As that one meme goes, the Overwatch League is straight up not having a good time. Overwatch’s main esports product began the year with the departure of two key talent figures: host Chris Puckett and analyst and commentator Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles. While Puckett expressed his desire to return to his gaming roots like HALO and Call of Duty, working on freelance basis, Mykles cited “irreconcilable creative and philosophical differences” between him and the new management of OWL following the departure of commissioner Nate Nanzer.
According to industry insiders, these aren’t the only two names likely to abandon the OWL ship before Season 3 starts, and even desk veterans like Erik “DoA” Lonnquist who are staying with the league with the time being, stating they “still believe in the concept”, are admitting the project has issues.
The departure of Puckett and Mykles from OWL also caused an uproar on the league’s main subreddit, r/competitiveoverwatch, with many questioning the casters’ motives and doubting their conviction. And outside of the dedicated community, journalists and insiders have been worrying about what this could potentially mean not just for the OWL, but for esports itself.
According to esports veteran Scott “SirScoots” Smith, the reason why so many eyes are on OWL during these times is because of the negative effects a potential fallout can have on the esports space. In Smith’s words, if the league fails — especially after it dared ask for humongous pay-in fees and ran a lavish marketing campaign — it will send a bad message beyond the scope of the industry, and into the mainstream, where the big money is.
“Those of us who have been around longer than OW, have seen this happen before with other projects and other games,” Smith adds, likely referring to the fall of Counter-Strike’s Championship Gaming Series (CGS) — a project with a very similar idea to OWL, having city-based teams and a franchise system, which shut down in 2008, just one and a half years after it was launched.
“The aftermath of the CGS was wretched. Some of the games that were nowhere near ready for a professional tier simply evaporated when it was taken away. For Counter-Strike, sizeable numbers of players (who felt they had all been screwed out of a payday for not knowing the right people) quit out of frustration. This left a sizeable gap between the pros and the amateurs. Talent wasn’t coming through because the CGS existed in a vacuum. The professional players who could go back to 1.6 did, but the bulk of the Source players were left with a grim realization that they would probably never see money like that again. Amateur organizations felt under pressure to offer salaries that weren’t sustainable to attract this talent. For North America especially, this led to a culture where players simply played for themselves, founding teams for events that they knew they could win and attending only when profits were likely,” journalist Richard Lewis wrote in a 2015 article on Dot Esports, adding:
“It also meant that esports and television was seen as a failure in the eyes of potential outside investors. For years, that was the Holy Grail—to get on television and open the eyes of the mainstream to what esports had going on. Now, CGS showed esports wasn’t ready; it was a risky flop that didn’t even go the distance it had budgeted for.”
Although the crash of OWL is not at all certain, it has a lot of important boxes to check this year. 2020 is the season where the league starts travelling to teams’ stadiums, debuting the home/away game format — a grueling travel schedule that is likely to take a toll on players. OWL’s broadcasting deal with Twitch is also done and the league now faces the challenge of attracting new capital, while trying to justify its slowly decreasing viewership numbers and high-profile walk-outs.
OWL Season 3 begins February 8 and will last till August 9, 2020.