preseasons exhibitions were to the start of the season. This led to teams not feeling comfortable giving opposing teams a competitive advantage by showing actual gameplay practice footage of them prior to the season start, and while that is reasonable, there are ways around this, ways that we’ve seen just a few weeks ago.
2021's Preseason Content
The COVID-19 global pandemic has taken the legs out from under the Overwatch League, and the offseason leading into 2021 has been exhaustingly long. While the league isn’t at fault inherently, there has not been much done in terms of in-house content or a preseason supplement from the league itself. However, it has come by way of third parties and the franchises themselves.
Before the start of the year, we had the Esports Shanghai Masters and the Valiant Winter Ball, both of which featured Overwatch League teams in their early building stages. Since then, we’ve had the NetEase Esports X Tournament - The Nexus in Asia, and most recently, we had the Seoul Dynasty and the Washington Justice’s Open Scrim as well as the Steel Series Invitational.
This is the way forward. Third-party organisers need to be given the chance to step in and help supplement the offseason if the league has their hands tied or is too busy to facilitate it. And the participation from the franchises themselves to help solve the content drought is another major avenue forward. More teams need to find their own ways of creating competition in the offseason to help bridge the gap, and learning from some of the Overwatch League’s past preseason events; teams have a great test run of what works and what doesn’t.
Moving forward in a post-COVID world and closer to Overwatch 2, it is clear that the offseason is either too long, or the league and its teams have been ill-equipped to deal with such a giant gap which end up causing a drought of content. Now that we’ve seen the success that events like the Valiant Winter Ball and the Steel Series Invitational have been, there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
And while it is going to sounds incredibly on the nose, the light at the end of the tunnel is to enable content to be made.
Having teams create their own preseason content with collaboration from the league’s front office and their own preseason roll out should become the norm moving forward for the Overwatch League. We cannot afford another drought even after Overwatch 2 releases.
Having teams host their events well in advance of the season start masks how serious they want to take these matches. As long as the preseason festivities happen early enough, you both can hopefully incentivise teams into taking it seriously and also assume that a new patch will also decrease the value any rivals might gain from seeing each other play.
Better facilitating third-party tournament organisers with more freedom or perhaps even helping to fund events that help to produce content during the offseason is going to be key for competitive Overwatch to thrive in the future.
When it comes to incentivising the Overwatch League team’s to take something in the preseason seriously would be to establish something like what League of Legends had in the past with their Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) events. As the global model for the League of Legends Championship Series was being rolled out globally, one of the last tournaments that were allowed to be held was the one yearly IEM event.
Were they the most competitive? No, but that isn’t the point. People want to see their favourite players play the game they love in a semi-serious format. We can all enjoy the fun game modes like Ana Paintball and Capture the Flag, but the cake cannot be entirely frosting. There has to be a base that people can resonate with, and that base is actual competitive play. The past preseasons were too sugary and too close to the season start to take seriously.
2021 shows us that the league doesn’t even need to step in for preseason to take place; teams themselves can and should continue to step up to the plate and produce events. And from there, the league can return to their 2019 idea and re-instate co-streamed events. When we look at the more broad scope of esports, it is becoming increasingly more attractive to watch our favourite personalities mull over and talk about the game. Bring back select experts from the community, give them clean feed access and allow them to stream the game right alongside the Overwatch League broadcast.
There is serious merit to what Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson and Connor "Avast" Prince individually created. The league is leaving money on the table by not consistently allowing these types of people access to produce the games in their own vision.
If the Overwatch League was to partner with someone like a Dreamhack and create a tournament months before the regular-season start, you not only begin to establish a narrative for the season start, but you also bring in endemic esports talent to challenge your own product. At the end of the day, if you build a serious competition, it will slowly attract those who want to compete. Whether or not teams should be mandated to play or if you can properly bring in amateur competition without causing a stir with the ownership group remains to be seen, but there is some hope for Overwatch 2 and its litany of assumed offseasons.
An idyllic preseason would have one large tournament, well in advance of the start of the regular season, with smaller qualification events produced by the teams themselves along with third-party organisers, all with co-streams from prominent community members. This kind of preseason showcase stays within the competitive spirit of the Overwatch League while still building tension for the race to the next championship.
All of that is achievable after the success of the 2021 preseason, and hopefully, this has just been the blueprint.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, and that light isn’t too far off. The league, the teams, even third-party events, are finding their footing. 2021 is slowly leading us out of our regularly scheduled content drought.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment