When the Overwatch League begins its pivotal third season next month, featuring home-and-away matches across three continents and 19 cities, it will be doing so without its most visible casters, Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Erik “DoA” Lonnquist and Chris Puckett. Mykles and Puckett announced their departures via Twitter last week, while Lonnquist posted his decision on Twitter Monday. The exits of these veteran esports casters come after the league lost founding league commissioner Nate Nanzer to Epic Games and Fortnite last season.

Mykles’s departure, only two seasons in, has raised questions regarding the future direction of the league, as he was one of the first casters to sign on back in 2016. He has a decade and a half of experience in the esports industry, which includes a stint as a League of Legends coach for Counter Logic Gaming, spending years casting in South Korea, as well as founding and acting as co-owner of an esports organization. Mykles’s organization eventually lost its spot in the League of Legends’ North American league in 2016 after a Riot Games-directed investigation concluded there were several rules violations. Mykles disputes those findings.

Despite that, the 33-year-old is well-respected in the esports community, having amassed a following of just under 300,000 on Twitter and nearly 70,000 subscribers on YouTube.

In an interview following his departure, Mykles said he lost faith in the overall creative direction of the league after Nanzer moved on. The OWL was originally pitched as a concept by Nanzer to Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan.

“I felt there wasn’t anybody in the current leadership that had a deep understanding of esports,” Mykles said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post. “There wasn’t a really good, unified vision behind the aesthetic and the tone of the Overwatch League, especially when Nate left, since he was the person doing that, basically. ... Nate leaving was really hard because he was the linchpin of understanding the game and the audience.”

Mykles denied his move was related to compensation, and focused more on differences in vision. He said he was unable to convince decision-makers at Activision Blizzard to put more focus on “star building” through moves like reaction shots during game-changing moments and spending more time contextualizing a player’s individual stats relative to historical milestones, such as happens in traditional sports broadcasts.

“I feel like a lot of the production wasn’t about the players," he said.

Responding to questions of what the recent departures meant for the future of the OWL, Jon Spector, Senior Director at the Overwatch League, downplayed any notion of a mass exodus.

“This isn’t a group of a couple people deciding unilaterally to leave," Spector said. “This is the league taking a thoughtful approach to what a great talent lineup looks like next year and being methodical and building that. ...

"Each of the folks who chose to leave Overwatch League had different individualized reasons for doing so. We enjoyed our working relationship with them and appreciate their contributions.”

Spector added he hopes to be able to work with the casters in a different capacity in the future and that he is happy with the current team going into next season. Next season’s casters will include new additions Andrew “ZP” Rush, Jacob “JAKE” Lyon, and Scott “Custa” Kennedy.

“There are more than 100 people who work full time at Overwatch League," Spector said. “The casters and talent team is deep, and that includes not just the people whose faces you see on the broadcast, but also a talented group of producers.”

In expounding on his reasons for leaving, Mykles said his pitches to create new types of video content with his casting team were rebuffed, leaving him feeling stunted. Spector pushed back against this claim, noting as one example that Mykles was part of a team that pitched Role Stars, an all-star designation for OWL players.

Unlike traditional sports, esports casters, in addition to announcing matches, act as arena announcers, amplifying the energy around the match and its pivotal moments. They also can serve as a kind of interpreter to nonendemic audiences, something that is crucial for the OWL as it seeks to attract new fans to its competitions.

The OWL is known for attempting to connect esports and traditional sports, notably via its city-based franchises. It has a plethora of high-profile traditional sports owners, including Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles Rams) and Andy Miller (Sacramento Kings), in addition to linear TV deals for broadcasts on ABC, ESPN, and Disney. It also has a merchandising agreement with Fanatics, a top online merchant for licensed sports apparel.

However, Mykles does not think that pursuing traditional sports fans constitutes a sound strategy.

“I don’t care about mainstream legitimacy at all,” he said, adding that he does not think it is possible to appeal to mainstream audiences while also building a product for core gamers. In his experience, he said most esports fans do not watch traditional sports and thus won’t understand traditional sports ideas or concepts.

On the other side, he said traditional sports fans are far more invested in their teams compared to esports fans, owing in part to how long they have been supporting them. Mykles instead compared the OWL and esports to WWE, in that fans are coming more for the entertainment aspect, he believes.

Spector said he believes Mykles’s point of view has some merit, but that OWL has tried to appeal to both demographics by offering a curated broadcast, as well as their All-Access Pass on Twitch, which allows audience members to focus on specific players during the match.

Another major sticking point for the veteran caster, Mykles said, was the grueling amount of travel scheduled for the upcoming season. The new travel dynamic, set to take hold this season, will send teams and casters around the globe for matches in China, South Korea, England, France, Canada and the United States.

Basing franchises in different cities was something that initially sold Mykles on the league, and he continues to believe in the two-way value of having casters on site: they can amp up fans and simultaneously feed off the energy in the arena.

However, Mykles said he expected the league to have hired more casters by this stage (the season begins Feb. 8), thereby reducing the amount of travel. He also said the travel commitment would have impeded his ability to work on his other projects, calling himself “highly ambitious” and saying that, “casting will never be exclusively the thing that I do. ... And with that travel schedule, it becomes difficult to do anything else.”

In addition to the three new casters, Spector said the OWL plans to announce more hires before the start of the coming 2020 season. He also said the production will undergo a “fundamental change,” with teams of casters based regionally along with a dedicated studio team, akin to traditional sports broadcasts.

Regarding travel, he said the OWL has tried to accommodate travel loads for talent team members as best as they can.

“Is the travel a burden? It’s in the eye of the beholder," Spector said. “All the one’s who’ve recommitted to come back felt comfortable with it.”

Showing his interest to expand his portfolio, Mykles recently asked fans, via Twitter, what content he should make. Options ranged from a podcast, interviewing veteran esports folks, organizing a tournament, game reviews and board game sessions.

Looking ahead to next season, Mykles said he was unable to comment on specific issues for legal reasons, but did share that he wants the OWL to succeed, saying that, “it’s really important to the industry” and that he thinks it’s a positive development for traditional sports teams to gain experience on how to run esports teams.

Regardless of the league’s future prospects, he shared a belief in the inevitability of esports in general, noting the vast majority of kids play video games.

“All we have to do is wait," he said. "Wait for the audiences to get older.”

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