It's been a long, strange offseason for the Overwatch League, but after months of sequel announcements, casters moving on and a radical change to the way the game will be played, we'll finally get to see what the 2020 version of the league looks like this weekend. It's likely the most important season thus far for Overwatch League, and our writers have several questions they'd like to see answered for opening weekend.
Who are the London Spitfire?
Every year we ask this same question. Every year we receive a different answer.
In the league's inaugural season, the London Spitfire were that talented team that never seemed to reach their full potential from stage to stage. A mixture of Kongdoo Panthera and GC Busan, the Spitfire's roster underwent several transformations despite their obvious talent, and little was expected of them entering the playoff picture. In a new meta, the Spitfire razed through playoffs, eventually winning the first-ever Overwatch League championship. The organization ran the same roster back in their second year with worse results. While the Spitfire made Season 2 playoffs, they lost to eventual winners the San Francisco Shock early in the playoff race.
This year, the Spitfire return with an entirely new lineup that's far less formidable on paper - in fairness, it's difficult to top the perceived powerhouse duo of GC Busan and Kongdoo Panthera - with significantly lower expectations. This weekend is the first step towards answering the recurring question: who are the London Spitfire?
-- Emily Rand
We don't know who the London Spitfire are. The 2018 champions are gone and we're left with a team of relative unknowns with minimal experience in the spotlight. The Spitfire went from momentum-powered winners in year one to woeful underachievers in their second year and now feel like they're in full rebuild mode, utilizing a 12-person roster to see which rookies stick and who should be shuffled out as the campaign progresses.
The one to watch on this influx Spitfire roster will be their 18-year-old rookie of the year candidate Lim "Glister" Gil-seong. A standout in South Korea's Contenders league last season Seoul Dynasty's minor league team Gen. G Esports, Glister could be the bright spot in a lot of difficult matches this season for the rebooting former champions.
-- Tyler Erzberger
The London Spitfire feel like a budget team. After spending way too much money ($1 million+) to acquire Kongdoo Panthera and GC Busan and eventually become the Season 1 champions, it seems like the team is scaling back significantly financially after a much less successful Season 2. Sure, in the context of the Shock loss, they could've tried to run it back -- but the appeal of playing for the Dynasty in their home country of South Korea lured some players and by the end of Season 2, the Spitfire didn't feel the same.
I don't expect the London Spitfire to be the worst team in the league, but there's certainly an outcome where they don't make the playoffs. The big question I have is whether or not this team, with very little star power, will pull crowds at the London homestands. I've not heard anything -- like, literally nothing -- about the London homestand and I bet other fans feel similarly. This team isn't competitive enough right now to pull big crowds and its Season 1 glory will not carry as a franchise. Plus it seems like there's been little effort to market to British fans. Things aren't looking too swell for the Spitfire team nor Spitfire franchise headed into the season.
-- Jacob Wolf
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Will this weekend set the standard for homestands?
Activision-Blizzard knew what they were doing when they chose Dallas and New York to be their two starting homestands of the season. Dallas already proved in 2019 that they could host a homestand by filling out an arena with, in my opinion, one of the best home crowds in esports history during their two-day event. New York, although not having hosted a homestand for Overwatch before, is littered with esports fans and were the hosts of the inaugural league championship, where a sold-out crowd watched as the London Spitfire downed the Philadelphia Fusion.
As long as DJ Khaled doesn't show up for an encore performance in New York, I think the opening weekend will be a high bar for the upcoming homestands to match.
The answer to this question regarding New York will vary from person to person and will also depend on how much trust said person has in the New York Excelsior and their organization as a whole. For me, trust is high. I abhorred the NYXL logo upon launch but have grown to love it through their marketing team's use of the logo itself and their general branding. This is one of the best teams for shoulder content and they've marketed themselves better than nearly every other OWL brand out there.
New York is a bit of an underrated market in terms of esports audiences, which also means that it tends to generally go unnoticed, compared to cities like Los Angeles or even Dallas, the other homestand city this weekend. The NYXL didn't even play at Barclays in the inaugural season, yet fans were still queued up, waiting in line for the latest NYXL merch at their pop-up shop in Brooklyn. Regardless of how the team performs, I think the NYXL organization will be ready and this homestand will have a great atmosphere. The question isn't of whether New York or Dallas can run a great opening weekend, but more of how other teams are going to follow up, especially in the mid-season doldrums.
I agree with Tyler. I feel that Dallas and New York will be two of the best four markets for the homestands in the United States (Los Angeles and Atlanta being the other two). This weekend will both get lots of positive headlines for Activision Blizzard in a world in which they need them; 2019 was one of the worst years, as documented by our staff, for the Blizzard side of the company.
But I also have a huge concern about the standard this weekend sets for the others. I've heard from team and league employees that some of the American homestands are struggling to sell tickets in very large venues. It's a great look if you sell out or come close to filling Esports Stadium Arlington in Dallas-Fort Worth and the iconic Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, but if the other events through the season lack similar attendance, that has the opposite effect. The Overwatch League has differentiated itself from other esports leagues by providing opportunity for teams to make local revenues -- with this the promise that enticed many of its millionaire and billionaire owners -- and if that doesn't work in 2020, we could see some of those owners reassessing their future in this league.
