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The Rise and Sudden End of the Overwatch League

By Jeff Stinger

In 2017, one of the most intriguing eSports experiments of all time took place when Blizzard Entertainment and high-profile traditional sports franchise owners banned together to create the Overwatch League. For a couple of years after 2017, the Overwatch League had success. But in late 2023, Blizzard ended the league. With Overwatch League kaput, we thought it a good idea to revisit those early days as well as explain why the Overwatch League is no more.

The History of America’s First Homegrown eSports League: Overwatch

Blizzard Entertainment laid the groundwork in 2016

Activision Blizzard, the parent company of Blizzard Entertainment, laid the groundwork for the Overwatch League in 2013. Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, met with Bobby Kotick, Activision’s CEO, to discuss NFL opportunities.

Kotick met with Kraft in 2016 to help him develop the Overwatch League. Kraft’s involvement led to big money. The idea was to create an NFL-like league with a home and away live schedule as well as playoffs.

The Overwatch league was the first esports league to try a new approach. Most esports leagues, like the League of Legends World Championship, have adopted the UEFA soccer league approach of relegating and promoting teams from lower leagues.

When Overwatch launched in 2018, the groundwork had already been laid so that the Overwatch League opened to massive fanfare. Robert Kraft had a lot to do with the league’s early stage success.

Not only did Kraft help Kotick develop the league based on the NFL model, but he also helped attract big time investment. When the Overwatch League began, teams gladly paid $20 million in franchise fees.

During the league’s expansion in 2019, new teams ponied up $35 million to $40 million. The good times weren’t going to last, though. One of the reasons was due to the pandemic of 2020, which not only decimated Overwatch but also some of the lesser known physical sports leagues in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced streaming competitions

The Overwatch League was built on the model for the NFL and the NBA, which means ticket sales for home and away games went a long way in determining revenue and profit.

Not only did COVID-19 force Overwatch League competitions to go online and prevent physical ticket sales, but it kept home team fans from developing relationships with their individual city teams. It also prevented all of the sales that come along with having fans watch games in-person, like concession sales, T-shirt sales, etc.

Overwatch is an American game

Activision Blizzard created Overwatch for American video gamers. Esports isn’t as popular in the United States as it is in many other parts of the world specifically because the U.S. boasts popular physical sports leagues like NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB.

In most Asian countries, as an example, children play baseball and soccer and if they don’t, they play eSports. For the Overwatch League to truly succeed, it would have had to become popular in South Korea, China, and other Asian nations like Thailand on the scale of an eSport like League of Legends.

However, first person shooter games like Overwatch and Counter-Strike aren’t nearly as popular as team esports games like League of Legends and Valorant, which is why Riot rules the esports landscape.

Overwatch was always trying to catchup to CS:GO

CS:GO, or Counter-Strike, had become established well before Overwatch. CS:GO’s gamer community was far more reaching by the time the Overwatch League launched in 2018.

Counter-Strike is not only popular in the United States, but it is also popular in Europe. So the Overwatch League was always playing catchup, trying desperately to eat into CS:GO’s popularity.

Activision wants to concentrate on the Call of Duty League

The Overwatch League was a multi-year investment, meaning Activision Blizzard believed they’d turn a profit a few years after launching the league in 2018.

In addition to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the global economy hit most companies’ bottom lines with rising interesting rates and inflation, putting a stop on long-term investment across the board.

It appears Activision has decided to put most of its efforts in the burgeoning Call of Duty League. Bob Kotick said that Call of Duty remained one of Activision’s drivers of revenue after the company’s August 2023 report.

Kotick and Activision’s board may have felt there was no reason to continue to support the Overwatch League when development money could go to Activision’s top-selling game, and the most successful video game franchise in history, Call of Duty.

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