Overwatch League breaks free from traditional sports shackles with improved season format

owl 2021 scheduleOverwatch League

The Overwatch League have unveiled plans for the 2021 season, improving upon the improvised structure introduced mid-way through 2020. Finally, the league has embraced itself as an esport by removing the traditional sports shackles that tried to drag it down.

Since its inception, the OWL was promised to be the major leagues of esports, mirroring the home game flare and fandom seen in sports across the globe. Finding a balance between traditional sports and esports, however, proved to take far longer than it ever should have.

To understand why the 2021 season format looks so good by comparison, we need to return to last year and how the season was saved by an unlikely hero.

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In 2020, the Overwatch League’s third season was positioned to be both a spectacle and a bore. It was set to be a bizarre paradox of home-game hype bogged down by the slog of a standard sport’s regular season.

owl 2020 london spitfireBen Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment
The novelty of home and away games can quickly wear thin.

Originally, the league’s plans were simplistic: hold matches in host cities every weekend so fans could see their teams play live — the original premise promised to investors. The cost, however, was the removal of “stages,” mini-tournaments that created some of OWL’s best moments from the first two seasons at Burbank.

Who could forget the battles between the Vancouver Titans and San Francisco Shock or thrills of seeing the New York Excelsior clash with the London Spitfire? Now, the league had tossed them aside, opting for a season more akin to the NBA or MLB.

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The season began with a few weeks of Western events in host cities where some teams experienced that aforementioned home game hype, but even then, the novelty was wearing thin. With a long season, there wouldn’t be a payoff for these weekly matches until the small mid-season tournament and distant postseason.

Shock player holding OWL 2019 trophyOverwatch League
Big moments shouldn’t be limited to the post-season.

Aside from the occasional rivalry match (some of which seemed brutally artificial based strictly on geographical closeness) the season became boring. There was no tournament planned until the mid-season where just four teams would compete — a far cry from the stages of season’s past — stages which, by the way, forged legitimate rivalries.

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Then, global health issues drastically altered the course of the season, and ended up doing so for the better. The season was swiftly moved online and divisions were drastically altered as teams in the West moved to the East resulting in two radically different conferences than first envisioned.

The schedule was also completely revamped, eventually leading to the announcement of the May Melee: the first new tournament of the year that saw two separate competitions in both the East and West. Finally, there was hope for the league. The stakes were raised and now even regular-season games had a more immediate impact.

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Profit celebrating OWL 2018 win with London SpitfireRobert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
Profit’s 2018 OWL win was very emotional.

From there, more tournaments were added with the Summer Showdown and Countdown Cup, each proving to be a success and created moments that will go down in esports history.

The Shanghai Dragons became the first team to reverse sweep in a first-to-four (best of seven) series and the Paris Eternal stunned everyone by taking down the San Francisco Shock and Philadelphia Fusion in their Cinderella run.

Tournaments, who would have thought?! Tournaments were the key to the hype train and it was full steam ahead.

Luckily, the league understands this now. On Saturday, February 20, the Overwatch League announced the return of the three previously mentioned events, plus the newly-added June Joust.

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Robert Paul / Blizzard Entertainment
The Titans and Shock were one of the best rivalries in Overwatch – thanks to stages.

The events themselves are set to be better, too, with teams playing three weeks of matches to determine standings and seeding for knockout matches. With eight teams in the East, four will qualify while six will advance out of the twelve in the West. From there, knockout matches will commence until there are two teams remaining. The two in the West will then fly to Hawaii to compete in a double-eliminate bracket against the two remaining Eastern squads.

As a reward, teams will be given extra points in the season standings for placing high. Three are awarded to the winners of the tournament, while the runners-up receive two and the third-place team gets an extra point. This is, of course, on top of the $225,000 prize pool for each event.

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It’s a welcome change and one that I am pleased to see enacted from the very start of the season. Fans will get the payoff they need to stay invested throughout the season – but that’s not the only favorable return.

Carlton Beener for Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch League is finally in a position to succeed.

While hero pools may have been a touchy addition (especially in ladder play), their role in diversifying the meta in the OWL shouldn’t be understated. With a game so difficult to balance as Overwatch, seeing overused heroes removed from rotation should keep things fresh.

Leaving the antiquated traditional sports model behind, the league has positioned itself to succeed, especially if it can retain this format once the world returns to normalcy.

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The question for Blizzard now, of course, is Overwatch 2. No doubt the eventual sequel will breathe new life into the hero shooter and rejuvenate its esports scene. Combined with the improved format, OWL appears to be in a strong position when the game releases.

How Overwatch can remain relevant until then, however, is another story entirely. The league has finally done its part and embraced itself as an esport. It’s now up to the developers to deliver.