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The Overwatch League returns with live events, but missing key sponsors

The scene from the 2018 Grand Finals in Brooklyn. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
5 min

When the fifth season of the Overwatch League kicks off in May, the Dallas Fuel and the Houston Outlaws will face off in front of a live audience in San Antonio. It will be the first in-person “Overwatch” match in North America since early 2020, and one of the first debuting “Overwatch 2,” the long-awaited sequel to the popular five-year-old fantasy team shooter developed by Blizzard Entertainment.

Sean Miller, the new head of the Overwatch League, said the league is working with teams on a case-by-case basis to help them host in-person competitions this season. There just may be a wide range of what constitutes a live event, Miller said. Teams could host smaller shows in front of a handful of fans or matches in arenas that seat thousands.

“We want, as a league, for live events to happen as much as we can,” Miller said in a Wednesday interview with The Post. “And we’ll work with the teams to make it happen where it’s appropriate.”

Live competitions held in front of a paying audience were a founding principle of the Overwatch League (OWL). OWL is one of two city-based leagues run by video game publishing giant Activision Blizzard, and the Dallas-Houston matchup — one of the few true rivalries in the OWL, nicknamed “The Battle for Texas” — exemplifies the league’s grand aspirations. With 20 teams in cities across three continents, Activision Blizzard is attempting to form local markets with the same loyalties and rivalries you’ll find in traditional sports leagues.

Overwatch League teams face a reset after pandemic spoils its grand plans

This year, the teams in the Overwatch League will have to maneuver around two forces largely out of its control: the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the league’s plans for the past two seasons, and “Overwatch 2,” which is still a work in progress and run by a development team completely independent from the esports league.

Amid all of this, Activision Blizzard is embroiled in a series of lawsuits, including one from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing accusing the company of fostering a culture of sexual harassment, misconduct and gender-based discrimination. Two weeks ago, the publisher was sued by the family of an employee who died by suicide. In the suit, the family claims the woman’s death stemmed from sexual harassment at work.

The impact of that lawsuit on the league’s operations remains somewhat unclear. After the initial lawsuit was filed last summer, big-name sponsors like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and State Farm paused their advertising partnerships with the Overwatch League. None of the companies plan to sponsor the league in 2022, they told The Post, though they did not comment if the decisions were due to the lawsuit. A spokesperson for Comcast, which owns the Philadelphia Fusion, said the communications company also doesn’t intend to sponsor the league this season. Last season, Comcast’s Xfinity was the official Internet service provider of the OWL.

As of Thursday morning, the OWL doesn’t have any sponsors listed on its website. When asked Wednesday, Miller said the league is in the middle of ongoing discussions with potential partners — not just past sponsors but “potential new ones” as well.

“Our plans for the season have been in the works for some time now,” Miller said. “And we look to amplify those plans, obviously, with any potential partner.”

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Last week, Aaron Keller, the game director for “Overwatch 2,” said in a video to fans that Overwatch League players are now practicing on an early version of the game. The sequel doesn’t have a release date yet but Keller did say that the development team is separating the multiplayer PVP (or player-vs.-player) portion of the game from the single-player campaign, to release the mode sooner rather than later.

The “Overwatch” sequel will move competitions from a six-on-six format to five-on-five, removing a slot for one of the two tanks — larger characters who draw enemy fire and create space for their team. Teams will also compete in a new game mode, Push, and “Overwatch 2” will bring new characters, like Sojourn, who will be available for teams to utilize at the start of the season. The last time “Overwatch” released a new character was in April 2020.

As teams get access to this early version of “Overwatch 2,” Miller said the communication between the developers and the league “is arguably the best it’s ever been.” Miller added that developers from “every level of the game team” are chiming in to respond to feedback from the league.

“It’s more integrated than I’ve seen it, more collaborative, and I think that is leading to this really neat experience right now,” Miller said. “It’s really just one big team right now.”

Looking ahead toward the end of the season, Miller said the league wants to bring back the “big tentpole” events — like the league’s Grand Finals — that bring together the OWL teams from across all three continents. Before the pandemic, Overwatch League hosted the finals in front of thousands of fans at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.

“When people look back at the fifth season, what I really want them to say is that was the time when the league entered a new era,” Miller said.