An Idiot's Guide to the Overwatch League
So, there’s this event happening right now that is kind of taking the esports industry by storm. It’s gathered more views than some NFL games, already has a rabid fanbase, and is close to overtaking in under six months what top esports leagues have taken years to achieve.
It’s called the Overwatch League, and I’m here to help explain it to you.
If you’re a gamer and you’ve never heard of Overwatch then:
A) You’ve been living under a rock for the last few years
B) You’re willfully ignorant
C) You pretend to not know because you think it makes you look aloof and cool
D) You’re actually a parent using your child’s computer to check their browsing history
But, just in case you’re still not in the know. Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer shooter created by videogames mega-corp Blizzard. It features a rich lore (that is oddly, never explored) and more than a dozen heroes for players to choose from and battle it out with in team-based gameplay modes.
From the start, Blizz has created Overwatch, and its subsequent pro league, to be the pinnacle of esports. There have been some attempts to set up competitions in the past by esports companies, but Overwatch League dwarfs them by comparison.
So, what is the Overwatch League?
The Overwatch League (hereon abbreviated as OWL) is a professional esports league overseen and created by Blizzard Entertainment. It aims to follow the tradition of North American sports by having a series of franchised professional teams which play each other to qualify for an end-of-season playoff. The winning team of the playoff will nab the lion’s share of a $3.5 million prize pool.
In its first season, a series of pre-season games were played back in December. Since then, regular season games have occurred from January and will run until June 2018, when a playoff for the championship is scheduled for July 2018. Blizzard bought and modified its very own arena in Los Angeles to host the matches. Some teams, like the LA Valiant, have said they will be buying their own “home” arenas for future seasons.
Three matches are played four days a week (Wednesday to Saturday) in stages, which last for five weeks. There are four stages overall. Each team is expected to play around 40 matches in that time - 20 against teams in their division (more on that later) and 20 against teams in the other division.
Each player is given a guaranteed salary of $50,000 over a one-year period, though they can sign on for a second year, too. Teams are required to provide all their players with housing, health insurance and retirement options. 50% of revenues and winnings are divided between all players on a team. They’re also allowed to negotiate at their discretion for higher contracts. Notably, Jay “sinatraa” Won of the San Francisco Shock managed to nab a $150,000 contract.
All teams are based in Los Angeles (for the time being), despite their names including other global locations.
While Overwatch is a 6v6 game, each team in OWL can register 12 players, who can be substituted into the team between matches. If teams so choose, they can trade players halfway through the season. The teams aren’t restricted by their home countries, either, meaning players of any nationality can play for any team. This has lead to some interesting squads, most notably the London Spitfire being a team composed entirely of South Koreans.
Hey, I’m in Platinum, can I play?
Hahahahahaha. No. If you make it into the Top 500, you might stand a chance. Professional teams in the League are given the opportunity to scout for new players through two additional competitive leagues run by Blizzard. The "Overwatch Open" division allows amateur teams made up of the best players in the game's normal competitive mode to compete. Teams from the Open can then move into the “Contenders” league.
Teams that participate can be amateur or sponsored, and the tournament is structured similarly to the Overwatch World Cup. If you make it through there, you have a chance of impressing the scouts for the OWL and maybe ending up on a team, where you can dab to your heart's content live on Twitch.
Who are the teams?
Oh boy, here we go. OWL is split into two divisions, much like other major American sports. Each division hosts six teams, who will play each other for the first 20 games of the season. As said above, they’ll then play 20 games against teams outside of their division. OWL is split between Pacific and Atlantic divisions - roughly sorted by the geography of the team.
OWL participation doesn’t come for free. In fact, every team had to stump up a fair wedge of cash to get involved. Estimates range from $2 million up to as much as $30 million.
Owner: Team EnVyUs, with a little help from the millions of oil honcho Kenneth Hersh
Colours: Blue, yellow, white
“The Fuel” are notorious for filling their roster with big-name streamers. The team has a loyal, if questionable, following due to its players stirring up “drama” outside of the official league matches. Flex player Félix “xQc” Lengyel has been suspended before by Blizzard for trolling and false reports, and has also been reprimanded for homophobic comments made about fellow players. Another player, Timo “Taimou” Kettunen, has been fined for making “lewd” comments about female interviewers.
Owner: KSV esports
Colours: Black, gold, white
League favourites, and not just because they’re Korean, Seoul Dynasty contains three Overwatch World Cup-winning players and others from Lunatic Hai, widely regarded as the best Overwatch team on the planet prior to OWL’s formation. They went unbeaten for five games.
San Francisco Shock
Owner: Andy Miller, NRG esports chairman and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings
Colours: Orange, grey, gold
As mentioned, The Shock has one of the top-salaried players in OWL, Jay Won, who is taking home $150,000 per year at the tender age of 17. He can’t play yet, though, due to rules stating that competitors must be 18 years of age. In the meantime, The Shock’s roster is packed full of quality DPS players.
