2021 looks to sow the seeds of an Overwatch League renaissance.
Against the odds, through a global pandemic, and even with the format of the Overwatch League still up for debate, the 2021 Overwatch League season is set to be one of—if not the—most competitive season to date. While it seems counter-intuitive to make that kind of claim with all of the talent leaving en masse from some of the most prestigious teams in Overwatch, the strange state we find ourselves in is assisting in putting on the show. Top teams have moved laterally and tightened their focus across the board, many middle-of-the-pack teams have recruited and rebuilt from the ground up, and a new class of rookie talent is centred on proving to the world that they can compete.
All lights are green, and all signs point towards a great year ahead of us, but what and why exactly will 2021 be so pivotal for Overwatch?
COVID-19 has impacted the Overwatch League in a multitude of ways, from drawing into question the core thesis behind the creation of the league, to crunching the budget of a handful of teams, it has—for better or worse—changed the landscape irreversibly. This has lead to a number of teams, especially in the west, shrinking their average roster size. This condensation shifts the power away from a few top teams and almost spreads the share of talented players out across a slew of teams now looking incredibly competitive. Make no mistake, there are teams in the west that can throw around the capital required to field a deep bench, many either cannot or have chosen not to, and this leaves a massive amount of talented players looking for new homes.
While select individuals will find homes next to their classmates this year on teams that historically have looked underwhelming, the team they join as a whole looks to be a team that could compete for a play-in seed towards the end of the year. There are nearly ten teams that already wear that attribute proudly. Now, this is not a prescription of expectations, teams are bound to over and underperform—but on paper, going into the season, they look promising, and that already frames our outlook. While competition is the main course of the Overwatch League, its storylines are the sugar to help the fans invest and we see some movement on that front as well.
Per the Overwatch League 2021 update, this year's season looks to be much shorter than previously expected. However, that isn’t inherently a bad thing. With the return of the tournament system, something that was a brilliant change when looking in hindsight regarding the 2020 season, this trims the fat of the regular season down into focused and distilled competition. Sure, there could be seeding matches that seem slightly flat, especially at first, but instead of waiting an entire season to reach to the peak of entertainment and engagement with the Overwatch League grand finals, we see smaller, more frequent peaks throughout with the tournament system followed by a grand final with a more fleshed-out narrative.
Instead of one haymaker, we pepper the body with some tournaments and then finish with a well placed grand final for one spectacular, knock-out of a season. The tournament system allows the fans a narrative lifevest to use to help survive how crazy the Overwatch League can get at times. However, there is backend work that has been done to also give more control to the teams.
The 2021 Overwatch League season will see new contracts which shift the balance of power between the players and their organisation. This gives teams more avenues to explore when they identify that their roster has a problem either internally or within a given metagame. Not only is the league giving teams the opportunity to sign players to 30-day contracts, but they also have better-incentivised teams to rethink their approach to the amateur scene with the new two-way player contracts. With more fluidity from starting roster to the academy team, we could see an increase in player movement in the mid-season. This depends heavily on what format is chosen and where the metagame currently sits alongside the pandemic, but there is plenty of room for that to happen to some degree. Past the contracts, the league is also attacking the extended offseason with a strong and subtle way to begin to frame expectations for the 2021 season.
Shock versus the World not only is a nice bit of off-season content, it begins to frame the league with an overarching story, something that the league has sorely needed. Recall back to the start of 2019; there was an obvious story throughout the entire season. How will RunAway perform? Can anyone beat them? Is Shock the real deal? These are foundational to not only how we see the league today, but how history will remember that year. It was exciting and compelled you to tune in week to week. If you contrast that to 2020, the difference was night and day. We traded in those strong, performance-based narratives for ones that had asterisks next to their name, ones that were hard to follow because of the format we chose.
While the fate of the format for the 2021 season still is undecided, the Overwatch League is doing something smart here. The Shock versus the World exhibition at BlizzConline starts the story building outside of the regular season; it plants the seeds early so that the crops have more time to grow. Its purpose is right in front of our eyes as well; it is in the title of the event. The San Francisco Shock are the two-time champions; the best team Overwatch has seen assembled, who can stop them? Who can topple the kings that reign over the league with an iron grip? At the very worst they are the tyrannical villains, at best they are overpowering champions that inspire awe. That already polarises an audience. If you’re a fan, this event gives you more of a reason to cheer for them. However, if you’re not, then perhaps you grow tired of the Shock winning all the time and channel that energy into supporting your favourite team even more so than before. That, at its core, is compelling.
There truly could not be a better time for the Overwatch League to look so good.
2020 was speculated to be Overwatch League defining year. With the full execution of the homestand model set to begin that year, there is plenty of truth to that statement that in its third year, the Overwatch League was finally going to leave the runway—but the world would not allow its systems to be tested. With that in mind, let’s also add the fact that Overwatch 2 is—assumedly—approaching steadily. Is there a better time to nail the execution of your franchise esports league right before the sequel to your game is set to release? We’ve spoken at length about how important Overwatch 2 will be to the overall health of the esports scene, but if that proverbial shot in the arm can come on after ending 2021 on a high note then its effect will be multiplied tenfold.
While the world is still learning to cope and deal with a global pandemic, strangely enough, the Overwatch League looks to shine. With its back against a wall, with its core principals undermined by an invisible threat, the league is making the moves necessary—intentional or not—to see a true renaissance.
Our golden years might not be behind us.
The 2021 Overwatch League season, at least on paper, looks to show that we have some gas left in the tank.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment