On Jan. 24, 2018, sportalkorea published an article about the state of contenders team in Overwatch League. I got Andrew to translate the article for me. The article talks about how contender teams are upset about the lack of protections for their teams. Blizzard has stipulated that any OWL team can buy out any player in contenders for 25% of OWL salary. (For clarification this is 25% of the salary they will be offered once they join the OWL team, not the current salary the Contenders org is playing or the minimum salary.) This has created a huge disincentive for teams that wished to field Contender rosters as there is no reason to do it. As it stands, Blizzard’s policy seems to be building the OWL now at the expense of short selling the infrastructure of the stars of tomorrow.
The infrastructure in esports to build up the players of tomorrow has usually been grassroots. When esports was a smaller niche community with no sponsors, players had to develop by gathering up at LANs or arcades and playing locally. These gatherings became bigger until they grew on a national and then international scale. Some people looked at that and realized that this could be the future so they created esports teams that could sponsor and salary these players so they could compete on a professional level. Eventually when it got big enough, big name investors got into the scene and started to invest into it.
OWL has worked in reverse, it got many of the big investors first and then created a franchised league. It skipped the local LANs and small to mid-tier teams phase altogether. In response to this and the realization that a level of infrastructure is needed for a player to find their way to pro, Blizzard created the Path to Pro. In it you can see 34 teams have participated in the upcoming season. In addition to that we have OWL teams which can make academy teams which also participate in Contenders.
So what is the issue? The issue is that there is no reason for any team that isn’t affiliated to an OWL team to participate and invest in Contenders beyond the belief that Blizzard will one day change the current policy on the buyout clauses. The natural follow-up question is why does this matter?
The reason this matters is that these contender teams are doing essential work that no one else can replicate. They are investing money into scouting, building, and preparing these teams. No amount of OWL investment money can replicate what these teams are doing in their local regions as they are combing through the ladder, recruiting players, making cohesive teams, and getting analysts/coaches to teach these players how to work together and play in a professional environment. With the clause as it is now there is no return on investment for any of these teams to scout and develop these players.
Think of it this way. The reason OWL is franchised is because it guarantees that no one can be relegated no matter how bad. This gives teams in the league safety that their investment can’t just disappear in the following season. There are no such protections for the contender teams. They invest money and resources into developing players and then a player can be bought out without negotiation at any moment. How are you going to sell that idea to a sponsor? I have a great Contenders team that has some of the best prospects in the world, but at any moment they can be poached and I can’t even negotiate the fee to make a profit that way. Oh also any OWL team can buyout my superstar player, then put said player their academy team to wreck my team in Contenders.
There are cases where a player is so sought after that it could create a bidding war between OWL franchises to buy the player out, but that doesn’t seem like a consistent sustainable model. It’s not like every player will have multiple teams wanting them and in some cases OWL teams could make an agreement to not go over a certain price to make sure that neither team hurts their own wallet too much.
Assuming there is no backroom deals between OWL teams about keeping buyouts/salaries to a minimum, that is the best case scenario. A scenario where you get a hot prospect who shoots up to the top and is so desirable that a biddin war happens. A much more likely case for contender teams is that they pick up a team and they aren’t that great. You slowly build up your team and maybe 1-2 of your players show promise.
At this juncture you could try to get a sponsor, but the sponsor will realize that the players that are bringing the eyeballs can be bought out at any time. This is exactly what an OWL team should do as this is the cheapest they can get them for without getting into a bidding war with other OWL teams which drives up the price of both salary and the buyout. OWL teams will realize that players with potential should be bought out immediately at 25% minimum salary of 50,000 as that is the cheapest they can get them for. At which point, one of these scenarios happen: the player breaks out and they can upgrade their team, they can trade those players for other players they need, or they can put them into the contender team and get value from them in there. This scenario becomes more and more likely as more teams get franchised.
On some level I can understand why Blizzard did it this way. If the contenders teams set the price themselves, then they could easily put players in some contract which puts the buyout fee at an exorbitant price, but as it stands Blizzard has gone to the opposite end of that spectrum. Anyone can bust in and buyout a player for 25% of the OWL salary. Given how esports teams are in other scenes like Dota 2, League of Legends, and CS:GO, I suspect that the return of investment on this kind of relationship isn’t worth it for teams to invest in Overwatch Contenders teams.
Perhaps OWL teams are already on the move to do this already as they squeeze out other orgs. According to this report by SPARX, five the the seven academy teams being fielded in NA Contenders are operated by GG Esports Academy, which is a subsidiary of OpTic Gaming and Houston Outlaws. Additionally, in an article by Mert, both Boston Uprising and Florida Mayhem have allegedly bought into GGEA.
So now contender teams have no ROI, but esports teams are as much about competition as they are about profit. The problem with that line of thought is that there is a hard ceiling of achievement. As it stands, even if your team is the best team in Contenders, that is still just a second-tier farm league forOWL. There is no hope for advancement and the history of OWL itself has shown that having success in the game’s history doesn’t even mean Blizzard will look on you favorably for an OWL spot.
For instance, before OWL started some teams people had pegged to be in the first season was Fnatic, Rogue, and possibly NiP. All three teams had shown early investment into Overwatch, in Rogue’s case they were one of the best teams in the world, but that wasn’t enough to be picked up.
There could be an argument made that the OWL teams themselves could fill out this role as they all have academy teams. The problem with that argument is that this is a global league and it will span across NA, EU, SA, SEA, CIS, CN, and KR. Logistically speaking that seems infeasible. And even if they did do this like in the GGEA case, we now have a conflict of interest and that is a threat to competitive integrity and should not be tolerated.
The buyout clause needs to be re-examined and changed as it seems incredibly short-sighted. The only ones who profit from the current state of the buyout clause is the current OWL teams, who have the option of buying out any player at the same price regardless of actual value. If on the other hand this was changed then we could see more benefits for everyone. While the OWL teams will have to pay more, it will incentivize Contender teams to invest their resources into the league and help develop the talent across the world. At the same time it could be used as a testing ground for potential future OWL franchise slot owners as you can see how they develop their team, build their brand, and Blizzard can know if they want that team representing the league.
As it stands, there is no future for these contender teams if nothing changes. 25% of the OWL Salary might be okay now, as I don’t know what it takes to run an esports team so maybe the money works out, but as OWL expands and grows that value will likely no longer be viable, if it even is right now. If all of these Contender teams leave then Overwatch will miss a critical link in the structure where players can grow and develop. Almost every OWL player now has gone through the process of first playing on lower level teams before joining the League and they became better for it.
As a final point, I will end it with this question. Is there any reason why someone should invest into a Contenders team that isn’t part of the OWL already? You can’t make money, your players can be poached at will at any moment, and you don’t even get the chance of being a championship team as you can’t get into OWL proper. So why invest a Contender team? I don’t know.