As such, what figures to be a lauded and celebrated first weekend of matches in New York and Dallas will give way to a series of unanswered questions about the short term and long term future of the league. How the league, owned and operated by Activision Blizzard, answers such questions figures to significantly impact whether the league can fully achieve its bold vision for the future of esports — one that attracted tens of millions from ownership groups via franchising fees — or whether its innovative approach will require alterations and compromise.
The 2020 season marks the first in which the league’s 20 franchises were scheduled to take root in major global cities in China, South Korea, Canada, the United States, England and France. There, the local team would play host to a series of weekend-long competitions, called homestands, that would allow the host team to capitalize on regional promotional events and business partnerships while drawing revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships for the live competitions. The league and its teams anticipated some fundamental logistical challenges in terms of travel, hotels and visas. Others developed over the course of the fall and winter. The most immediate challenge, however, came out of nowhere.
Coping with coronavirus
The impossible-to-predict outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus in China has already upended a two-month chunk of the league’s early schedule. Last Wednesday, the league canceled its planned international debut in Shanghai, as well as all the matches in the country through March, due to the threat of the potentially lethal virus. More than 28,000 cases have been reported in China, with more than 500 deaths as of Thursday morning.
There are four Overwatch teams based in China. Three have at least partially relocated their players to South Korea to avoid the spread of the virus. The Guangzhou Charge and Shanghai Dragons have both released statements saying they moved to keep players safe. The Hangzhou Spark confirmed in an email that the team’s Korean members are also in their home country.
“We lean toward being very conservative on how to protect our kids,” Guangzhou’s chief operating officer, Eddy Meng, said in an interview with The Post. “We just uprooted our whole training base to try to get these guys out of harm’s way.”
The Chengdu Hunters, the only Overwatch team with a full roster from mainland China, will remain in the country for the start of the season. Increasing travel restrictions out of the country may make remaining there untenable, however. Airlines are canceling flights out of China and the team has a match in Seoul the first weekend of March.
Overwatch League Vice President Jon Spector said there’s no league mandate for the teams to relocate, adding he’s confident teams are doing everything they can to keep players safe. The next scheduled match in China won’t be until June and as of Friday morning there has been no decision as to when, where or how the league will make up the canceled matches.
Visas further complicate the situation. Chinese players and staff on all three teams now in Korea — the Charge, Dragons and Spark — won’t be able to join their organizations there unless they obtain them. Similarly, any plans to hold the canceled matches outside of China will require the Chinese teams to secure visas, which likely pushes the timeline for rescheduling those matches to later in the season.
Meng said the Korean consulates in China are closed, delaying the visa process, and that the team has been working with the league day-to-day, reacting to developments related to the virus.
“We want to do our best to get this right before we lock in any plan,” Spector said. “It remains a really fluid situation on an incredibly complicated set of issues.”
The moves to keep the teams’ members safe come attached with multiple costs to the franchises. For example, while in Seoul, the Charge’s “state of the art” training facilities back in Guangzhou will go unused.
“We invested pretty heavily to support our team in our home region,” Meng said. “It was a great facility, all ready to go, but it’s just going to be extremely hard to replicate that [while in Korea].”
While the team secured a training facility in Seoul Monday night and is resuming practice this week, the relocation and temporary residence in the city is an unexpected expenditure. The outbreak has also forced the cancellation of three of Guangzhou’s five scheduled homestands. If they don’t take place in Guangzhou at some point this season, or if the franchise is not compensated in some other way, the team may miss out on three moneymaking opportunities.
“The Overwatch League matches in China would have been in front of packed houses,” Meng said. “It’s disappointing because we were really looking forward to getting our team in front of our fans.”
In practice, a problem
Overwatch League teams spent the past two seasons incubating in sunny Burbank, California, and holding nearly all regular season competitions at Blizzard Arena — a venue for which the league opted not to renew its lease this year. With teams’ dispersal to their home markets, there arose a seemingly small issue that became an obstacle two teams decided they couldn’t overcome if they made camp in Europe as originally envisioned.
Due to the long distance between Europe and the league’s teams in the Eastern U.S., practice sessions would have become nearly impossible for reasons stemming from game latency and travel time sucking up available hours. To help cope, the London Spitfire and Paris Eternal are taking a somewhat radical approach — they will both live and train in New Jersey, not London and Paris, for the start of the season.
