Overwatch League Canceled, But Why?
Six years after the Overwatch League was formed, the popular event is coming to an end. Activision Blizzard is moving away from the esports league and taking its competitive Overwatch 2 scene elsewhere, the company announced in early November. Read on to find out the latest Overwatch news and what’s been happening in the space.
What is Overwatch?
Released in 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment, Overwatch is a competitive multiplayer team-based shooter; essentially, Overwatch is a 5v5 game played either with strangers across the internet (known as "solo queue") or a group of friends working together (known as "premades"). In a typical Overwatch match, two teams are running around a large area shooting each other while they either protect or defend an objective.
Overwatch has a couple dozen maps that vary wildly in size and construction. One map may find players escorting a priceless artifact through the streets of a futuristic African city; another may have them fighting over a small piece of territory in a research station on the Moon.
When first launched, Overwatch maps came in four different modes:
- Assault has one team attempting to capture two control points on a map within a limited amount of time. Once the offensive team captures both points or runs out of time, the teams switch from offense to defense and vice versa. The team that makes the most progress toward capturing their opponent’s points wins.
- Escort has each team alternate between offense and defense. In this mode, the mobile payload (usually representing an important object in Overwatch’s lore) has to be escorted past three checkpoints by the attacking team. Once the team reaches the third checkpoint or runs out of time, like in Assault mode, the two teams switch sides, and the former defenders now try to do better than the attackers.
- Hybrid is a combination of Assault and Escort. The attacking team needs to capture a point, like in Assault, and then escort a payload, like in Escort. Hybrid maps, including King’s Row and Eichenwalde, are generally more popular than maps of other modes because Hybrid allows for a variety of strategies to work depending on whether players are trying to capture or escort.
- Control is essentially a King of the Hill mode. Teams fight over a central location and attempt to gain control of it for a certain amount of time. Once the time is up, the next round starts in a wildly different part of the same map. Teams have to win two out of the three sections of the map in order to claim victory.
Heroes are the playable characters in Overwatch and are hands-down the best part of the game. Each hero offers a unique style of play, thanks to having a unique weapon, set of abilities, and ultimate skill. During gameplay, players can switch between heroes in the spawn room. Heroes come from a variety of national and ethnic backgrounds and occasionally speak in their native languages, exchanging specific dialogue with each other based on their character history and background.
New heroes are added to the game over time as free updates. Before playing the new heroes, players must unlock them by leveling up their Battle Pass to a certain level during the season they were added. Heroes can also be unlocked by purchasing the premium Battle Pass that season or by completing a set of hero challenges after the season. The game originally launched with 21 heroes, and 18 heroes were added over time, for a total roster of 39 heroes at the time of this writing.
Heroes are classified under one of three roles:
- Tank heroes are like the offensive linemen or centers of the game. Physically much larger than their counterparts, tanks generally have large amounts of health and armor, and they are almost always on the front lines.
- Damage heroes are like three-point shooters or cleanup hitters. Although every character in the game can do damage, damage heroes focus on it almost exclusively and are designed to secure eliminations (or “picks”) quickly. More than half of the game’s heroes are in the damage category, meaning there is an extremely wide variety of play styles among them.
- Support heroes are arguably the most important in the game, roughly akin to catchers in baseball or goalies in soccer. Supports spend much of their time preventing their teams from dying. All supports have the ability to heal their teammates from damage, but they each do so in different ways.
An ultimate is a hero’s superpower, their most powerful ability. Each hero’s ultimate is unique, and all ultimates have the power to tip a game from defeat to victory when played at the right time. Each hero builds up towards their ultimate; once their ultimate meter is at 100%, it is ready to go.
Hero selection and team composition are the foundation of competitive Overwatch strategy. Teams must consider how the heroes work with each other and how they work against the other team.
Overwatch 2, which launched in October 2022, is an upgraded version of Overwatch that adds a massive amount of new content and freshens up some of the game’s core features. For example, the upgrade brought in a new user interface, rebalanced the heroes, and introduced a shift to a free-to-play model, with premium seasonal passes completely replacing the game’s hot-topic loot box mechanic. In terms of gameplay, Overwatch 2 sticks to the core objective-focused map modes but switches things up with 5v5 instead of 6v6 matches.
Some of the other changes introduced in Overwatch 2 include the following:
- Significant changes to many of the abilities and play styles of some of the game’s iconic heroes, including Orisa, Doomfist, and Bastion.
- New maps, including Esperança, Colosseo, and New Queen Street.
- Assault mode was removed. A new competitive quick play mode called Push was added.
- New cosmetics and Arcade modes.
What is the Overwatch League?
