The Overwatch League (OWL) is a professional esports league for the video game Overwatch, produced by its developer Blizzard Entertainment. The Overwatch League follows the model of other traditional North American professional sporting leagues by using a set of permanent, city-based teams backed by separate ownership groups. In addition, the league plays in the regular season and playoffs format rather than the use of promotion and relegation used commonly in other esports and non-North American leagues, with players on the roster being assured a minimum annual salary, benefits, and a portion of winnings and revenue-sharing based on how that team performs. The League was announced in 2016 with its inaugural season taking place in 2018, with a total prize pool of US$3.5 million given to teams that year.
|Current season, competition or edition:|
|No. of teams||20|
|San Francisco Shock|
The Overwatch League is owned by Blizzard Entertainment and run under the Major League Gaming organization, which is also owned by Blizzard's parent company, Activision Blizzard. The Overwatch League plays out similar to most North American professional sports leagues, in which all teams play scheduled games against other teams to vie for position in the season's playoffs, rather than the approach of team promotion and relegation more commonly used in other esports leagues. The league currently features twenty teams split between two conferences, which is subdivided into two divisions each.
The 2019 season consisted of a period of non-regulation pre-season play, a regular season divided into four stages, and a post-season double-elimination playoffs to determine the championship team for the season. Each regular season stage lasted five weeks, with the first three stages ending with a short playoff of the top teams based on that stage's records to determine stage champions. Teams played 28 matches across the regular season, playing teams both within and outside their division. The post-season playoffs used teams' overall standings across all stages. The top standing team in both divisions received the top two seed in the playoffs, followed by a fixed number of teams determined from across both divisions, as well as two slots open to the winners of a mini-elimination tournament from the remaining top teams across both divisions. An All-Star weekend is also held, featuring two division-based teams selected by League representatives and voted on by fans.
Teams are awarded with monetary prizes for how they place at the end of the regular season, as well as for participating and placing high in the stage playoffs and post-season tournament. For example, the first season had a total prize pool of US$3.5 million available, with the top prize of $1 million awarded to the post-season championship team.
Overwatch is a six-versus-six team-based first-person shooter video game. Broadly, the goal is to work with team members to eliminate or repel opponents while attacking, defending, or competing for an objective. Players select from the game's roster of thirty heroes, split between classes of Damage (the main attackers), Support (providing healing and other buffs), and Tank (shielding teammates with high health amounts) each with their own pre-designed set of weapons and skill kits, though each player on a team must play a unique hero; starting with stage four of the 2019 season, each team must be composed of two Damage heroes, two Supports, and two Tanks. A player can switch to an available hero within the same class if they are eliminated prior to respawning, or if they return to their current spawn point, which allows for teams to adjust their composition dynamically based on the current situation.
Within League play, a regular season match features two teams (one selected as the home team, the other as the visiting team) playing at least four games, with each game featuring a predetermined map type, following the same gameplay format as with normal competitive mode in Overwatch. The League uses both Control maps, played on a best-of-three rounds, and Assault, Escort, and Hybrid maps, with each team having at least one chance as the attacking team. The pool of specific maps from the standard Overwatch rotation are determined at the start of each Stage, allowing the teams to determine their player lineups and strategy while also changing the season's metagame. A team may call in substitutes for players only between games. The team that won the most games wins the match. If teams are tied after four games, a tiebreaker game played on a Control map (which cannot end in a tie) is used to break the tie and determine the match winner. League standings are based primarily on the overall match win/loss record, but ties are broken based on the total game win/loss record; as such, all four games in a match are played even if one team has already secured three wins for the match. Any further ties for tournament placement are broken based first on the head-to-head game win/loss record, then head-to-head match count.
Overwatch League games are played on a custom server controlled by Blizzard; this server is also available to League players for practice skirmishes between games. This version of the game receives similar updates to the main commercial game, adding new maps and heroes, and altering the various hero abilities based on testing within the Public Test Servers. However, these updates are not be applied immediately as they are for the commercial game, but instead no more frequent than once every six weeks, effectively between the stages of each season, a natural placement according to former league commissioner Nate Nanzer. For example, a late January 2018 patch, which had significant effects on characters like Mercy and thus had potential to upset the metagame, was not applied to the League server until mid-February, at the start of the second stage. However, teams are given access to private servers updated to alongside the main release of Overwatch for them to practice and skirmish against other teams to learn and develop strategies on updates and patches before experiencing them in League matches. For matches, each player is provided with an identical desktop computer, monitor, and noise-cancelling headphones to play on to eliminate any handicaps related to computational or graphics processing, but players may use their preferred keyboard and mouse.
