The Overwatch League on Tuesday announced new details about the introduction of its home-and-away schedule for its third season in 2020, including a pair of unexpected wrinkles that figure to impact the league’s economic and competitive balance. Chief among the details: teams will not all host the same number of matches in 2020, with some teams hosting as many as five and others as few as two.
That element introduces questions of equal opportunities for teams, particularly on the economic side, in what is a revolutionary model for competitive video gaming. Since its inception the OWL has sought to replicate the home-and-away dynamic found in traditional sports, thereby activating local and regional revenue-generating opportunities previously unavailable to esports leagues. But while some teams play others more frequently in other major tier traditional sports, all teams — in Major League Baseball or the National Football League, for example — have an equal number of home games unless there is a special circumstance.
According to Pete Vlastelica, CEO of Activision Blizzard’s esports leagues and commissioner of the Overwatch League, there was no outcry among the league’s owners regarding the disparity in number of home matches.
“We worked very closely with our owners to come up with this plan,” Vlastelica said. “The flexibility that we baked into the plan was a big part of the appeal of the plan to our owners. In other words, the opportunity for the teams that wanted to take on more was interesting to some teams. The opportunity to stay at two was interesting for some teams. … I feel pretty good about where we landed and I think our teams do as well.”
Rather than using a format that gives half of the league’s teams a home match each weekend during the season, the OWL will instead replicate a version of the “Homestand Weekend” model it employed this season. The structure will send multiple teams to a designated host city each week. While the host team will be the home team in its two weekend matches, the event will also feature head-to-head matchups between multiple visiting teams.
Dallas, Washington, and Guangzhou, China, were awarded the maximum of five matches next season, according to two people familiar with the league’s plans. With teams scheduled to play 28 total matches each during the 2020 season, the three teams with five homestands (which feature two matches per team) will play more than a third of their schedule in front of their own fans. All teams had the chance to request more home matches than the minimum allotment of two, according to Vlastelica.
The money those teams stand to generate from the extra matches could be significant. Host teams will keep 100 percent of any revenue earned locally via ticket and concession sales, advertising or other local partnerships.
The unbalanced schedule may also favor teams with more home matches by way of a crowd advantage. During the two Homestand Weekends so far in 2019, the host teams — the Dallas Fuel and Atlanta Reign — combined for a 4-0 record. The two wins by Atlanta were its only wins during the third stage of the season.
“When you have everyone looking at you, cheering for you, it’s very emotional for us,” Dylan “aKm” Bignet, a player for the Fuel, said of the environment during the Dallas homestand in April. “We walked out and everyone’s cheering for us, everyone’s for us, so it’s pretty emotional.”
It is unclear why all teams did not request the maximum number of matches, given the potential for revenue generation, one of the principle appeals of the OWL model to owners that reportedly paid upward of $20 million for their teams.
“We ultimately will have more events in each market than we're going to have next year,” Vlastelica said. “This is a one-year solution in our effort to get to the ultimate vision.”
Full details regarding the number of home matches in each city were not available Tuesday. In total, matches will be played in 19 different cities around the world in six different countries — Canada, China, France, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Venue selection for home matches will be left to the teams. There are no league mandates on a minimum or maximum seating capacity, according to Vlastelica, though the league has recommended teams draw lessons from the two homestand events held so far, with Dallas selling out with 4,000 tickets and Atlanta drawing a sellout crowd of 2,750.
It is likely the OWL’s teams will use multiple venues within their geographic footprint during the coming season. The Washington Justice evaluated playing sites from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia before settling on a split of two matches at the Entertainment Sports Arena in Southeast Washington and three at The Anthem, a concert venue situated on the District’s newly developed Southwest Waterfront. Both venues feature seating capacities between 3,000 to 4,000.
“I think giving our fans not one, not two, but five chances to come watch the team live is just really, really something truly special,” Grant Paranjape, vice president of esports business for the Justice, said. “We’re really excited to have the chance to put on these five events.”
From its outset, the OWL has sought to replicate the fan experience of traditional sports in which a visiting team plays against a host team in front of its home fans. The OWL first introduced this homestand format during the current 2019 season, enjoying favorable returns. During the Dallas event, Vlastelica said, he became convinced the league’s bet on the replicated model for franchises would pay off.
“It was right after the Dallas team walked in [the arena] and 4,000 screaming fans were chanting ‘Let’s go Dallas’ in unison that I realized that these aren’t just these esports fans, they’re not just ‘Overwatch’ players, they’re fans of Dallas Fuel, and they’re there to see their team,” Vlastelica said.
In addition to the new scheduling format, the league’s 20 teams will be split into four divisions of five teams beginning next season. The divisions will be paired geographically to form an Atlantic and Pacific Conference.
The Atlantic will consist of Atlanta, the Florida Mayhem, Houston Outlaws, Philadelphia Fusion and Washington Justice in the Southern Division and the Boston Uprising, London Spitfire, New York Excelsior, Paris Eternal and Toronto Defiant in the Northern Division. The Chengdu Hunters, Guangzhou Charge, Hangzhou Spark, Seoul Dynasty and Shanghai Dragons will form an all-Asian Eastern Division in the Pacific Conference, while Dallas, the Los Angeles Gladiators, Los Angeles Valiant, San Francisco Shock and Vancouver Titans comprise the Pacific’s Western Division.
The 2020 OWL schedule will begin in February and run through August.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Pete Vlastelica is the OWL commissioner. A previous version stated that he was the acting commissioner.
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