2020 is barely underway and already it’s time to write about Activision Blizzard. What now? Well, while I was surprised they managed to not email every child in America and tell them Santa Claus isn’t real, or that they resisted the urge to issue copies of Mao’s little red book to their consumers, this is a company that can’t avoid negative headlines for long. And so it transpires that the Overwatch League is losing some of its biggest broadcast talent ahead of their homestead season amid all sorts of rumours. So far it’s “only” Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles and Chris Puckett that have confirmed it but I’m confident more will follow based on what is out there.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.
So far the response has been mixed. A lot of Overwatch fans surprisingly seem unruffled and on the competitive Overwatch subreddit, the news was greeted with some shrugs and arguments about whether or not Montecristo is an asshole. This is the high-level discourse we’ve all come to expect. Industry people, on the other hand, see something very different. This isn’t a changing of the guard or someone being poached by a bigger company. This is the start of an exodus of big names leaving what is supposedly the biggest esports league in the world. There are rightly questions about why it’s happening and what it means for the league’s future.
I think before people start to dismiss the importance of Mykles leaving the league, they might want to understand some background context. When the Overwatch League was announced, and, in particular, that they wanted exorbitant buy-ins for franchise slots – at prices that didn’t reflect esports market value and absolutely still do not – there were mixed feelings. The esports endemics that had the money wanted in but Activision Blizzard didn’t really want them as partners. They wanted to attract people from sports investment groups that had been sold on the promise of esports being the next big opportunity. Even these people had some trepidation about the prospect of the league’s inability to succeed.
When the addition of Mykles and partner Erik "DoA" Lonnquist was announced in April 2017, many in the industry knew that they were being signed as marquis broadcast talent for the show. And, as incredible as this may sound, for some that were still weighing up their options about getting involved with the league, the arrival of two of the most experienced and beloved commentators made it seem a lot more secure an option. After all, these weren’t greenhorns that just jumped into bad projects. They had been the English voices of the world’s biggest esport, League of Legends, in its strongest region, South Korea. Having them on board was a real coup and it was a statement of intent from Blizzard themselves.
Imagine then, those same owners that saw their involvement as a great assurance the league couldn’t fail, suddenly leave before the season that internally the Overwatch team are calling “make or break.” This coming after Nate Nanzer, the league’s commissioner and by all accounts an essential cog in the machine, jumping ship to Epic Games. What about the former Major League Gaming staff, who it appears were only purchased to flex on Twitch and keep a talented production team out the hands of business rivals, leaving to create their own company? Veterans like Sundance DiGiovanni and Adam Apicella do not and cannot grow on trees in our fledgling industry. Kim Phan, part of the fabric of Blizzard esports, out the door for reasons we still don’t understand. What about Jason Baker, an esports producer of 15 years experience that worked on an Emmy Award-nominated TV show? Blizzard tossed them aside with a casual yawn as the new breed of suits over there insist they have got it right.
Well guys, let me break it to you; they don’t. Surely that feels self-evident even to the biggest Overwatch fan that has suffered through a seemingly never-ending season of OWL broadcasts full to the brim of low or no-stake matches. Blizzard can spin the numbers however they want, even using numbers from re-runs to pad everything out, but by any conceivable metric the Twitch viewership, the viewership I believe should be the most important to an esports product, has continued to decline. And this has happened while they’ve tried to use every trick in the book to bolster numbers, from incentive drops to bullshit embeds on wiki sites, to exploring just what it is influencers can do to help keep their numbers from arresting too sharply.
If they really knew what they were doing then, by way of a for instance, the GOATS meta, a fucking nightmare of tedium that made people stop watching, would have been a priority to “fix.” Overwatch fans do seem to be in some form of irrational denial and rank just above Kpop fans when it comes to online behaviour, but it’s a new year so let me try and reach you guys in 2020. I feel sorry for you watching Overwatch, which as a game that could still conceivably work, gets wrecked by a balance team that has shat the bed so many times you can’t even see the mattress anymore. It’s clear the issues with the game impact on the broadcast, but I also know there’s a diehard fanbase that would persevere through all of that. You also must know that diehard fans are a very small slice of the pie chart, and for the fence-sitters and casuals, losing the ability to listen to their favourite commentators is going to be, for more than a few, the prompt that makes them go look elsewhere. Simply put, a solid broadcast with top tier on-air talent will reach more viewers than one without it. It’s impossible to quantify without the data but it’s obvious anecdotally that there are League of Legends fans who came to Overwatch so they could continue listening to Monte and Doa. Anyone pretending otherwise now, to try and insulate themselves from what this might mean, is being wilfully naive.