Player eligibility and benefits
While Overwatch is played in teams of six, League teams can have up to six additional players that can be swapped between matches. A team's membership is locked at the start of the season, but a mid-season signing period allows teams to bring in new players or trade players between teams. Following the finals, teams have about one month to extend current player contracts, bring on players from affiliated Overwatch Contenders teams, or privately held tryout sessions. Subsequently, all unsigned players by the end of this period enter free agency during which players can negotiate with teams to become part of the roster; in the case of when expansion teams are added, there is a month period where expansion teams have exclusive negotiating rights before other teams can engage. A team's minimum roster is to be set prior to the season's exhibition matches, about two months prior to season play, but they can expand and change this roster up until a specified date. Currently, the League is not region-locked, so teams can use players of any nationality to fill their ranks, as long as the team ownership is based in that city or region. For example, the London Spitfire at the onset of the first season was entirely made up of South Korean players. The only restriction on players is to be of at least 18 years old and ability to travel internationally.
Overwatch League players, while on a team's contract, are paid an annual salary. In the first year, a player's salary was a minimum of US$50,000 set by the League. Additionally, the League offers players with health and retirement benefits, as well as housing and training support. Blizzard required team owners to provide the signed players with bonuses representing at least 50% of the team's winnings and revenue. Players can negotiate for larger amounts with their team's owners and larger portion of the bonus revenue-sharing from tournament winnings and other income. For example, Jay "sinatraa" Won secured the League's highest salary of $150,000 for his spot on the San Francisco Shock, along with a 50% share of the team's bonuses.
Players are expected to follow a code of conduct set by Blizzard while playing and representing the League, and may face suspension and fines for violating these, in addition to any penalties the team itself may impose. A noted incident shortly after the League's launch saw Dallas Fuel's Félix "xQc" Lengyel suspended by the League for four games and fined $2,000 for making comments about another player that were deemed homophobic; the Dallas Fuel further suspended him for the remainder of the first Stage of play. Following additional conduct violations in the second stage that led to further suspension, xQc was let go by the Fuel. Blizzard has since started its online "discipline tracker" in December 2018 to list players which have been temporarily suspended or fined for actions related to their behavior as representatives of the Overwatch League. Players, as part of their benefits, receive media training to help with speaking to the press and public about their roles, an issue that has been a problem in previous organized esport systems.
Open Division and Contenders
Professional teams in the League are given the opportunity to scout for new players through two additional competitive leagues run by Blizzard. The "Overwatch Open" division, first started in June 2017, allows amateur teams pulled from the best players in the game's normal competitive mode (those that qualify at the end of the game's competitive season into top two tiers) to compete in a structured season and post-season format with intra-regional matches. Players that complete all non-playoff games for their team can earn a small amount of credit to Blizzard's digital storefront, while regional winning teams can earn higher prize payouts. The Open division is played across seven different regions: North America, South America, Europe, Oceania, Southeast Asia, South Korea, and China.
Players or teams can then move up from the Open Division into the Overwatch Contenders league, a minor league to the Overwatch League. The Contenders league was launched in 2018 to merge existing regional tournaments into a structure to support the Overwatch League. The Contenders league consists of several global divisions with a number of teams within each, which may include both professional and amateur players. Contender teams may be affiliated with a League team, and players can be freely moved between these affiliated teams during set periods of each Overwatch League season. Teams otherwise play a series of games against other teams in their division as regular season play, followed by an elimination-format playoff similar to the 2017 Overwatch World Cup to determine the season's winner for that division, with an associated structured cash-payout for the highest-placing teams in each division.
The Contenders League was launched in the first half of 2018 with five divisions with 12 teams each: Korea (replacing the Overwatch Apex tournament), China (replacing the Overwatch Premier Series), and Pacific (replacing Overwatch Pacific Championship for other Asian-Pacific countries), and adding in North America and European divisions. Prior to the second 2018 Contenders season, Blizzard added two additional divisions, for Australia and South America, bringing the total to seven. Further, Blizzard gave the opportunity for the top eight teams from the Open division within each region were invited to a Contenders Trials, to take place in a promotion and relegation tournament at the end of a Contenders season for the chance to compete in the next Contenders season. For its second season in 2019, Blizzard adjusted the format by reducing the number of teams in each region to eight, while dividing the North American region into East and West divisions. Blizzard also added a regional limit of the number of "import players", which are those that live outside the division's region, to a maximum of three.
