Is Blizzard Killing Overwatch as an E-Sport?

Today, the fantastically-named Swedish e-sports organisation Ninjas in Pyjamas became the latest in a long line of organizations to drop their Overwatch team. The reasons cited by NiP in their official statement are similar to those cited by the many other e-sports outfits who have dropped their Overwatch teams in recent months: uncertainty about the future of the Overwatch scene, and a lack of information about Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch league. The statement reads in part:

We entered the Overwatch scene last year just as the game launched, with one of the strongest lineups at the time of entry. The prospect of an emerging esport title was exciting as Ninjas in Pyjamas and other esports organizations picked up teams. As time passed we have seen a growing amount of teams release their Overwatch lineups as they assess the future of the game as an esports title.

Today we announce that we will be joining the growing list of organizations placing Overwatch as one of the titles to observe but not to be involved in, given the uncertainties of the scene.

While  unfortunate, it’s not difficult to understand why Ninjas in Pyjamas, made this decision. Aside from the much-hyped Blizzard league, which everyone seems to be awaiting with baited breath, but for which details have been essentially non-existent, there’s simply not enough other Overwatch events happening to support most pro teams.

Ninjas in Pyjamas, in happier times.

Overwatch e-sports site over.gg summarizes the situation neatly. The period from August of 2016, when Overwatch was released, to January of this year, saw 9 major offline Overwatch tournaments (‘offline’ tournaments being the large, in-person tournaments that attract high numbers of viewers). Since then, outside of Korea’s popular APEX league, which continues to thrive, and Blizzard’s own Contenders series, billed as a developmental league for the upcoming ‘real’ Overwatch league, there have been essentially no major offline Overwatch tournaments anywhere in the world.

Given the game’s continued popularity, it’s unlikely that lack of fan interest can fully explain why Overwatch tournaments have dried up this way. Instead, reports have been surfacing about another likely culprit: many organizers have been having problems obtaining licenses from Blizzard to run tournaments. For instance, January of this year Blizzard denied an Overwatch tournament license to Pro Esports Association (PES), a nascent e-sports organisation formed by a number of North America’s largest e-sports teams that looked poised to become a major player in the industry, and had plans to start its own Overwatch league. No official reason was given. Since then, reports have surfaced that multiple other organizers have been having significant trouble getting licenses to run any kind of major tournament, for reasons that often don’t hold water, such as scheduling conflicts with less popular ‘online’ tournaments.

While Blizzard has not publicly acknowledged or provided any reasoning for this freeze (pun not intended) on tournament licenses, it’s not hard to see why the company would be acting the way it is. If Blizzard is going to be starting up their own Overwatch league, and that league is supposed to become the go-to place for Overwatch e-sports, why allow a potential competitor like PES permission to run their own league? Why give any third-party organizers permission to run their own tournaments, when these events could develop their own followings, and drain eyeballs and interest from Blizzard’s own flagship offering?

While this is all just speculation, and I’m still waiting for the leaked video of a Blizzard exec explaining that this is their master plan while twirling their mustache, it’s hard to deny that Blizzard has a massive incentive to discourage any competitor from gaining any kind of foothold in the Overwatch e-sports scene, and, through denying them tournament licenses, a simple and effective means to do it. The unfortunate thing is that by taking this approach, Blizzard appears to slowly suffocating the Overwatch e-sports scene as a whole in the process.

This state of a affairs highlights one significant difference between e-sports and traditional sports, one that e-sports are going to contend with and address if they’re going to be successful in the long-term: Nobody “owns” traditional sports. If someone wants to start up their own football league, they don’t need a license from the NFL to do so. With e-sports, of course, that’s not the case. Blizzard, and any other company that owns an e-sports IP, could shut down every competing e-sports offering tomorrow if they wanted to, by simply denying them a license to operate.

While most game companies are not doing this at the moment, and seem content to  license their IP freely in order to let their game’s scene develop, as the money at stake increases we’re likely to see more and more companies following Blizzard’s lead on this and freezing out (I swear I’m not doing it on purpose) their competitors in order to protect their own e-sports offerings.

Ultimately, this seems like it’s extremely unhealthy for e-sports, especially at a time when the field is still evolving and people are still trying to figure out what the right long-term business model for e-sports is. This is when different leagues and tournament organizers should each be allowed to put out their own product and compete for viewers. Ultimately this kind competition is best way to allow well-functioning, viable e-sports businesses to develop. The NFL didn’t get where it is today by denying other leagues licenses to host football games. It got there by competing with them, and offering a better product. Blizzard doesn’t have to do any of that if it doesn’t want to. They can simply lock everyone else out of the Overwatch scene, leaving them as the only show in town. Unfortunately, if they mismanage that scene (as they seem to be doing) or offer an inferior product, fans of Overwatch as an e-sport will have nowhere else to turn to.

In the end, this is sad to see. Overwatch has been a massive success as a game since its release, and it should be thriving as an e-sport. Instead, it appears to be dying on the vine. Hopefully Blizzard decides to re-evaluate their approach to this issue, and their ongoing support for the Overwatch scene, in the future.

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