At its inception, the Overwatch League attempted to do something that no other league, sports or esports, has ever attempted to do. Blizzard created a league that would span the globe, and incorporate cities from all over. A league unlike any other, the Overwatch League spent two years of success as teams came together at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles to compete in season-long competition.
For its third season, OWL went one step further and implemented the most ambitious twist yet – season-long, worldwide travel. In the esports arena, there are plenty of times where teams would travel across the world to compete. The difference is that those are typically isolated tournaments, that would last a weekend or so until the team lost or the tournament was over. Never have teams needed to fly back and forth from Seoul and New York in order to play specific teams for just a weekend.
If it weren’t for a global pandemic, audiences would have seen just how this new format would succeed or fail. Instead, the conversation has now flipped back to discuss if this was a good idea in the first place. With the current split between NA and APAC regions, it is becoming abundantly clear that Blizzard made the wrong decision from the get go.
The Overwatch League needs to put their ambitions aside and look around them for a moment. Running a unified, global league was a fun experiment, but now it is time to start utilizing past test results. OWL should separate itself into smaller regions much like Rainbow Six: Siege and League of Legends.
What Does it Mean to Separate the Regions?
For those who haven’t watched much the League of Legends or Rainbow Six: Siege professional scene, these two leagues have taken a different approach to league structure. Rather than have every team under one league, teams are divided into smaller leagues based on their location.
While Rainbow Six: Siege has adopted this format just this year, League of Legends has been running with this setup since 2012. The divided regions have produced some of the most interesting matches of League of Legends, and has kept the league alive for almost ten years. Teams have come and gone, but the organizations that stay have some of the most devoted fans in esports.
The regional rivalries built across the years is one of the most entertaining bits of professional League of Legends. North America and Europe are often battling for that number 2 spot, with Korea reigning supreme. The trash talk and the banter are top-notch, and eventually when the regions do collide, they create some of the most memorable esport moments of all time.
But why else should the Overwatch League swap to a Regional Division format?
Cutting Down on Long Term Travel
The biggest misstep the Overwatch League made was assuming global travel would not hurt teams. While seeing new cities and areas was one of the few perks of flying across the world, it was still the number one thing coaches and players were concerned about. In case it wasn’t totally clear, travel takes a lot out of a person. Even though passengers are seated for the majority of the time, doing nothing for hours can be extremely draining.
Having teams travel months on end for certain homestands is not sustainable for this type of league. Yes, the MLB and the NBA sometimes have teams on extended road games. Realistically, the Overwatch League shouldn’t mimc this tougher travel schedule because it doesn’t have to. OWL does not need to copy each and every aspect from traditional sports leagues. In fact, it should be actively looking to improve from those classic league formats. Fixing a troublesome travel schedule would be a great way to start that improvement process.
The league should do everything they can to minimize the burnout caused by travel. Players would still travel even if the regions were separated. The difference becomes the amount of travel for each weekend. Players wouldn’t need to stay in a new country for weeks on end anymore. They could fly out during the week and fly back home after the match to sleep in their own bed.
Building the Smaller Regions
It’s no secret that scouting for Overwatch League teams is a tricky process. Coaches can only gather so much information from VODs, and deciding where to even look for talent becomes an arduous process. Contenders exists to help players make that jump from amateur to professional, but the indifference Blizzard has shown towards the minor league system pushes players out of the scene. With the current structure, there is no love shown towards the smaller regions.
Creating multiple different leagues based in different regions will revitalize player passion for the game. There are plenty of talented players from smaller regions that will never get a chance to compete at the highest level, because of sheer lack of visibility. The Overwatch World Cup has highlighted just how much these players want to prove themselves. Players want to play in front of an audience, they just need a platform to perform.
When Blizzard ignores the smaller regions, they are ignoring the most vital part to any good league – the fans. As much as players want to compete on stage, fans want to watch those same players in the arena. Some of the smallest regions have the most passionate fans. It’s these fans that will keep the league alive, plain and simple. Without viewers, the league will cease to exist.
Ending the Season with Worlds
One thing that Blizzard should absolute copy from Riot is the end of season world championship model. At the end of every season, each region competes in their respective play-off brackets. The top two, gain entry into a worldwide bracket. Having a worldwide tournament at the end of the season would be the perfect time to determine which team is truly the top-talent.
Worlds is an incredible opportunity for many teams and players that may not have the same visibility as the top regions. As with any tournament format, there is always the opportunity for an absolutely wild upset. In a “Worlds” setting, fans can theoretically watch as the underdog OCE team shocks the league with a win over a larger region like NA.
A world championship could also take the place of the Overwatch World Cup. Viewers love the OWWC and what it does for unknown players, but Blizzard has appeared to care less and less about the event. Whether it be due to the lack of profit the company can gain from it, or it just got lost while Blizzard’s focus is on BlizzCon, the OWWC seems to be coming to an end. The OWL world championship would be a perfect replacement, and it may just be best for it to be held somewhere other than BlizzCon.
In fact, hosting OWL Worlds in a new location would bring an incredible experience to fans and players. It adds to a sense of pride for the home team, and each year a new region gains the opportunity to have that feeling. There are plenty of massive arenas that would love to host a large esport event, as evidenced by the past two OWL Grand Finals. Bringing together fans from all across different regions could create one of the largest crowds esports has ever seen.
The League Needs a New Look
The first three years of OWL have been admittedly, pretty good. However, if the Overwatch League hopes to grow, it needs a facelift. A complete overhaul of the competitive scene seems daunting, but the most significant changes always seem frightening at first.
In an always evolving esports environment, some things just work better than others. The Overwatch League can excel if they borrow the league structure from other games. A new look and a fresh start is exactly what the league needs when it heads into its fourth year. After a mess of a 2020 season, the Overwatch League just may want to begin a new with a new league headlined by separate regions.
Featured image courtesy of Carlton Beener and Blizzard Entertainment
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