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Overwatch • May 27, 2019

Richard Lewis: An Analysis of Nate Nanzer leaving the Overwatch League

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Richard Lewis: An Analysis of Nate Nanzer leaving the Overwatch League
Blizzard Entertainment

Nate Nanzer announced that he'd be stepping down as Commissioner of the Overwatch League to join Epic Games' esports team on May 24, leaving many questions as to why the League's main figure decided to walk away.

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Because the Overwatch League has more leaks than a Welsh allotment it was little surprise that on May 24th there were an increasing number of people who knew ahead of time that Nate Nanzer was leaving Activision Blizzard. 

Nanzer, who held the somewhat bogus title of Overwatch League Commissioner, was to join Epic Games who continue to make moves to not only dominate the mainstream gaming space but also to make inroads into the burgeoning esports industry. The man himself confirmed the move a few hours later and it generated the amount of chattering you’d expect.

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There were the usual array of questions… Why now? How much will it impact on the OWL? Is there anything Epic Games won’t buy? For some, it was also hard not to laugh at the prospect of the man who had done as much to promote the Overwatch League as anyone else bailing just as it hit a critical stage in its development. For others, there was genuine concern about how it might harm their esports title of choice. 

The internet felt that desperation… Searches of Widowmaker and Tracer porn skyrocketed as Overwatch fans tried to desperately comfort themselves. Well, step away from the badly rendered hentai and panic let me put all this into a broader context for you, one that should tell you all you need to know about this move and what it all means.

Carlton Beener / Blizzard Entertainment
Nate Nanzer presents the OWL Grand Finals trophy to London Spitfire owner Jack Etienne.

First, let’s just talk about the optics surrounding the announcement. Activision Blizzard haven’t been able to buy a positive headline for the past twelve months and I am more than certain they have tried. Whether it's insulting their consumers at BlizzCon or Bobby Kotick proudly declaring record profits amid record layoffs in a call to shareholders, the company is clearly gunning for EA’s spot as the most hated company in America. 

For my money, they’ve not only sped past but left them trailing in the dust. Amid all of these mistakes comes the constant parroting that the Overwatch League is breaking new ground for esports, that the tens of millions of dollars VC groups are spending to be part of it are not only worth it but are a solid investment that will pay dividends once the league begins the process of home and away games. 

To this end, multiple parties associated with the league spent a good portion of their time lying about the numbers surrounding the first Dallas Fuel home game – a stadium with a build designed to seat 4,500 when capacity doesn’t and never will mean that 10,000 people attended over two days – because this next phase of the league is so vitally important. And just as it is about to start the commissioner and supposed driving force for the league decides to leave and join a company that has two rival esports products in its portfolio. As the hipsters (and quite possibly some OWL investors) might say… Yikes.

Nate Nanzer has been the Commissioner of the OWL since the league's inception.

Some good news at least if you are indeed an Overwatch fan. If you’re able to speak to them, many Blizzard insiders and employees will tell you the truth that Nanzer didn’t run the day to day of the league. Primarily, his job was to be out there selling the ideas and concepts behind the league to buyers and sponsors. Sometimes players too as the ridiculously restrictive Overwatch League contract certainly needs a spoonful of sugar for afterward if you’re an aspiring pro who realizes if you don’t swallow it you have no career. 

Yes, Nanzer was certainly an Overwatch evangelical and was always in the field promoting it. Given how contrived and inorganic the league actually is, he was the perfect person to do it too… His background is in market research and he started out on the “Global Research & Consumer Insights” team when he joined Blizzard in 2014. He knows what demographics like what and how to manipulate them into liking other things. He, in theory at least, knows the right thing to say when asked to have the maximum positive impact publicly. Hilarious if you were aware of his well-earned reputation behind the scenes for being, if we put it generously, bullish and difficult. Still, he was a big picture kind of guy and him leaving won’t harm the day-to-day operations much, so rest easy on that front if you care.

Blizzard Entertainment
The Overwatch League has had its fair share of troubles over the first two seasons.

It is worth mentioning that as a commissioner, he was pretty inept and ineffective. Despite the league claiming it wants to emulate US-based sports, it launched without the rules that would bind players being made publicly available. As far back as January 2018 Nanzer had stated that “There are so many things that have to get done in order to launch the league. We definitely want to publish the rules on the website - if you go to NBA.com you can download the rules, right? We want to have the same thing - it’s something we’re working towards, I don’t know the exact timeline, but it’s something that we’re working on, and I think we’ll have it published within the next few months.” 

To this day they have only published a summary on their website and even though I leaked the comprehensive version in March 2018, so many of their more egregious policies are already public knowledge, they still have failed to meet this very basic expectation. That remained the case even while he would talk endlessly in interviews about how the league was open to player unions and other things that will, of course, only happen on Blizzard’s terms. And if transparency was a goal then it seems incredible that when anything more controversial than boosting or being rude in solo queue came up, Nanzer was conspicuous by his absence. 

