Okay, I admit it. I’ve been cynical about Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL) since the firm first started teasing it in November 2016, with the glacial pace of developments only increasing my skepticism.
Still, this month saw 10m people tuning in to the debut week of the OWL, and it was a hoot to watch with slick presentation, and a cool ring on the ceiling of the Burbank arena that slowly filled up as teams achieved objectives. I spent Saturday night in a crowded pub in London, hollering alongside the crowd as London Spitfire convincingly beat San Francisco Shock.
OWL’s opening week showed promise, despite legitimate concerns from fans about the game’s meta and difficulty with spectating. Add to this Blizzard’s confusing decision to tie each team to a geographical location and then host every match in Los Angeles, with hardly any homegrown teams.
Still, there’s plenty to be excited about here and it seems sponsors think so too. While writing this piece, the news broke that Toyota was coming on board as an official partner. There's big money being invested in Blizzard's big gamble.
Which is why the Overwatch League needs to be wildly successful.
Something Blizzard has done incredibly well is convincing non-endemic organisations to part with a significant amount of cash. While no official figures have been released, it’s believed that a slot in the OWL costs somewhere in the region
of $20m, in addition to the regulations which mandate that players have to be paid a generous minimum salary. Most endemic organisations have been priced out, or had to partner up with mainstream businesses willing to stump up the cash. These are companies that view this as a business, and with an investment this deep, they’re playing to win.
The future could be bright for Overwatch, and several sources suggest that with the support it’s getting from non-endemic organisations many people are worried that anything less than wild success will scare them away from esports for good. That could be severely damaging to the esports industry as a whole, with one source saying a high profile failure could sour big name brands on taking a gamble in the relatively unproven field of esports sponsorship.
OWL has gotten off to the a great start, but it still has a long way to go to prove itself, and it has a lot of weight on those big cartoony shoulders.