Overwatch's development started around 2013, near the same time that esports and spectator-driven video gaming were starting to gain wide popularity due to accessibility of live streaming platforms. However, the game's development was not dedicated towards esports; according to lead director Jeff Kaplan, "it's dangerous to be overly committed to esport too early in the lifespan of the game" based on past experiences Blizzard had had in esports, and instead planned any esports-related goals by observing the game's player community. During Overwatch's beta period, between late 2015 and mid-2016, Blizzard observed that players were already forming ad hoc competitions and tournaments for the game. According to Nanzer, who was Blizzard's global director of research and consumer insights prior to being the League's commissioner, Blizzard considered the potential if they were the ones in charge of setting up these competitions. Nanzer stated: "If we structure a league the right way and put the right investment behind it, we can actually monetize it in a way that’s not too dissimilar from traditional sports." Building from this insight, Blizzard started crafting the basis for the Overwatch League. Part of this included adding competitive features into the main Overwatch game, such as ranked play where skilled players would be able to climb a rankings ladder, allowing them to be noticed by esport team organizers. In October 2016, Bobby Kotick, CEO of Blizzard's parent company Activision Blizzard, first mentioned the Overwatch League, describing how viewership of user-generated esports content was around 100 million, exceeding viewership for some professional NFL and NBA games, and saw the potential to provide "professional content" through the Overwatch League to tap into that viewership.
Overwatch League was formally announced at BlizzCon in November 2016. The announcement stated that the League would feature franchised teams that would hire skilled Overwatch players to compete in live arenas and via video streaming. Teams would provide competitors with salaries and benefits and would help "cultivate team and player development". Rather than following the format of other esports that use relegation and promotion as in the League of Legends Championship Series, Blizzard wanted to follow the American model used in more traditional physical sports. Kotick believed that "nothing like this has ever really been done before" in esports.
For Blizzard, the costs of running the League would be offset by traditional revenue streams that professional sports league have, such as promotion and advertisement, and physical League merchandise. Kotick also said that due to the digital nature of the esport, Blizzard can also obtain revenue from virtual League items to fans, and additional sales of Overwatch and other games, and they are able to include more lucrative "over-the-top advertising opportunities that wouldn't exist in traditional sports". Kotick said, just prior to the start of the inaugural season, "It's a ways before you're going to see certain revenue streams, but we're already seeing a lot of traction and enthusiasm from fans." Kotick saw the importance of making this endeavor follow the same model as the NFL, in both league structure and financial opportunities, to be able to draw in large investors to establish franchises within the league, calling it a "forever investment".
Blizzard sought out potential team owners, aiming to include teams that were localized to a geographic area. Blizzard believed having such local teams would spark more interest in esports from spectators and potential sponsors through new activities around supporting their team. A first meeting for prospective team owners was held at BlizzCon 2016 after League's announcement, with New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke among the attendees. During the formulative period, Blizzard hired Steve Bornstein, former president of ABC Sports and CEO of NFL Network, to serve as the company's esports chair, with particular emphasis on the broadcast and presentation of games played in the Overwatch League.
Blizzard anticipated the Overwatch League would have a seven-figure payoff for the winning team at the end of a season. The first, shortened season of the League was expected to start in Q3 2017, with full seasons starting in 2018, with the League having half-year long seasonal breaks starting in Q4 of that year. Prior to starting the League, Blizzard planned to run a "combine," where players are invited to try out for guaranteed team contracts.
Little information about the League came out of Blizzard following the initial November 2016 announcement for the next several months, leading to some speculation that the League was having trouble. In May 2017, ESPN reported that the League had been having difficulties in signing franchises, which ESPN ascribed to two issues. The first was the high base cost of starting a franchise, starting at $20 million with higher costs in more urban markets like New York City and Los Angeles, and much higher than other esports league buy-ins. Second, there would be no revenue sharing until 2021, making recovery of the franchise costs difficult. These difficulties lead to a delay for the start of the first season.
However, during this time, Activision and Blizzard was working behind-the-scenes to engage potential team owners, wanting to hold back as to provide large comprehensive announcements rather than trickles of information. Activision had seen the Kraft Group as a key team owner. Robert Kraft had been previously interested in investing into esports; he and Kotick had met earlier in 2013 when Kotick was looking to invest in a NFL franchise, where Kraft told him they were looking to seek investment in an esports team. Kraft spent time over the next few years evaluating other esport competitions but was not comfortable with their grassroots nature, but the Overwatch League, as explained by Kotick during BlizzCon 2016, caught his attention. By March 2017, the Krafts and Activition had worked out the deal to secure the first team owner for the Overwatch League. Once the Kraft Group agreed to support a Boston-based team (later named the Boston Uprising), this had a snowball effect towards establishing of six other teams. The Kraft Group themselves helped to convince some of the other owners to buy into the Overwatch League.
The first seven teams were revealed in July 2017, and additional teams announced in the months following. With its first twelve teams set by mid-December, Blizzard announced that its first season ran run from January to June 2018, with a pre-season in December 2017 and the championship game in July 2018.
