With Microsoft's acquisition of Blizzard, what are the implications for the Overwatch League?
We have known this for years: Blizzard doesn’t often do good when it comes to esports. Sure, the company is behind the father of all esports, Starcraft. But since those golden years, it seems everything has gone downhill. From the fall of Heroes of the Storm to BlizzGate and its controversies, the future was not looking good for Activision Blizzard. With the announcement of the company’s acquisition by Microsoft, new possibilities appear. But can Microsoft save the Overwatch League?
Was Blizzard preventing the Overwatch League from thriving?
When it came out in 2016, Overwatch had everything to become successful. The game takes the classic FPS mechanics of giants like Counter-Strike and adds new roles for players who don’t have a good aim, allowing them to become tanks or supports. Even if one of your teammates dies, the game is not lost yet: 6 seconds later they will be back on the frontline. Moreover, Overwatch brings rich lore for players to fall in love with its universe.
But if Overwatch is a commercial success, the game didn’t meet the same result on the esports scene. And this is not because of the game itself, but rather because of the restrictions Blizzard put around Overwatch tournaments.
The Overwatch esports scene mainly revolves around a yearly competition, the Overwatch League. Around 20 teams from across the world battle during monthly tournaments that lead to Grand Finals at the end of the year. This is the only “S tier” competition in Overwatch. The Overwatch Contenders offer competitions for those aiming to reach the League, and the Open Division is a springboard for the Contenders.
But what happens if you win the lottery and would like to host your own major Overwatch tournament? One featuring the biggest teams and players? You can’t just put the money on the table and invite whoever you want. Blizzard has a tight grip on third-party tournaments.
Blizzard's Iron Grip on the OWL
The publisher requires tournament organizers to have a license to host any kind of competition. The easiest one to get is the Community License, but it only applies for a single stand-alone event with less than $10,000 USD in prizes and appearance fees and less than $1,000 USD in sponsorships. So while this may work for your neighborhood competition, you can forget about major teams and players.
Competitions like the NetEase Esports X Tournament work on custom licenses. The organizations need to find a deal with Blizzard, which can prevent some sponsors from investing or forbid the diffusion of an event during the Overwatch League season or any other Blizzard branded event. Considering that the Overwatch League spans for 6 months, it highly discourages major esports events from holding an Overwatch competition. You can forget about Overwatch ever reaching the likes of Dreamhack or any similar event.
What can Microsoft do to save the Overwatch League
Activision Blizzard's acquisition by Microsoft is already making history. With a record amount of $70B (yes, billions, not millions), Microsoft just made the biggest acquisition in the history of gaming. In the last decade, Microsoft purchased the studios behind Minecraft, the Elder Scrolls, Quake, and now the entire portfolio of Activision Blizzard. The company became the third-largest in the gaming industry, behind TenCent and Sony.
The acquisition of big licenses like Call of Duty, Diablo, or even Guitar Hero could boost Xbox revenues. But what does this acquisition mean for the Overwatch League?
Microsoft doesn’t yet have a big history in esports, besides the golden years of Halo. But the company’s recent shift towards gaming could mean Microsoft will put more effort into its esports scene; especially now that it has three major esports titles with Halo Infinite, Call of Duty, and Overwatch.
Unlike Kotick’s strategy of just waiting for things to happen, Microsoft is highly invested in gaming and should therefore boost its esports scenes.
Money is no issue for Microsoft. Finding sponsors should also be easier for the company than for Activision Blizzard, whose recent controversies scared away sponsors. With more sponsors and funds, events could be bigger and gather more viewers. Eventually leading to a better representation of these games in esports.
While the company didn’t address the topic yet; Microsoft taking over Activision Blizzard could also mean they’ll lift the restrictions on Overwatch third-party tournaments. If more competitions happen across the world and throughout the year, it will reach more viewers and therefore help the Overwatch League gain in popularity.
The future of the Overwatch League
With Overwatch 2 coming out soon and the upcoming Overwatch League Season, Microsoft can give the Overwatch esports scene the fresh start it needs. The League launches a new Season with an improved version of Overwatch. Changing the pace of the usual 6v6 to a more dynamic 5v5 format. Most teams are presenting a brand new roster with newcomers fresh out of the Contenders and veterans coming back to the League.
Blizzard lacked transparency and organization, but Overwatch has a unique place on the esports scene. The community is different from the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Valorant scenes; that may be the reason Overwatch is still alive despite Blizzard’s poor management.
The Overwatch League 2022 Season is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for the Overwatch esports scene.