By surviving the hardship of 2020, Overwatch League will come out better on the other end

18:30, 03 Aug 2020

It was the season that was supposed to fulfil Overwatch League’s raison d'être. Finally, after two dry run seasons preparing for the homestand model, we were supposed to travel to our team’s pop-up chapels to worship our players, sing their songs and bond with like-minded fans. Competitors were destined to become globetrotters, living out of suitcases, absorbing the atmosphere of big arenas, feeling the weight to their actions as fan cheers resonated in their chests. Broadcasters would have been there with them, feeding off the energy of the crowd, giving back in corralling the emotion filling the room. 

The OWL was supposed to spread its wings, but as the black swan event COVID-19 took flight, the league’s wings were clipped. Now shackled to the ground in team houses and apartments, with global economic uncertainty, subsequently reduced marketing budgets and halted revenue streams in homestands, the stress put on the system was high. A mountain of challenges came crashing down on those that make this endeavour possible, from having to move production online to relocating teams across continents and finding a working schedule to dwindling viewership and leaving professionals. The system bent, cracked and broke in some places, revealing old structures to be unworkable and almost certainly destined to fail in this new situation. With the pressure at its highest and the individuals working in this league at peak despair, the most beautiful thing happened - the Overwatch League turned fluid.

Free-flowing into more and more creative crevices, not just systems directly impacted by the global pandemic were questioned but everything more was put under scrutiny. Is a regular season the most exciting format or do we need additional high points? Can someone outside the Overwatch League do a better creative job at creating highlights, assets, and storylines? Can they be supported or put in charge when they’ve shown proof of concept? As the Overwatch League got out of its own way, more and more eager, talented people joined the journey. Now allowed to take ownership in small crumbs of this pie that Blizzard was finally willing to share, the product improved considerably and we have yet to taste the full flavour of it.

This season we laid to rest...

...the careers of legends of the game…
...stale year-long metas…
...overly stressful travel burdens…
...the underestimation of rookies and their spirit…
…months of tedious only regular-season play…
…closed doors for creative minds...
...muted player interactions…
...the notion of unquestionable structures…

Overwatch League finally started taking risks, switching on public match chat, allowing and encouraging trash talk while still negotiating its boundaries, though trusting our players to make the call. Hero pools wasn’t put in place due to the crisis but the rapid changes that the developers committed to for this system to find a middle way were probably made easier. Esports endemic ideas, in general, were given more attention, evidenced by teams enjoying greater impact and Overwatch content creators becoming more connected to the development team. As a result, we now more enjoy agency than ever in the future of the Overwatch League.

While a game of “what-if” is conjecture, the feeling of being able to emerge from this crisis stronger than before, this time based on tangible merits instead of nebulous potential, is justifiable. In some places, the system revealed flaws in what it demanded of people working these structures such as in the travel burden, paired with hero pools and an already unsustainable workload for all parties involved, creating the unshakable feeling that while a lot of burden was put on the system, the circumstances might have also saved it from itself. 

Through the hardship and changes, we had to say goodbye to some players who could no longer find themselves in the vision of this game, a development that is natural to any system in flux. Through their departure, room was made for new hungry talent, some of them sitting a continent away grinding through the night to become champions. Reinvigorated with those truly passionate for the game, their drive rubs off on every aspect that they touch.

In the process of overcoming these challenges, the Overwatch League and its actors have grown. If esports history is anything to go by, it is precisely the open-mindedness and flexibility to a rapidly changing technological and cultural landscape - sailing with the creative winds of its fresh mind instead of a rigid rowing against it - that has become a winning formula. That means sharing parts of the pie and growing it together.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to those working in or around the Overwatch League and on the game itself, paving the way for a sustainable future with substance based on the hours of your life you’ve given to this adventure and the sacrifices you have made. 2021 is shaping up to be an equally challenging year with the launch of Overwatch 2, possibly continued restrictions and whatever life will throw at us next. However, we can move forward confidently based on the moral character and unquestionable talent that those involved have displayed through these trying times. It is because of you that this esport has a fighting chance.

Image via Blizzard Entertainment

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