The Overwatch League was an international esports league produced by Blizzard Entertainment that comprised 20 city-based teams and featured the best Overwatch players on the planet. With $5 million in prizes, thrilling storylines, guaranteed player salaries, and cutting-edge production value, the Overwatch League was the world’s premier professional esports league.
Running from 2018 to 2023, the Overwatch League followed the model of other traditional North American professional sporting leagues by using a set of permanent, city-based teams across North America, Europe, and Asia that were backed by separate ownership groups. The league used the regular season and playoffs format rather than the promotion and relegation approach used commonly in other esports and non–North American leagues, with players on the roster being assured a minimum annual salary, benefits, a portion of winnings, and revenue-sharing based on team performance.
The league began with 12 teams for its inaugural season, which started on January 10, 2018, and expanded to 20 teams for the 2019 season and 19 for 2023. The 12 teams participating in 2018 were from across the United States, Europe, and Asia, and each invested $20 million in franchise fees.
History of the Overwatch League
When the Overwatch League was announced in 2016, it was billed as a way to legitimize esports. It imagined an esports program that operated like the National Football League or National Hockey League, where teams—tied to cities—had a permanent spot and traveled to the home areas of other teams across the world for games. Though traditional sports owners bought into the Overwatch League, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, that vision never really came to fruition.
For the first few seasons, the Overwatch League operated primarily out of the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, save for a few “homestead” weekends where teams tested the home-and-away game format. Some teams even planned multimillion dollar arenas, like Philadelphia Fusion’s $50 million Fusion Arena. (The lot remains empty, but owner Comcast Spectacor said it still intends to build a multiuse arena there). The home-and-away setup fizzled out as the Overwatch League transitioned into strict online play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Things got much, much worse for the Overwatch League when big sponsors dropped support for Activision Blizzard following the California Civil Rights department’s lawsuit against the company for a toxic work environment. In-person events kicked up again in 2022, but interest in the league—and in Overwatch 2—continued to dwindle into 2023.
Why did it get canceled?
- After the conclusion of the 2023 season, two-thirds of the Overwatch League teams decided to leave the league, prompting Activision Blizzard to abandon the current model.
- Activision Blizzard will pay nearly $120 million to 20 contracted teams as they move toward creating a new competitive framework for the game.
- The closure of the Overwatch League was no surprise, given Activision Blizzard’s overblown ambitions, financial burdens, and the impact of a scandal about a toxic work environment that led sponsors to cut ties and a decline in interest from fans.
The move to cancel the Overwatch League was announced in a post on X from the official Overwatch League account, which stated that the organization will focus on “building our vision of a revitalized esports program” moving forward.
No details have yet been provided about what will potentially replace the Overwatch League; however, Activision Blizzard is adamant that competitive Overwatch 2 isn’t done for, whatever this new format may be.
The first definitive signs that the Overwatch League’s future could be in doubt came earlier this year when an Activision Blizzard financial report revealed that teams were set to vote on a new operating agreement.
Under the terms proposed by Blizzard, Overwatch League teams voting not to continue with the program were eligible for a $6 million termination fee. This gave teams participating in the Overwatch League a strong financial incentive not to continue their partnership with the program. Teams who hadn’t already paid their franchising fee for the year were set to earn even more following forgiveness of the fees owed to Blizzard, resulting in approximately $12–$13.5 million in incentive per team to let the league crumble.
Although Blizzard managed to attract some top players from around the world to its competitive program, delays in the development of Overwatch 2 and concerns over allegations of a toxic work environment at Blizzard led to the Overwatch League losing advertisers in recent years, putting the organization’s financial future in doubt. Blizzard may simply see continued investment in the Overwatch League as financially unsustainable as it continues to cut costs across the company.
What does the future hold for the competitive Overwatch scene?
Although the Overwatch League will be gone forever, the Overwatch esports concept is very much alive and well. According to industry insider and investigative journalist Jacob Wolf in early November 2023, Activision Blizzard hopes to run the next iteration of its Overwatch esports program in partnership with ESL FACEIT, a leading esports organizer and broadcaster and subsidiary of the Saudi Public Investment Fund. ESL FACEIT is the company behind the broadcast and promotion of Activision Blizzard’s other esports organization, the Call of Duty League.
With negotiations between ESL FACEIT and Activision Blizzard apparently beginning long before the Overwatch League team owner vote was called, it appears that serious doubts about the league’s future had been long-standing.
Although the Overwatch League has been incredibly influential in legitimizing esports on the global stage, it has proven a very expensive venture for franchise owners, and the big, expensive bet on the Overwatch League has finally been called off.
Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.