Practice time will be a coveted commodity this season. Coaches and players from around the league have told The Post they predict practice time will be cut in half compared to last season. Esports are unlike traditional sport in that, barring illness, a player can practice for hours on end without physical fatigue, but the new travel demands will cut down on the time.
“At the end of the day, the person who practices the most is usually the best,” former player and Overwatch League commentator Jake Lyons said. “There’s nobody I can think of who’s insane[ly good], really strong, really consistent, and doesn’t practice a ton.”
Team practices often include scrimmages with other franchises in the league. Players don’t need to be in the same place but the further apart the two teams are in the scrimmage, the greater chance for lag — delays in response time from controls to the game. By living in New Jersey, both the Spitfire and Eternal will have the benefit of remaining in the same time zone as six other franchises to scrimmage before homestands. If they were based in Europe, London Spitfire General Manager Robin Lee said other teams probably wouldn’t want to practice against them.
Staying in New Jersey also removes them from their assigned home markets however, and asks would-be London and Paris fans to support a team that calls another continent home for most of the season — even if both teams will host their homestands in London and Paris as planned. To that end, it’s something of an optical oddity in the league’s grand vision to build regional support for teams.
Spector said it’s up to the teams, not the Overwatch League, to decide what’s best for them competitively this season. Lee said the Spitfire will be based in London, meeting with fans, during their two homestand weekends.
“2020, in a lot of ways, is a huge step forward for the league with these events around the world,” Spector said. “Whatever teams need to do in this transition year to set themselves up for success is something that we’re comfortable with.”
Spector added the priority for organizations around the league is putting on the best homestand matches possible for the fans. Players and coaches on both European teams who spoke with The Post find the decision to encamp in New Jersey a no-brainer to compete in the league.
“No matter where we live, it’s going to be fine with me. No matter where my flight is, it’s going to be fine with me,” Paris Eternal’s Harrison “Kruise” Pond said.
Orchestrating 2020 matches in local markets across three continents — and the travel required for the competing teams — injected a huge challenge for all of the league’s franchises, but one that was inevitable given the league’s ultimate design. Spector and the league worked closely with teams to reduce a potentially daunting travel requirement to something more manageable.
If visiting players were to return home after each homestand, traveling like an NFL franchise, teams would face a maximum of 105,000 miles — roughly four times the circumference of the Earth — of round-trip travel over a 27-week season. The league immediately identified this as a problem. To help ease the burden, it shaped the schedule similar to pro sports leagues that send teams on a West Coast road trip, grouping together matches in a particular region (such as Western Asia) so teams could stay in the area for the following week or two rather than returning home. This work reduced that maximum figure by more than half. Still, the leagues teams will rack up plenty of air miles in 2020.
“Yes, there’s a lot of travel involved in making a global league work," Spector said. "But it’s an order of magnitude less and more manageable than a lot that’s been reported about it.”
The Eternal will be among the league’s most traveled teams for the 2020 season,even after opting for New Jersey over Paris. With matches in Asia, Europe and North America, the team will travel 52,000 miles for matches over 19 weekends, according to team and league estimates. The air travel is roughly equivalent to 21 flights from New York to Los Angeles.
A 2014 article in Slate provided averages for the major North American pro sports leagues, with the NBA leading at 46,800 miles for its regular season. The NHL (44,100) and MLB (38,180) were similar.
“We very much acknowledge even 52,000 miles for Paris, that’s a lot," Spector said. "We believe that that’s worth it ... in order to run a league that’s truly special and global.”
Some teams are using the modular nature of the schedule to set up home bases on other continents at various points during the season, rather than return home. The London Spitfire plan to be based in Seoul during a series of matches in Asia. The Charge are preparing to stay in Dallas while traveling across North America. The Dallas Fuel had plans for a multiweek stay in Guangzhou amid its scheduled China matches; those plans have been scrapped because of the coronavirus.
This season is viewed as a steppingstone to a finalized format, but the 2020 season features an unbalanced schedule in which teams will host a minimum of two weekend-long homestands, welcoming between three and seven visiting teams for a series of matches. Those franchises with two homestands will inherently be on the road more often, so for all franchises, mileage may vary.
Some teams, like the Washington Justice, won’t need to worry about setting up camp somewhere across the globe. The Justice will host five homestands this season, traveling just 12 weekends for a total of 21,000 miles round trip.
