As teams head into the playoffs this month, each franchise is turning its attention to the offseason — a time to renew sponsorships and re-sign players. However, key decisions for that period depend on whether next season will be played on “Overwatch 2” or the original “Overwatch.” The league is holding its monthly meeting with all 20 teams Thursday night, and teams expect Blizzard will provide a timeline or at least some details regarding the release of “Overwatch 2.” One person familiar with the league’s plans said they last heard “Overwatch 2″ would release early to mid 2022, though they expected the game would release later rather than earlier in the year.
In an earnings call last month, Activision Blizzard reported “Overwatch 2′s” development is going well and has passed “an internal milestone,” but the company did not provide an expected timeline for its release.
Multiple team officials believe shifting to “Overwatch 2” is the best way to reinvigorate the league after myriad issues over the past two years have negatively impacted the league’s originally proposed financial model. If the new game is popular with fans, the windfall could buoy the league as it pursues its next lucrative streaming rights deal.
One person with knowledge of the league’s planning said the league has proposed starting the fifth season on “Overwatch” and then switching over to the sequel partway through the season. However, the two games require different roster constructions. “Overwatch” is played with a six-on-six format; the sequel will be five-on-five, dropping a slot for one of two tanks — larger characters that draw enemy fire and create space for their team to advance. New heroes are also expected to be added in “Overwatch 2.” As such, teams are preparing to adjust their rosters, but they’re not sure how best to do so or whether drastic changes are even warranted without knowing more about how characters will interact in the sequel.
The last time Blizzard released a new character in “Overwatch” was April 2020. Since then, updates to the game have been few and far between. Two people in the league said players are eager to switch over to the sequel to test out the new heroes and other updates.
Teams have a lot riding on the next year of the Overwatch League. The coronavirus pandemic forced the league to cancel in-person events and move competitions online. Ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorships for these in-person events were all intended to be a key source of revenue for franchise owners. Some teams hosted smaller, in-person events this past season, but the league canceled plans for live playoff matches in Dallas and Los Angeles because of the recent surge in cases sparked by the highly contagious delta variant.
Activision Blizzard’s broadcasting deal with YouTube is also up for renewal at the end of 2022, according to one person familiar with the league’s finances who said the rights deal is the league’s largest source of revenue.
Amid all of this, the video game publisher is embroiled in a lawsuit by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which alleges widespread, gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment at the company. Big-name sponsors like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and State Farm are reassessing their partnerships with the Overwatch League in light of the news. Blizzard is in the process of renaming a popular “Overwatch” hero, Jesse McCree, who was named after a game designer who left the company in the fallout from the California lawsuit.
The teams want to ensure the offseason between the end of season four — which is now winding down — and the beginning of season five is as short as possible. Players, coaches and staff on all the teams are still paid during the offseason, creating expenses for team owners with few chances to generate revenue from their teams. Last year, the league was offline for six months, which was two months longer than the year before.
Staff on multiple teams in the league have proposed preseason tournaments or scrimmages on a beta version of “Overwatch 2” until the game releases to drum up interest and keep the league relevant with audiences.
No matter what happens, one person who holds a senior role on a team in the league said the Overwatch League’s schedule won’t dictate the development calendar for “Overwatch 2.” The person said that Blizzard cares about releasing the best game possible, and the league won’t be able to speed up the process.