See you in 2020—or not.

18:00, 24 Feb 2020

Overwatch Contenders is the amateur division sat underneath the Overwatch League and their new broadcast details for the upcoming 2020 season don’t make a great deal of sense. So lets venture into the news post and analyze why these changes are counterproductive to the goal of creating a stable Contenders ecosystem and showcasing upcoming talent.

  • “We will have live coverage of all semifinals and finals of Contenders weekly play in each region.”

We already had that. For the last few years, we’ve had each game of Contenders broadcasted either by Blizzard in-house or by third-party producers. Now we’re dialing back the number of broadcast resources from the part of the scene that needs it the most? And yes, you can spin this as “only showcasing the important stuff” but who decides what’s important? If it is important for some, why isn’t it important for all? It is just as important for the Pacific region to see broadcast time as it is for South Korea. Now we may differ on the interest in consuming that content, but just allowing the opportunity to be broadcasted is invaluable for a player’s future. 

Let’s compare this to a few other ecosystems. The North American Academy League in League of Legends does not compare in prize pools, the NA Academy League sits at $50,000 across the year compared to $175,000 in Contenders. However, the former is an academy league with support from their parent team and a minimum salary per the 2018 Academy League Roster Rules Update. That stands against a year-by-year reduction in terms of resources for Contenders and the massive exodus from Overwatch League franchises pulling their academy teams. 

Yes, amateur scenes in many esports are not thriving, but that’s not the point. It’s to give the players of the future a platform. Is the platform too big in Overwatch? Possibly. But the solution to a budget problem isn’t to slash the platform itself—why not limit the space available to consolidate resources and I truly believe that is the idea, but in practice, this is the wrong sector to cut. Cutting resources is one thing, but slashing the actual time you can spend showcasing your talent in strictly counterproductive to what the Path to Pro model wants to be. Again, the idea should be to have Contenders stay afloat and give the future players a road to the top.

  • “Some regions will feature additional broadcasts from both weekly play and Contenders Trials weekly play.”

While I understand you need to crack some eggs to make a cake, how do you balance out what regions get air time? Someone is bound to take a loss and I’ve got a feeling it won’t be North America. And I know I’m screaming into the void on this point, but if you’re going to actually make the divide between major and minor regions, do so and just give the minor regions the ability to do grassroots broadcasting and allow them to just handle the production of their region. I genuinely believe that there is a community that would love to front the games you are not interested in covering for no cost.

Generally speaking, I do agree with the sentiment that less is more. Many of the Contenders games last year were uninteresting and took away from the broadcast, again I believe these to be a formatting issue, but these sweeping changes affect everyone, somewhat equally. Should the South Korean region be as impacted as North America or Europe? If anything they should be tailored and scaled to regions and not just broadly applied. 

And to be frank, does the strength of the broadcast matter if the idea is to create a healthy ecosystem to promote players? This is a perfect scouting ground for new commentators, analysts, observers, and producers. We all agree it needs to be watchable but I struggle to see how strengthening the broadcast of Contenders makes it more stable for players to compete or somehow makes up for the lack of exposure.

  • “Breakout stars and highlights from the earlier rounds of the tournaments will be featured in new shoulder content.”

Now, this isn’t inherently bad, if anything it’s good just to get more eyes on the players and something I’m willing to give Blizzard some leeway on. However, they ultimately decide who gets to use their platform to build a brand, which I cannot agree with especially in the face of the broadcast cuts. This is an admission that Blizzard knows that player brands matter, but no amount of shoulder content can be created to fill the void of a stellar moment captured on stream and a beautiful story. Many of the big narratives like Fusion University’s dynastic run and Element Mystic’s redemption arc, which not only flourish in Contenders but also within the Overwatch League, get watered down with a decrease in broadcast time. 

As for solutions, I’d like to see a revision of the sponsorship restrictions and the tournament licenses. Much of these rulings have been put in place to limit competition as the Overwatch League was still working out details. Now that the league is in full swing, why don’t we reduce some of these restrictions and invite third-party tournaments to fill in the gap in broadcast time in Contenders? This gives new sponsors something to latch onto and could see a much-needed shot in the arm for these amateur players. 

If the budget is the problem, limit the number of Contenders spots. If we want to consolidate resources it shouldn’t be from an opportunity perspective. Also here is something to think about, why are teams stepping away from Contenders? Jake Laumann, Founder and COO of Triumph, shared an interesting anecdote in a discussion with Contenders Trials player Sam "Samito" Dawahare. 

If teams hold the opinion that there is no reason for them to be in Contenders, how do these changes entice them and, if it doesn’t, how do we bring them into the fold? When teams are reported as having little to no interest, and this is reflected by all of the academy teams globally dropping out, this is a sign that something is inherently wrong at a foundational level. 

I’ve also shared my opinions on how the Overwatch League and Blizzard could support Contenders to remedy issues like these, Blizzard and the teams themselves should work together to make the system sustainable—and these changes cut the nose off of Contenders in spite of their face. 

At the end of the day, the devil is in the details. On its face, these are changes I disagree with.

Changes like this stifle the Path to Pro’s end goal of accelerating players along and into the Overwatch League. 

Yes, viewership is low. 

Yes, engagement is low. 

Yes, things are bad.

No amount of signs that urge people to support tier 2 can change that. 

This is about creating an environment that can grow and these changes actively get in the way of that. 

Image via Blizzard Entertainment

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