Make no mistake, losing top tier talent means the Overwatch League is in trouble

Published: 5/Jan/2020 13:00 Updated: 8/Sep/2020 15:23

by Richard Lewis


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.

Robert Paul for Blizzard EntertainmentMontecristo confirmed he would not be returning to the Overwatch League in 2020.

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.

Robert Paul for Blizzard EntertainmentMontecristo was followed by Puckett, meaning two of the top tier talent in the League would not be returning.

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.

Activision-BlizzardBlizzard’s Overwatch League commanded a $45 million price tag per year for TV broadcasting rights in its first two seasons.

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.


Adam Fitch: 2020’s true impact on the esports industry

Published: 1/Jan/2021 17:02

by Adam Fitch


Nobody could have predicted that 2020 would have taken the turn that it did, and that’s especially true in esports. Many events were pre-planned and expected to take place as usual, but travel and hosting restrictions meant we collectively had to pivot to continue the primary purpose of the craft — entertaining fans.

Many video games are built with online play at the top of mind but 2020 has proven that in-person competition and spectating is where esports comes to life. The cheers and boos of thousands of people, all connected in the moment through their passion for the game being played, creates an atmosphere that transforms gaming from a hobby to a celebration of excellence. It was taken for granted until it was taken away from us.

Most, if not all, industries were affected by the global health situation but esports — and gaming at large — also had a moment in the spotlight due to the absence of sports. The robust nature of the industry due to its online capabilities meant the show could go on, but I want to make it clear that we weren’t able to present the best version of what has been created over the past two decades.

The situation meant that we naturally grasped on to any signs of positivity that we could find but I believe this meant some people have overblown the great aspects of the esports’ temporary rise to prominence. It doesn’t mean that esports benefitted in 2020 because the BBC picked up Rocket League and ESPN broadcast sim racing for weeks.

Esports’ shortcomings amplified

IEM Katowice 2020
The iconic event IEM Katowice had to stop attendees from spectating the event in February 2020, forecasting what was to come for the rest of the year.

Esports was shown on national television networks, more eyeballs were on gaming than perhaps ever before, but the unique elements of this year simply amplified the good and bad of esports. Partly due to the nascent, untrodden status of esports and partly because of inexperience and incompetence, it’s hard for many companies in esports to make a profit. Raising venture capital looks attractive and signals a level of success but this is not revenue. Companies aren’t necessarily healthy because investors are betting on them. It’s important to know this.

If tournament organizers are burning hundreds of thousands of dollars hosting events with thousands of fans in attendance, many of which buy confectionaries and merchandise and interact with sponsor activities, then imagine the level of loss that’s possible when paying consumers are taken out of the equation. If teams can’t make money despite earning millions in prize winnings and promoting brands, something more needs to be done to monetize their collective audience; this requires a lot of innovative thinking and has been limited to online activities. We’ve started to see this materialize through fan engagement programs but it simply hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for those that comprise esports.

Team brands specifically rely too heavily on sponsors and partners. We knew it already but having concrete evidence may just help convince any remaining doubters. Just look at Chaos’ departure from Counter-Strike and their reasoning for it:

“As the year continued it became clear that in-person entertainment was not going to be viable and esports events and tournaments were going to experience massive change,” their official announcement read. “This would have far reaching impacts throughout the ecosystem, particularly on sponsor value, removing a large portion of revenue that esports teams need to stay competitive and effectively support their players.”

Cloud9 Stratus
Cloud9 are offering the most expensive fan subscription service to date.

Without brands paying to advertise through organizations, it’s nigh-on impossible to house teams in several games. They’re simply not in a conducive state when it comes to profit outside of a select few companies that are excelling when compared to their competition.

There’s also an argument that ‘too much of a good thing’ is real in esports. Let’s look at CS:GO again for this point as it’s a great example, sadly. With ESL, Flashpoint, and BLAST all vying to stand out in a crowded scene in an attempt to capture the market, there was viewing fatigue. We saw the same teams competing against each other on what felt like a weekly basis, with teams being separated by region and having to face off against each other regularly in the numerous events that took place. It’s hard to care about a match when you know you’ll see the two teams play again in a few days — it feels inconsequential.

There are plenty of areas of the industry that require growth for success to be possible, but you get the point. 2020, to me, amplified many of these aspects.

Magnifying the good

With that said, though, it’s not been all doom and gloom. The good aspects of esports were also magnified in 2020. It’s a robust industry that can continue to operate under challenging circumstances, albeit at a limited capacity. It’s a vessel of entertainment for millions, providing a level of escapism for enthralled viewers and giving something for people to get excited about.

Whether it’s needed or not for esports to be a success, it was embraced by mainstream figures — mainly athletes — more than ever throughout this year, claiming a stage many may believe it deserves. While this trend didn’t sustain as the year went on, who knows how this will progress in the future?

eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series
Sim racing blew up in 2020 as it found a home on numerous television networks in place of racing.

I’m grateful that it was proven to more people that esports doesn’t need sports. It can stand on its own. In fact, based on what we saw in 2020, there’s a case to be made that sports are more reliant on us. We already have a young demographic with expendable income; the very audience that all entertainment sectors, including sports, desperately wants to capture.

If they want to tap into our fan base, they need to approach gaming and esports in an authentic manner and play by our rules. This indeed benefits us, and it shows just how pivotable esports may become in the future as it continues to grow and command acceptance.

Being realistic

I’m not aiming to dissect our industry or expose all of its underdeveloped areas. Instead, I want to make sure we’re level-headed with our assessment of how 2020 was. It’s great to be positive but some people are simply focusing on the mainstream attention we received and the viewership we amassed, neglecting to equally highlight where things can be improved.

With companies folding and people losing jobs, it’s difficult to see people heralding esports as indestructible. Think about photographers, interviewers, events support staff, and the dozens of other professions that are based heavily on in-person happenings. To pretend they don’t exist, or at least weren’t affected, is irresponsible and perhaps even reprehensible.

We’re now in 2021 and we still don’t know when we can operate as normal once more. Times will still be tough for many. We owe it to not only those impacted but ourselves and our peers to be honest about esports’ current state and how we can make it even better in the future. Only with honesty and accountability can we address problems and improve upon them.

I don’t know how things will develop but I do know that esports is an industry made up of many great people and it’s thanks to all of them that things kept ticking in 2020. I sincerely hope that we can take small steps forward towards a more sustainable space in 2021 and beyond.