Nothing uttered over the Dreamkazper suspension, the Boston Uprising allegations, the Robert Kraft case, Infinite Esports pushing to control the entire Contenders division, the embarrassing situation where a fictitious female player ends up on a roster… Even though you’d rightly expect a commissioner to be arranging investigations and publishing definitive, clear statements on these issues Nanzer wouldn’t be drawn on such issues. His job was to sell and he did that well it seems… Why then would he go on record talking about the dark parts of the league? It’s bad for business.

Hannah Smith / ESPAT Media
Epic Games has been pumping money into its esports scene at an alarming rate.

The next part people focused on is the “how.” This should be easy enough for you all to put together. Any Blizzard employee will tell you, usually over a worryingly early cocktail, that the internal bonus system has been gutted amid the wholesale job cuts. This has supposedly affected even the mid-tier executives at the company. 

Along come Epic Games who have more money than God and it is hard to imagine any world where Blizzard could hold on to their people. In the aftermath of the news, some have suggested that Nanzer may well have been looking for an exit, that people aren’t as confident about the league’s future as they state publicly, but I’m not sure I believe that. I think even if the league does bomb Nanzer would have been OK and just been reassigned to whatever they wanted to fuck up next. 

No, it’s clear that right now you don’t say “no” to Epic Games, especially if you happen to work at Activision-Blizzard. You especially don’t say “no” if you’re the type of guy who thinks about brand building, who does cartwheels at the prospect of being included in a Forbes list. Taking this job at this time makes you look like an industry leader. The undoubtedly huge bump in money and benefits makes it all the sweeter.

Wiki Commons
Much of Fortnite's success comes from the mainstream appeal it gets from events like the Pro-Am event at E3 2018.

So what are Epic Games getting for their money and how will it benefit them? Well, again, Nanzer not only knows the lay of the marketing land in gaming and esports he also has intimate knowledge of the internally shared wins and losses for a new competitive gaming circuit. 

In case you had forgotten, because the follow-through has been incredibly poor, this is exactly what Epic were looking to create for their successful game Fortnite. So far their attitude towards esports has been lacking, stubbornly adhering to policies that no professional player would ever stand by and having a structure to their tournaments that has thrown up all the usual problems… 

Yes, despite having years of esports lessons to draw from, we are still seeing Fortnite embroiled in issues relating to bugs, cheating impacting on the outcome of qualifiers, even players fixing the outcomes of matches now. Considering that any esports veteran could have told you this was all inevitable it does seem baffling how little Epic actually did to mitigate all of this.

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Psyonix
Rocket League already has its own esports league, the Rocket League Championship Series.

Now they have another potentially huge esports title in the stable with Rocket League, one that theoretically should have more mass appeal potential than Fortnite, and the Psyonix team have done a great job of slowly but steadily building their esports product. It is a direct contrast to the expensive fumbling we’ve seen with competitive Fortnite and one that has fans of Rocket League esports worried. 

Assuming that Nanzer is given a free reign, it seems it could only benefit the Battle Royale title and I’d trust him, of all people, to be able to use data points from both games to steadily head each of them in the right direction. Not to mention these are games that actually do need someone to preach the evangelical for their esports scene. Purists don’t accept Fortnite as a true esport yet because, put simply, it isn’t. Rocket League needs a hype man most of all because it has everything else and this is a role I am sure Nate will relish.

OWL is now entering uncharted territory without the only commissioner they've ever had.

Compared to the choppy waters the OWL is steering into, it’s hard to imagine a world where these titles could face bigger challenges given their popularity and stability in general. In this sense, Nanzer represents a strategically sound hire and we will see just how committed he was to some of the ideas in OWL when he starts to implement his vision for the two new games he’s likely to be involved in. 

At worst, Epic have weakened a direct competitor, which, with the endless amount of cash they can throw around to achieve their success at all costs battleplan, represents value for the money that has seemingly little value to them. On that basis, it's impossible to gauge whether or not Nanzer’s hiring is an acknowledgment from Epic Games that their esports approach has been failing. If it is, dare I suggest exciting times might very well be ahead if you’re a fan of Fortnite especially.

CARLTON BEENER / BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT
How will Nate Nanzer impact the future of Epic Games?

So, in summary, while not all doom and gloom for the Overwatch League, because Nanzer’s departure really doesn’t hurt league operations, it does represent yet another hilarious instance of reality cutting through the propaganda. Their commissioner and most vocal corporate cheerleader leaves at a time when supposedly one home game proved that the league was guaranteed to succeed. 

Just as we are about to see whether or not there is anything to this retro idea about regionalized esports in our modern, global setting, the guy presiding over that project leaves to go work at a rival company. Oh, how Blizzard must have wanted him to go at least partway through the latest season but that arrangement would only have worked for them and them alone, which leaves some questions about non-competes…Whatever. 

It was always unlikely that one guy, no matter how incredible his line of bullshit was, would decide the fate of the OWL. It either hits the icerberg or it doesn’t. The funny part will be seeing one of its biggest proponents mandated with building something that I’m sure quietly will be setting the goal of replacing it.