Overwatch Bets on New Format to Navigate Challenging 2020 Season

    • Two additional online tournaments similar to the Overwatch League's May Melee will begin starting with “Summer Showdown” on June 13.
    • The esports league faces several headwinds in its third year, including sudden player retirements and reported drops in viewership.

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The Overwatch League has revealed schedule plans for the remainder of 2020, offering some clarity to fans and its 20 franchises worldwide about how it will navigate the final months of its tumultuous third season.  

OWL teams from the San Francisco Shock to the Seoul Dynasty have adjusted to playing competitive matches online by connecting to cloud servers in recent months. That is occurring as the league also copes with the sudden retirement of a handful of high-profile players during the coronavirus pandemic.

But following the success of the OWL’s new May Melee tournament last month, the league will now create two additional month-long knockout competitions beginning on June 13 with “Summer Showdown” to close out the regular season. Select OWL teams like the Vancouver Titans will still need makeup unplayed matches after tournaments are complete.

May Melee’s final weekend – also Week 16 on the OWL season – drew an average minute audience of 63,000 worldwide on YouTube, more than double the viewership of the week prior. 

The result follows lower than expected concurrent viewership for OWL action so far this year, the league’s first exclusively on Youtube Gaming, according to esports live streaming analytics firm Stream Hatchet. YouTube reportedly paid Overwatch game developer Activision Blizzard $160 million for the rights to distribute the OWL in February. 

“The success of the May Melee offers us a lesson in that, as we also design for 2021, we can think hard about how to create more of those exciting competitive moments during the regular season,” Jon Spector, vice president of The Overwatch League, said. 

Summer Showdown and the final unnamed in-season tournament of the year will stretch until the middle of August. Each will again feature individual brackets for North America and Asia – where teams are based currently – as well as three weeks of regular season play that will serve as qualifying rounds to determine seeding for the knockout phase.

Summer Showdown will additionally offer up a $275,000 prize pool for OWL teams to compete, up by $50,000 from total May Melee cash winnings. 

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The OWL is still holding out hope the 2020 playoffs and the Grand Finals will be played on more-reliable local area networks, Spector said. The 2019 OWL Grand Finals in September drew an AMA of 1.12 million viewers, according to the league. 

“If you would have asked me in 2019 about online OWL matches, I would’ve said it’s not a good idea,” Spector said. “However, we are happy with how it has gone so far. After every single match played, no team, coach, or player has said the outcome was determined by latency.”

Heading into the 2020 season, OWL franchises were expecting to host live events in designated home markets for the first time. Each would bring in added revenue and help teams further galvanize local fan bases. Exactly 52 of these events were scheduled to take place before the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

A forced shift to online matches has dampened expected ticketing revenue for teams, with many resorting to hosting digital watch parties for fans to keep the OWL top of mind. At the league level, Spector says the OWL has helped key sponsors like Coca-Cola, T-Mobile, and Pringles find other ways to market their brands. 

“These are all brands that make a lot of sports and entertainment investments typically. And most of those properties [other sports] aren’t doing anything right now,” Spector said. “We found a lot of willingness from those brands to find solutions and deliver value to them through our broadcasts.” 

READ MORE: Pro Leagues Reach New Fans on TV Through Esports

Those broadcasts are now shy a few notable players, including 2019 league MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won. Spectator credits players’ departures to multiple factors – namely gamers’ desire to be home with loved ones during the pandemic. In other cases, players are burned out or have other passions to explore. 

“We have about 200 players in the OWL and the number of players that have retired this year is in the single digits,” Spector said. “One of the things we are encouraged by is every time a player steps back or contracts don’t get renewed, new players step up. There are a handful of rookies in the MVP conversation this year.“