Let’s also talk about every corporate suits favourite buzzword; “optics.” If you’re a potential sponsor and thinking about a large spend in esports you might well have Overwatch on your list of potential games to go and attach your brand to. It’s got a respected business partner in the form of Activision Blizzard, it has none of the problems of FPS shooters like Counter-Strike because of the cartoon graphics and no explicit mention of terrorists, and it has a regular broadcast that currently reaches moderate numbers in esports terms. Now, if you were then to also hear that OWL’s viewership is in decline, that the commissioner of the league has jumped ship before their third season and now that the biggest names attached to the commentary are leaving amid rumours of pay-cuts and dissatisfaction with working conditions, you’re probably going to pause for thought before writing a cheque. As you should. The homestead season was uncharted territory for any esport to date. The smart play is to wait and see how everything settles because if it goes badly, you either dodge a bullet or you can come in for less money.
As I started bashing this out I saw a beat reporter from Dot Esports, Liz Richardson, claim that there was nothing to be alarmed about at the loss of the veteran talent. I respect her opinion and she raises some good points that I agree with about other concerns to focus on (if the league is so great and professional why is it pros can’t wait to retire?), but I wonder if she’ll revise that opinion when more talent announces their departure. That will happen and it will include not insignificant names. All coming within such a short space of time, the perception around that will be that the league is in a tailspin. Sometimes perception becomes reality.
The fact of the matter is Activision Blizzard, in a classic short-sighted move, have actually fucked themselves over in terms of replacement names. How you ask? Well, by making it completely not worthwhile to have any open tournaments run by independent tournament organizers and by their absolutely baffling insistence of barely promoting contenders, they have stopped the talent “understudies” from honing their craft and building their brands. To put it bluntly, regardless of skillset or personal preference, there isn’t anyone that can replace the marquis talent in terms of reach and fanbase. I think there’s plenty of commentators that can carry a show. The question is will an audience used to certain names stick around to see if they can do it and if so how much time will they give?
If you want to know how this has happened I’m happy to explain it. First up, as you’ll see coming out in the wash soon, there’s some back and forth on compensation. The rumours about pay cuts are out there. Watch this space is all I’ll add. The second thing to note is that the talent aren’t bailing on the league because they don’t believe it could succeed or that viewership is down. Rather, it’s that they feel undervalued when it comes to helping shape that success or in presenting suggestions they believe can increase viewership and fan appreciation. Top tier talent in broadcasting don’t just want to be compensated. They want input into the show they’re a part of. I saw some Reddit comments saying “esports talent is so arrogant… It wouldn’t work like this in sports.” Very intelligent and informed opinions of course. Shame that I have first-hand experience of working for a sports television network and was literally in a studio opposite to where they shot Inside The NBA. Spoiler: the great Ernie Johnson gets to have some input in the show that he hosts. If they want to talk about a topic, the crew build the assets so they can do it. It worked the same way for Eleague. A briefing in the morning or the day before where we planned out narrative strands and then the crew would give us what we need to put it on air. A good broadcast IS collaborative by nature. It has to be. You don’t just pay the best in the business to sit in a fucking chair and read off a prompter.
The fact is that Blizzard have become anything but collaborative across the board. The suits know best. They knew best for Starcraft esports. Killed that. They knew best for Heroes of The Storm. Killed that. They knew that no one really wanted World of Warcraft Classic. They knew that you guys all have phones. These incompetent clowns are running the show now and they cannot be reached by anyone. Why the Overwatch community gives these people, and not those who bled to try and make OWL better for you guys, I cannot fathom it. It’s a masochistic bootlicking fetish I guess. And your reward for it? You’re getting a fake sequel that they want to sell you at a commercial price that is essentially a game mode that a decade ago would have been included at launch.
On a final note then, it’s beyond disheartening to see so many people dismiss the contribution of the talent as it leaves. The one thing OWL had that arguably eclipsed anything else in esports was its talent pool. A lot of people I respect and admire will still be there but these losses and the ones to come should be acutely felt. These are the best in the business and the fact that they are cast aside so readily should make you sad. Maybe you won’t feel that until you watch a show and they’re not there. Then perhaps you’ll realise what happened and what you lost. Just know if in that moment you realise it, you won’t be the only one, and that bodes terribly for a league that is already struggling to win hearts and minds.