With the second season of the Overwatch League wrapped up, it's time to look back on the sophomore year of the ambitious competition. Here we'll look at what worked and what didn't in 2019, and what we have to look forward to in 2020.
What we liked: Adaptability, expansion, and the finals
-- While it initially sparked a lot of controversy, the 2-2-2 role lock in the Overwatch League between Stage 3 and Stage 4 significantly benefited the league. Prior to it, teams often played three tanks and three supports in a composition known as GOATS, which provided a lackluster viewer experience focussed on drawn out fights banked on smart ultimate usage. The role lock introduced avenues for both flashier teamplay and individual moments.
Recognizing necessary changes and being able to adapt resulted in big wins for the Overwatch League. As teams have become more cohesive from season to season, the level of play has also increased and the game itself has become more competitive.
-- Expanding the league to 20 teams and traveling to Atlanta and Dallas in two of its three homestands also showed increased interest in the geolocation model, both from in-person attendance and investors' perspectives. A fair amount of the eight expansion teams, notably the Vancouver Titans, Atlanta Reign and Hangzhou Spark, proved to be competitive. Both the Atlanta and Dallas homestands -- which consisted of two-day competitions hosted by their home teams -- reportedly sold out.
-- The Season 2 Finals at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Sunday also also sold out, with very few seats being empty throughout the day. Engagement online -- competing with the likes of ESL One New York and TwitchCon -- held steady. Compared to Season 1 Finals in Barclays Center in New York in July 2018, the Overwatch League seemed to improve season-over-season on the live experience, pre-show entertainment included.
What concerns us: Unclear metrics, lackluster third homestand, upcoming sponsorship/broadcast deals
-- Throughout Season 2, the Overwatch League worked to increase engagement. They've signed on to a new measuring metric created by Neilsen, alongside the likes of Riot Games and more recently ESL and DreamHack, to make their viewership numbers more digestible for traditional companies who buy TV advertisements.
But those numbers may be inflated -- as several weeks ago, reporters and fans on social media discovered that the Overwatch League embedded their Twitch streams as advertisements on a number of websites, including the Vox Media network. Vox includes the likes of popular gaming website Polygon, sports site SB Nation and their main page, Vox.com.
The Overwatch League is global, consisting of teams from North America, Europe, China and South Korea, but its engagement has been less than some domestic leagues in League of Legends.
-- The Los Angeles homestand at The Novo at L.A. Live felt sleepy by comparison to Dallas and Atlanta, which could be a result of fatigue since the actual matches take place in Burbank, California, week after week during the regular season. Heading into a plethora of traveling games in 2020, the Overwatch League should be concerned about regions where some of its teams have not marketed well.
-- On the horizon, many of Overwatch League's sponsorship deals and their broadcasting rights agreements with Twitch and ESPN / Disney are expiring in the fall. Negotiations for some of those deals have already begun, sources told ESPN, and it will be interesting to see if they can renew them. Some, like the $90 million, two-year Twitch deal, were incredibly high compared to the rest of the industry standard. The sales department at Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues have some important work to do in the off-season.
What we're excited about: More roadshows and fandom, roster shuffle season
-- Heading into 2020, the ability for fans to attend in-person events more regularly is exciting. In esports, unlike traditional sports, there aren't studies that show regional fandom exists -- at least not in the same way as professional and college football, basketball and baseball. Atlanta and Dallas were a step in the right direction, but other markets that haven't had homestands -- like New York and Seoul, South Korea, the Mecca of the esports industry at large -- are eager to see competition.
With both the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League moving home in 2020, the biggest test begins. Team owners in the Overwatch League, who agreed to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 million to enter in the past two seasons, have done so on being able to build profitability off of their markets and some, like New York, have driven up notable excitement without the league visiting so far. Moving forward, the Overwatch League has a lot to prove.
-- Fall 2020 will also be the first offseason for some players who were on one-year contracts with one-year options. We could see new super teams form and players from separate teams align themselves with one another after socializing together in Burbank for the past two seasons. No new franchises will be welcomed via expansion, but new teams and players -- from the likes of Contenders and the tier-two scene -- will likely enter.