Those with more airtime ahead are preparing accordingly. Some players are buying vitamins to keep their immune system strong during the long flights. Others are investing in good neck pillows, travel gear and Nintendo Switches. Coaches mention ordering tablets to review match tape while airborne. Zachary “ZachaREEE” Lombardo, of the Dallas Fuel, told The Post he’s not starting the latest Pokémon game until he starts traveling with the team.
Fuel head coach Aaron “Aero” Atkins said the team hired a director of physical performance to help players manage the jet-lag this season.
“The goal is we tackle not just the in-game but the out-of-game, with the out-of-game being so much more taxing this season,” Atkins said. Even after accounting for the early season cancellations in China, the team travels outside the United States four times — to Seoul, Paris and twice to Vancouver.
“I feel really good about the plan that we’ve set for this year,” Spector said this week. “We know that there are going to be some challenges around some of the travel.”
How the league chooses to address these logistical challenges in future seasons remains to be seen. Expanding the league with additional franchises in Western Europe could be one option. The league previously said it was targeting that area for its next wave of new teams, stating a goal of ultimately adding eight more franchises for a 28-team league at some point in the future.
“Adding another eight teams allows to you add more teams, particularly in parts of the world where you have to travel further,” Spector told The Post.
League officials would not comment on any specific plans for expansion after the 2020 season. Creating tighter clusters of teams in multiple divisions could help decrease travel times and distances, and resolve the practice issue faced by Paris and London. It would also require additional multi-million dollar investments from new owners.
The home front
In a season chock full of hurdles for the Overwatch League, the one it most needs to clear is the success of its individual homestands. Host teams are responsible for the costs associated with conducting those events, but can also reap 100 percent of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions and other financially lucrative opportunities typical of a traditional sports event.
But some franchises have seen these events as more risk than reward in 2020, which might be why some teams preferred to host the minimum of two homestands compared to the maximum of five.
“It costs a lot of money to host a homestand,” Florida Mayhem’s General Manager Albert Yeh said. “You hope you’re going to sell out, right? But reality is you don’t actually know yet until it happens. What if your first two homestands don’t go so well and you have three more coming?”
Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson has been an Overwatch League caster since the beginning. In an interview last month, he said the trick to success at homestands will be making the matches a larger experience that incentivizes viewers to attend in person and not simply watch at home, where matches will be carried on the league’s website and YouTube. The league reached an exclusive multiyear agreement for its streaming rights with Google in late January. Terms of that agreement were not disclosed.
“You have to sell fans on an experience,” Wilkinson said. “Because, otherwise, it’s a room and a screen.”
Washington Justice owner Mark Ein embraced that particular challenge, drawing on his experience reimagining D.C.'s Citi Open tennis tournament in 2019. The Justice will divide its five homestands between two high-profile, newly constructed locations in D.C. — The Anthem theater and the Entertainment and Sports Arena, which was specifically designed with esports events in mind. The venues have a capacity of 6,000 and 4,000 respectively.
“To me, that was a no-brainer,” Ein said during a November interview. “We got into this because we believe in the city-based model for esports and we wanted to bring as much content to our home market as we possibly could. … I’m not sure why other teams didn’t. I think, maybe they want to dip their toe in the water. But we had a lot of confidence that we’re going to be able to put on a great show.”
The New York Excelsior and the Dallas Fuel will open the season with dual homestands in their respective cities. Front office staff for both teams told The Post they believe the events will sell out. The league already executed several successful homestand weekends in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles last season, as well as two championship events that sold out Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
Given the added volume of homestands in 2020, a question for later in the season will be how ticket sales continue to hold for the second or third homestands in a city, especially in Los Angeles, where Overwatch fans have already had access to teams for two years. How well teams can monetize their home events — the defining aspect of Actvision Blizzard’s vision — figures to be the guiding light for the league’s plans next season.
“We’re incredibly excited for this moment. It is what we’ve been preparing for,” New York Excelsior co-founder and chief product officer Rohit Gupta said. “There are going to be challenges when it comes to player fatigue and travel. We all recognize it and we just need to be prepared together.”
The league’s owners and investors have stated repeatedly that they are engaged with the Overwatch League for the long term, not just one year. But how well the league navigates the 2020 season, a pivotal campaign marked by multiple challenges and christened by a crisis in China, figures to be of critical importance to maintaining their satisfaction with the league’s progress.
“We’ve demonstrated pretty clearly over the last three years now that we’re a league that innovates and adapts and listens to feedback from our players, our owners, our fans, our partners,” Spector said. “I expect 2021 will be no different.”
The Post’s Joe Fox and Mike Hume contributed to this report.