Several high profile talents have left Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League broadcast to focus on freelance opportunities over the past two weeks.
The departures so far include marquee commentary duo Christopher 'Montecristo' Mykles and Erik 'DoA' Lonnquist, veteran TV host Chris Puckett, Counter-Strike legend Auguste 'Semmler' Massonat, and now, former Bleacher Report and Eleague host Malik Forté.
So many big names seemingly suddenly deciding to leave the League has raised more than a few eyebrows in industry circles, and many want to know the reasons for these departures. Dexerto has spoken with several members of the OWL talent pool and has learned that Activision Blizzard were pushing many of the League’s top broadcast talent to take pay cuts ahead of a season that would see them commit to a hectic and, as of yet, unplanned travel schedule. This, combined with many internal arguments over the focus of the show with Blizzard's leadership, has led to the mass exodus.
Many of the talent we spoke to attributed the beginning of the conflict to the departure of the League’s former commissioner Nate Nanzer, who evidently engaged in a lot more work than his title suggested. While Nanzer was there, he actively communicated the needs and desires of talent up the corporate ladder. As one member of the talent pool explained:
“Since losing Nate, the broadcast team lost its advocate, and a lot of problems that had been patched up in the past suddenly didn’t have solutions anymore.”
In regards to the matter of talent being expected to take pay cuts, this is something that was brought up as early as the start of the second season. Despite initial claims that the OWL had excelled all of its targets in its first season, discussions about talent taking a reduction in pay were on the table for the second season.
“The demand to take a pay cut is nothing new,” the member of the broadcast talent explained. “We came off the high of season one, where we were being told viewership was better than expected… We were expecting an increase, because we had far exceeded expectations. Instead, they followed that up by trying to cut all our pay by 30%.
“We found ourselves having to negotiate, and they were very firm on it. The talent then talked to Nate Nanzer, and he had no idea that was going on. After he was made aware, suddenly negotiations were more reasonable.
“When we realised how little some of the talent was being paid we actually agreed it would be better for some talent to forgo pay increases and instead make sure those on the lower end of the scale were properly compensated. With that, going into season two, most people had approximately a 5% pay increase, but it was hard fought.”
Ahead of the Homestand Season, which would see OWL matches played at team stadiums around the world, the expectation was that talent would travel to those matches and the broadcast would take place live from those stadiums. This was in contrast to the programming being filmed in a studio in Burbank, California, a facility that Activision-Blizzard no longer rents. Despite this additional component to the work of the on-air team, Activision-Blizzard again pushed for pay cuts, and in many cases refused to budge on the issue.
“No one is complaining about the travel,” one of our interview subjects elaborated. “We signed on for that from the start. But to push these low offers – again in some cases 30% pay cuts, when in addition to your regular schedule you’re going to be on the road – comes across as insulting. It also makes you wonder where all these millions are going if they are lowballing us to this degree… There’s something weird going on with the money in this League.”
One member of the on-air team explained that Blizzard were trying to justify the cuts by stating they would be doing less work in the third season. “They told us that the pay cuts are justified, because there are less broadcast days and that the season is only going to be seven months this time,” they told us. “That makes no sense, because all contracts are negotiated for a season and then stretched over the year, so it’s easier for budgeting and income.”
The claims made by the broadcast talent we spoke with seem to be verified by a comment Forté provided Kotaku in explaining why he left. “I can speak for myself and say that, after years of being a part of this community – traveling the world, interacting with fans, making shoulder content, advertisements that ran on national television, and lots of hard work – I was expecting a little more than what was proposed for 2020. I guess they didn’t think I was worth what I asked for, so we never reached a number that made sense for me to continue on.”
In addition to the matter of money, there were also a number of creative differences between the leadership, production and the on-air talent. Mykles publicly cited these matters as his reason for leaving, as well as stating he was not impacted by the proposed pay cuts. “The departure of Nate Nanzer from OWL led to irreconcilable creative and philosophical differences between myself and the League’s current leadership, and all parties will be better served by parting ways,” he tweeted.
I would like to announce that today is the last day of my @overwatchleague contract and I will not be returning next year. Although I had a great time helping to develop and launch the league in the first two seasons, I am leaving to pursue further career growth. (1/12) pic.twitter.com/FyGGskC1tN
— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) December 31, 2019
After interviewing several members of the on-air team at OWL, this is a sentiment that is echoed across the board. People spoke openly of disdain between the executives in charge of the show and the people they have hired to bring the broadcast to the fans.
“It is clear that the leadership have zero to very little respect for the broadcast talent and our experience,” a source who works on the broadcast explained. “We’ve been explicitly told that it isn’t the job of the Overwatch brand to do any promotion of its talent, which is why you barely see any of us on their social media. It’s just so short sighted.”
Another one of the League’s broadcasters went further, saying that, “It’s clear they don’t want our feedback at all. They just want us to sit there, do the show, have no input into what we say or what we present. For a lot of us, it isn’t even about the money. We just want to do a show where we have some level of involvement.”
Over the course of our interviews, it was made clear to us that these issues were identified by the vast majority of the talent team, and that there had been discussions between them ahead of their announcements. It was also intimated that more departures could follow, as several other talent members were still in negotiations. This seems to contradict what Jon Spector, Senior Product Manager for the Overwatch League, told the Washington Post’s gaming vertical Launcher.
“This isn’t a group of a couple people deciding unilaterally to leave," Spector said. “This is the league taking a thoughtful approach to what a great talent lineup looks like next year and being methodical and building that…”
Dexerto will bring you more on developments as they occur.