Los Angeles Valiant
Colours: Green, black, gold
The “underdog” of the two LA teams, since it’s the one not owned by billionaire sports mogul Stan Kroenke, LA Valiant features nifty DPS player Brady “Agilities” Girardi, who turned 18 just in time for the league to start.
Los Angeles Gladiators
Owner: Stan Kroenke, Josh Kroenke
Colours: White purple, black
Boo! Boo! Take that, Arsenal, LA Rams etc. etc. owner Stan Kroenke. Despite the ire, LA Gladiators have stacked their roster with talent, including League of Legends pro Aaron “Bischu” Kim. The team also has Canadian DPS pro Lane “Surefour” Roberts, who has been known to complain about his team’s performances, but dragged Canada to the finals of the Overwatch World Cup.
Colours: Red, black, yellow
If you like underdogs, this is the team for you. Despite being filled with the cream of the Chinese crop, the team has stuttered somewhat amid claims that the its coach had picked friends and family, rather than other more suitable players. Moving to the US and dealing with (alleged) 12-hour days of scrimmage probably hasn’t helped, either.
Colours: Blue, orange
Ah, the UK-based team comprised entirely of South Koreans, owned by a US-based esports company. The team is made up of players from two of Korea’s big names, KongDoo Panthera and GC Busan. By virtue of the nationality of its players, many have tipped Spitfire to be the only proper rival to Seoul Dynasty.
Owner: Misfits Gaming
Colours: Yellow, red, black
So, this time it’s an American team owned by a British company and featuring mainly European players. That makes total sense. Mayhem doesn’t believe in the maxim “strength in depth” and only registered six players. It seems that fatigue might be taking its toll a little on the team, without the ability to swap in fresh minds.
Colours: Orange, black, white
Boo, corporate ownership! Fusion are notable for having to pull out from the OWL preseason because of visa problems. Philly player Su-min “Sado” Kim has also been slapped on the wrist for taking money in exchange for boosting people up the Overwatch rankings. A middle-of-the-pack team, they’re sitting on two wins and two losses at the time of writing.
Owner: OpTic Gaming
Colours: Green, black, white
The second Texas-based team in OWL, the Outlaws feature Jacob “JAKE” Lyon, Matt “coolmatt” Iorio and Shane “Rawkus” Flaherty, all of Overwatch World Cup fame. Houston is setting itself out as the pure-breed US team, and is looking to settle scores with Seoul or London, as South Korea knocked the US out of the cup last year.
Owner: Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots
Colours: Blue, black, yellow
You can’t go anywhere in Boston without being reminded about the revolutionary war, can you? Kraft took a gamble and filled his new team with young, hungry players who hadn’t made a proper name for themselves yet. The team is also notable for featuring four support mains.
New York Excelsior
Owner: Sterling VC, Jeff Wilpon
Colours: Blue, red
Another team with a heavy South Korean flavour, Excelsior drafted underage star Yeon-oh “Fl0w3R” Hwang, who won’t turn 18 until May. The franchise's name is based on the motto of New York City, “Excelsior”, which comes from a Latin term meaning "Ever upward."
So, it’s all roses and rainbows?
Err, not exactly. While Blizzard has tried to foster an inclusive, fun and exciting esport for everyone to watch, and has managed to gain some impressive viewing figures, it’s not been completely hiccup-free. Surprisingly, when you gather more than 100 (mostly) teenagers, pay them thousands and make them feel like celebrities, accidents can happen, especially when Blizz has yet to publicise its player behaviour guides.
As mentioned, Dallas Fuel player xQc has been in hot water for trolling on Overwatch’s competitive mode and making homophobic comments. London Spitfire player Joon-yeong “Profit” Park gave a middle finger to his camera while doing a sound check, unaware he was being broadcast on Twitch at the time. Shanghai Dragons player Weida “Diya” Lu was caught on camera crying after a loss.
Some have also pointed out that, despite 100 players being picked for the 12 teams, none of those chosen were female. A notable absentee is Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, famed for being one of the best tank players on the planet and the first female player to compete in the Overwatch APEX league. English-speaking teams excused themselves due to language barriers and South Korean squads said they had decided on “established teams” who had already played together.
Update: Geguri has since been offered a place with the Shanghai Dragons, alongside three other South Korean players.
The league is still in its infancy, but has seen exemplary support already. Blizzard is planning to create more teams, and establish stadiums in major geographies, as well as a home/away format for matches. These changes aren’t expected until the third season at the earliest.
Blizz also hasn’t ruled out the implementation of a transfer system for players, with teams bidding for certain players’ services. Players will also be given the chance to form trade unions. A branching out into more broadcast mediums could also be on the cards. Twitch paid £90 million for rights to the first season, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t see OWL on our TV screens in the near future.