Will viewership numbers hold up in the move to YouTube?
I typically find one-to-one viewership comparisons fairly specious, particularly ones that are made across platforms or over short amounts of time. This weekend snapshot will qualify as both. That being said, if viewership plummets below 50,000 in an opening weekend, regardless of the move from Twitch to YouTube, the optics won't be good. There are a glut of esports competitions this weekend including the Dallas homestand games (should New York's run over), Activision/Blizzard's own Call of Duty League in London, and the League of Legends Championship Series as well as the LoL European Championship. The YouTube deal is something that is a long-term push, but this week's viewership snapshot should be interesting.
Regardless of how important peak viewership comparisons really matter in the long run when it comes to the folks in charge, the narrative of the Overwatch League will be set with how well they do in the opening weekend on Youtube. Call of Duty League had promising numbers for their debut weekend, but we have to remember that Call of Duty and Youtube have been synonymous for over a decade, with the Call of Duty League Youtube channel having around three times as many subscribers than the Overwatch League.
As long as Overwatch League can stay above the 100,000 viewership mark for its marquee matches this weekend, I think the response online will be callous at worst. I agree, though, if viewership plummets below 50,000 and we see Call of Duty League and LCS both have strong weekends, the storyline coming out of the weekend isn't going to be a pretty one for Overwatch.
YouTube, alongside the likes of Mixer, Caffeine and Facebook, are all in the race for taking market share from Twitch and while Overwatch League, Call of Duty League and Hearthstone Esports don't grab the numbers as much as a League of Legends exclusive deal would, I like the YouTube deal overall. Viewership for the Overwatch League has been criticized less because it doesn't bring in eyeballs -- it does, comparable to other esports like Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros., Rainbow Six: Siege, etc. -- but because it's marketed as if it's a Tier 1 esport like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It's not.
I don't think Overwatch League can achieve the opening day numbers that it did in Season 1 again, unless the release of Overwatch 2 is just absolutely mind-blowing and they line it up with the Overwatch League. But I also don't think it has to. YouTube has a chance to be the best competitor to Twitch -- because the user interface is familiar (albeit needing some adjustment) to consumers and the backend tech is actually better than Twitch for livestreams (almost as if Google knows how to program well). Having exclusive content on its platform is the start of that and I see the Activision Blizzard Esports deal for YouTube as a win for them.
How interesting will the meta be?
I'm not a big fan of the hero pool / ban system that's being enacted come March 7, but I get why it's happening. Overwatch, given a limited amount of heroes and difficulty to balance, presents an intriguing challenge for developers. It's really easy for certain compositions or heroes to become broken (hello, GOATS) and for every single team in the league to play similar styles. It can make the game feel really stale.
I feel like the meta for the first few weeks of the season, pre-March 7, will be similar for a lot of teams, but come that hero ban system, expect chaos. Being interesting and adding new storylines are things the Overwatch League needs to make it interesting to the viewer and a wild meta would be the best way to do that.
How will players adjust to the heightened travel schedule?
Before the season began, I railed on Overwatch League's travel schedule, citing that burnout amongst players would only multiply with globetrotting that took teams from one corner of the world to another in a week's time. With the recent news that all of the Chinese homestands have been canceled for February and March due to the coronavirus outbreak with Seoul's homestand still in the air, some of that travel might not be a factor in the early season.
For a lot of the young players in the league, bright-eyed and wanting to experience everything the world has to offer, the constant travel and being on the move seems wonderful. We will see how some players feel after an entire year of living out of suitcases and navigating through new cultures. One problem I theorized about will be taken care of, however, as the vice president of the Overwatch League, Jon Spector, promised me in an exclusive interview that each city hosting a homestand would be required to have a proper training space with high-speed internet for each of their visiting teams.
Although travel is still going to be a discussion point throughout the year, Overwatch League's commitment to making travel as seamless as possible for each franchise makes it not as dire as I thought it would be only one month ago.
Length of travel isn't as concerning to me as it is my colleagues (looking at you, Tyler), but I do think players will struggle to adjust. It's a completely new model for esports and it is much more demanding than these players have ever experienced. To make the adjustment less painful, I think teams need to take both physical and mental health more seriously than most of the league currently does. Some teams have hired performance coaches, physical therapists, athletic trainers and sports psychologists -- but it needs to be league standard.
Burnout has always been a problem in esports, mostly because players grind inefficiently. They practice long hours but not necessarily in ways that help them improve. Adding in travel in this mass to the regime could really affect players negatively if not managed by someone who is medically trained to help that. So to the Overwatch League teams, invest in your health programs for your players. It'll pay off in the long run.
WEEK 1 PICKS:
Defiant vs. Eternal
Spitfire vs. NYXL
Gladiators vs. Titans
Valiant vs. Fuel
Spitfire vs. Eternal
Uprising vs. NYXL
Valiant vs. Titans
Shock vs. Fuel