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.

Is Pokemon GO Protected by the First Amendment?

A Wisconsin court is set to decide whether augmented reality games like Pokemon GO are free speech protected by the first amendment of the US constitution. The background: In the few weeks of collective public madness that followed the release of Pokemon GO, many parks and other public areas were flooded by Pokemon GO players, causing problems with litter, overcrowding, and likely freaking out people who had no idea about the game or what was going on.

Not wanting to deal with scenes like the one below on a regular basis, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring the publishers of all augmented reality games to obtain a permit if their apps can be used in Milwaukee parks. Among other things, the bylaw requires publishers to come up with plans for medical services, on-site security, garbage removal and liability insurance. Compliance with the bylaw is of course wildly impractical for any game company, so its’ effect is to essentially ban augmented reality games from all Milwaukee public parks.

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Someone must have dropped a lure.

While all this may have been forgotten as the Pokemon GO craze died down in the months after the game’s release, recently Candy Lab, a Southern California company responsible for “Texas Rope ‘Em” an augmented-reality game similar to Pokemon GO, brought a suit against the park board on the ground that the bylaw violates its free speech rights under the US Constitution, and the two sides are currently battling out in court over the issue.

While the US Supreme Court has already decided that video games as a whole are constitutionally-protected free speech, the park board is trying to convince the court that augmented reality games specifically lack the elements of expression necessary to qualify as speech. Basically, the board is arguing that if a game has no real plot, characters, or storyline, but just involves you walking from place to place looking at things through your phone, then it’s not protected by the first amendment because it lacks any any expressive content.

While it will be interesting to see what the court decides on this issue, I find it a bit surprising that this matter ended up in court in the first place. I’m sure a much cheaper and quicker solution to this problem for Candy Lab would have been to simply disable access to the game in Milwaukee’s parks. This would have likely been trivial to do from a technical standpoint, and I very much doubt it would have had any meaningful effect on the game.

Instead, the company has chosen to bring a lawsuit, and all the expense and hassle that entails. This approach simply can’t make financial sense for them, which begs the question of why they’re going through with it. Maybe they’re trying to set a precedent which will stem a potential future wave of similar regulations in other cities, maybe they’re looking for publicity, or maybe they’re just huge fans of free speech. Either way, irrespective of their motivation, if their lawsuit is successful the precedent they set will make other jurisdictions think twice before adopting similar regulations, and the entire gaming industry will have benefited from their actions.

CD Projekt RED Struck By Blackmail Attempt

It looks like the video game industry isn’t immune from the kind of ransomware attacks that have been hitting…well, everywhere, recently, as CD Projekt Red, the Polish developer behind the Witcher series, reports being subject to a blackmail attempt by thieves who have stolen some early development materials for its’ upcoming game, Cyberpunk 77. The blackmailers have reportedly threatened to release the materials online if their demands aren’t met.

What’s been great to see is the way the company has responded to to the situation. Taking a page from the Jaromir Jagr handbook, they’ve basically told the blackmailers to go ahead and release everything. They’ve also put out a public statement summarizing the situation, and noting that the materials are old and don’t represent the current state of the game.

All in all, this was a fantastic way to handle this by the company. In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if the positive PR, and the extra exposure  for Cyberpunk 77 that the company gets as a result of this incident (ironically enough, this story will probably be the reason many people hear about the game for the first time) will outweigh any damage done if the materials are released.

Full statement from CD Projekt Red below:

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Would You Pay $10,000,000 for a League of Legends Team?

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Riot Games has recently announced some major changes to the way it’s North America League of Legends Championship Series functions, in an attempt to move the NALCS into a more structured format that more closely mirrors the way major traditional sports leagues like the NFL or NBA currently operate.

Starting 2018, teams will no longer have to qualify for the NALCS through competing in a series of lower-level tournaments, nor will they face the immediate prospect of relegation if they don’t do well. Instead, ten teams will be more-or-less guaranteed spots in the league indefinitely. All the teams will share in the league’s revenues, with performance incentives for teams that place better. There’s even talk of a player’s union, as well as a minimum player salary of $75,000.

The most noteworthy aspect of this, however, is the price that Riot is reportedly asking for a franchise. Reports are that a franchise in the new-and-improved NALCS will cost a cool $10 million, around 5-10 times what LoL teams are currently reported to be going for. At this sky-high price, it’s more than likely that the majority of the teams currently in the NALCS will not be able to come up with that kind of money. Blizzard, which announced its own plans for a similar Overwatch league a few months ago, and is reportedly asking a similarly high figure $20 million per franchise, has run into some problems recently as multiple existing e-sports organisations balked at putting together teams for the league due in large part due to the high cost of entry.

Maybe the slack will be picked up by new outside investors or traditional sports franchises, who are willing to put up that kind of money in order to get in on the ground floor of the e-Sports business. Indeed, that seems to be the direction Blizzard has been heading with its Overwatch league, as the company reportedly focuses on attracting these investors at the expense of teams in the existing Overwatch e-sports ecosystem. However, unless Riot can show these investors a credible plan for how they are going to make their money back, it remains to be seen whether enough of them will come through to support a full roster of teams for the NACLS.

It may be that Riot is putting the cart before the horse here. If all goes well I have no doubt that 10 years from now a NALCS team (or whatever the NALCS equivalent is then) will be worth $10 million or more. However at this point it’s hard to believe that the economics of the (e-)sport justify paying this much for a franchise. By asking for this kind of buy-in fee, Riot risks pricing out and alienating the teams and players that have built LoL as an e-Sport from the ground up in the first place. Whether this is going to have a positive effect on LoL as an e-sport in the long term is an open question.

Riot is set to announce the 10-team roster for its league in November, 2017. It will be interesting to see whether Riot manages to put together a 10-team roster at the reported $10 million buy-in fee by that deadline.