Perhaps more concerning for the nascent Overwatch League (OWL), the players departing are league superstars. Last year’s League MVP, one of the OWL’s highest paid players, is now gone, opting to pursue a career in a new esports circuit that doesn’t fully exist yet. The team captain of the Washington Justice followed suit. The entire roster of last season’s runner up in the Grand Finals had a falling out with team management after traveling to their homes in Korea; the players were subsequently released en masse. Taken individually, the events would be stunning developments for an esports circuit with ambitions of replicating traditional sports leagues by developing localized fan bases in cities and regions around the globe. Taken together, the events of the third season have many in and around the league asking about its future viability if it cannot curb what appears to be growing discontentment among its pro players, and wondering what could finally halt the negative momentum.
In April, Jay “Sinatraa” Won, one of the league’s biggest stars and the reigning MVP, announced he was leaving the 2019 league champion San Francisco Shock to compete in “Valorant,” a new first-person shooter by Riot Games that’s currently in a closed beta.
“Straight up just lost passion for the game,” Won wrote about “Overwatch” in a note on Twitter. “I just know it was hard for me to log on to play and I didn’t have fun in [practice] at all anymore.”
And, he’s not alone. Since April, eight professional players have retired from the league, walking away from guaranteed contracts for many of the same reasons as Won. They’re burned out by long practice schedules, mentally exhausted by “Overwatch” and no longer find the grind worth it. And some are turning to the tantalizing new game from Riot, who also operates the “League of Legends” esports circuit.
Damien “HyP” Souville left the Paris Eternal in April. Now, he’s streaming “Valorant” on Twitch. Corey Nigra, the former captain of the Washington Justice, announced he’s also leaving to pursue a career in “Valorant.” On Twitch, you’ll find some current Overwatch League (OWL) players are streaming “Valorant” — not “Overwatch” — in the little free time they have between practice and matches.
The OWL is a three-year old endeavor supported through hundreds of millions of dollars invested by some of the most successful team owners in the traditional sports world. It is operated by Activision Blizzard, one of the largest companies in gaming. And yet, some of the league’s biggest stars are throwing in the towel to retire or play a game that hasn’t been formally released to the public.
“We’re not ignoring it,” Overwatch League Vice President Jon Spector said in a Monday interview with The Post, referring to players retiring from the league. “There’s a couple of different factors that have been contributing to it. A lot of it, from my perspective, is directly related to the uncertainty and the stress put on these players by covid-19.”
Despite the big-name moves to a new competitive title, coaches, managers and players in OWL say they do not believe all league players are aching to move “Valorant.” They point out that “Overwatch” and “Valorant” are fundamentally different games. “Valorant” is cut from the same cloth as “Counter-Strike,” with a few flashy abilities augmenting characters fighting with guns and knives. “Overwatch” emphasizes coordination with teammates to win and — with every new hero introduced or update made — the game continues to place teamwork over individual prowess.
Albert Yeh, the general manager for the OWL’s Florida Mayhem, told The Post he believes only certain players from the league are going to mull switching games, mainly those with a history of playing “Counter-Strike.” The San Francisco Shock’s Grant “Moth” Espe said “Valorant” will appeal to players looking for a traditional first-person shooter where individual mechanics are valued over team plays.
“Tank and support players in ‘Overwatch’ are not going to go over to ‘Valorant,'” said Espe, who plays main support for the Shock. “Playing Lucio or playing Reinhardt in ‘Overwatch’ is not going to translate at all.”
However, even players who want to stick with “Overwatch” have pointed out that one of the major factors contributing to the player churn is not the appeal of a slick new shooter game, but rather Activision Blizzard’s tinkering with the way pro players approach “Overwatch,” which has both increased practice times and stress levels amid all the larger logistical concerns of this season.
A problem of constant change
As the league adjusted its schedule to cope with covid-19, the pandemic has forced front offices to completely rethink priorities for the season both in terms of overall logistics and daily practice routines. Some teams, including the New York Excelsior and the London Spitfire, which are comprised completely of Korean players, relocated to South Korea for their players to play close to their homes. The Vancouver Titans moved back to South Korea as well to join OWL’s restructured Asia region. However the time difference from the rest of the organization in Vancouver “created a whole new set of challenges,” according to a statement by the franchise, and the Titans parted ways with their entire roster.
In early May, Spector wrote a long note to fans of Overwatch League that the recalibration during the pandemic and the switch to online-only matches has been “a bumpy road."
“We also know from talking to our players and teams that covid-19 has placed an incredible amount of stress on many of them,” Spector wrote. “Competing at the highest level during a scary situation, when you can’t interact with your teammates and are in many cases far from home and family, is really challenging.”
The pandemic has been a serious stroke of bad luck for the OWL but players are wondering if Activision Blizzard isn’t adding to those challenges with their tweaking of the meta, or how the game is played. Several players and coaches told The Post that others are leaving because “Overwatch” isn’t the same game they picked up when it was released in 2016. That was the reasoning of Ethan “Stratus” Yankel, who recently retired from competing in the league to become a full-time streamer.
“You can’t really carry in this game, which I think is fine,” Yankel told The Post, noting that players can’t really win one-on-one fights anymore. “It’s just a different type of game. But, that’s not really what I enjoy.”
That shift has put a premium on team chemistry and communication, which requires extensive practice time. People have a better understanding of the game, Yankel said, meaning players can’t just rely on their reaction speed and accuracy. Positioning, coordination and communication matter more than ever. It’s a constant education that has required constant work.
“It’s really shifted,” said Thomas Brussen, a player who recently retired from the Boston Uprising. “‘Overwatch’ changes a lot compared to, like, ‘Counter-Strike.’ … There was always going to be players that like it and players that don’t like it."
One of the biggest changes was the introduction of hero bans. Every week since early March, four characters are selectively banned from competitive play. It is meant to create excitement for fans by preventing teams from relying on familiar strategies and techniques. But it’s also forced coaches and players to draw up new plans every week before matches.
“You’ve only got like five or six days, depending on your schedule, to figure out what the new meta is and how to play it best. So, it’s a lot more work for us,” the Shock’s Espe said.
OWL broadcaster and former player Jake Lyon told The Post it’s difficult to adapt to that much change week-to-week. Players say they’re practicing even more to prepare for matches on the weekend, adding another layer of stress to a precarious situation.
“This is the first year of things changing really rapidly week-to-week and, I think, change is always frustrating,” Lyon said. He added that hero pools do ensure one team won’t be able to control a meta for the majority of the schedule, which had been the case in the league’s first two seasons.
The league has made a series of incremental changes to hero pools to respond to early concerns from players and coaches. Spector also said the league and teams have a responsibility to create some structure so players don’t burn out from hours of practice week-to-week, attempting to master whatever the changing meta may be.
“We’ve also, I believe, very clearly demonstrated that if we’re missing the mark on things like that and we’re hearing that from players … we’re going to make changes quickly,” Spector said Monday.
Spector added he’s talked to retired players and they tell him they need a break from waking up every morning to play “Overwatch” for hours on end. But, ultimately, that’s a part of the competitive esports circuit, Spector said. There are roughly 200 players in the OWL and thousands of fans who would love to secure a spot on a team.
“If you want to be the best … it’s not just that you need to be incredibly naturally talented. You have to put in the work,” he added. “When you’re at the pinnacle of anything in the world, right, you need to work for it.”
Stopping the slide
Player retirements and defections to “Valorant” are not the only thing vexing the OWL. The 2020 season is the first in which the Overwatch League is streaming all matches on YouTube, instead of Twitch. The league reached an exclusive multiyear deal with Google in late January for multiple Activision Blizzard esports properties. But, Spector confirmed in an interview with The Post that live viewership is down in North America compared to last season.
Spector devoted an entire section of his note on Reddit to viewership, writing “we are not satisfied with where things are today.” Spector added the league is “working with YouTube to improve discoverability of our content while looking at other changes to build excitement and raise the stakes.”
Officials have introduced some changes to the planned regular season contests to build more excitement, like Spector said. Teams are competing right now for a conference tournament at the end of the month with a pot of money for the winning franchises.
There’s an expectation from some in the league that “Overwatch 2,” the announced sequel to the game, could solve most of the non-pandemic problems troubling the competitive circuit. “Overwatch 2” is expected to build off the core game with new maps, game modes and heroes. An entire redesign with a fresh coat of paint might bring casual fans back to the franchise. And a new game will likely bring new players to start grinding up the ranks for a spot in the professional league, replacing those who have departed. But, there’s no official release date for the game, and no sign it will release before the end of Season 3 this summer.
Yeh, the Florida Mayhem GM, says that what happens to “Overwatch” in the next year or two will depend not on the introduction of “Valorant” or another hot competitor, but whether Activision Blizzard can identify and fix the problems for the community.
“The only thing that’s going to kill ‘Overwatch’ is Blizzard itself,” Yeh said. “If ‘Overwatch 2’ turns out to be a flop, then, yeah, we’re going to have a big problem."