Blizzard announced in September 2017 it will make permanent use of Studio 1 at The Burbank Studios in Burbank, California (the former NBC Studios stage where The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Bob Hope's specials were recorded), which it converted into the "Blizzard Arena", an esports venue which was initially used for both the Overwatch Contenders and the Overwatch League games, and eventually planned for use by other Blizzard esports. Having a dedicated arena was seen to help establish the Overwatch League as a more orchestrated event compared to other esports tournaments, and to better connect players with their fans. Blizzard operated the first Overwatch Contenders in the Blizzard Arena in October 2017 as a means to test the facility's capabilities and make modifications to improve both the players' and audiences' experience in time for the pre-season of the Overwatch League in December 2017.
In July 2017, it was discovered that the Major League Baseball association had issued a trademark dispute for the logo that Blizzard registered for the League, stating in their complaint to the United States Patent and Trademark Office that they felt Blizzard's logo was too similar to their own and may cause confusion. However, no further filings were made by Major League Baseball within the required dispute period, indicating that either the association had decided to drop the dispute, or that the association and the Overwatch League came to an undisclosed understanding to allow the League to continue to use the logo.
To support spectating on broadcast and streaming media, Blizzard has implemented cosmetic modifications to the game. Each of the teams have been given a unique color scheme, and character skins with those colors and team names/logos have been added for these matches. Players of Overwatch outside of the League will be able to purchase a character's team skin using tokens, a special in-game currency, added to the game a day before the launch of the first regular season, that will require real-world funds to purchase, but which assures that teams get a portion of the revenue of their team's skins. Later, at the start of the second stage for the first season, Blizzard offered players tokens for watching the live broadcast of the games through any of the official channels.
Blizzard has also worked to create an AI-based cameraman that can follow the action of the game as well as select key instant replays. During regular season matches, Blizzard employs a team of about 80 to 100 people to manage the game and its broadcast; this includes on-screen hosts and interviewers, play-by-play announcers or "shoutcasters", "overseers" who use the AI cameraman and monitor a match from several different angles to present the best view for audiences, and broadcasting and technical support. Among those Blizzard has brought on to shoutcast matches include Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, Matt "Mr. X" Morello, and Mitchell "Uber" Leslie. Blizzard released a special Overwatch League app in early January 2018, just prior to the start of the first season, to provide schedules, results, highlights, and other details about the League's progress.
Over the first season, the League acquired over US$200 million in sponsorships and broadcast rights; major sponsors included Intel, HP Omen, Toyota, T-Mobile, and Spotify, with most deals valued at over $10 million. During the first season's pre-season, the games were only streamed through Blizzard's website and through its subsidiary Major League Gaming. Just prior to the launch of the regular season, Blizzard and Twitch established a two-year, $90 million}} deal for Twitch to be the sole third-party stream broadcaster for the Overwatch League in the world, excluding China. Twitch provided these streams in English, French, and Korean, and will incentivize viewers to watch these streams with in-game items for Overwatch. Additionally, the partnership allowed Blizzard to offer an All-Access Pass to viewers, which gave those that purchased it access to private streams and chat rooms with players, coaches, league officials and announcers, in-game currency to purchase team skins, emotes for use on Twitch chats, and discounts at Blizzard's store. The deal was reported to be worth at least $90 million. On the first day of the inaugural season's playoffs, Disney and Blizzard Entertainment announced a multi-year partnership that would bring the league to ESPN, Disney XD, and ABC, starting with the playoffs and through to all of the following season. This partnership included broadcasting rights to the Overwatch World Cup as well. Subsequently, Blizzard partnered with Twitter to broadcast near-real-time highlights from games via the service, starting with the first season's All-Star Weekend and continuing into the second season, which will include a weekly pre-game show called Watchpoint. During the break before the start of the second season, the league announced a multi-year partnership with Fanatics for the outfitter to make and sell team- and OWL-related clothing and other items.
Blizzard's long-term plans for the league were to expand its geographic reach to have more teams, potentially up to 28 teams, and establish worldwide stadiums and implement home/away team formats with teams travelling between these locations, similar to professional leagues. Blizzard is planning to implement the home/away concept with the third season of the League. To better accommodate this, the third season is expected to retain the 20 team/28 game format from the second season, but now regrouping the current Atlantic and Pacific Divisions into same-named Conferences, and then creating five-team Divisions within each. For example, the Eastern Division of the Pacific Conference will include the five current southeast Asian teams, such that a quarter of all games will be played in Asia. Because of the travel aspects, Blizzard will eliminate the Stage format in exchange for a longer schedule with a team having a bye week once every three weeks. There will still be a mid-season All-star break.
The permanent nature of teams with the Overwatch League, compared to promotion and relegation formats, would give opportunity for team owners to find additional revenue models by running their own stadiums and the merchandising opportunities for these, according to Morhaime. Additional teams would be added in regions like Europe and Asia, so that Blizzard can organize the League's divisions around these geographic regions. This would then lead to more divisional play, with teams playing primarily other division teams at regional stadiums during the regular season to minimizing the cost of overseas travels. However, Blizzard would still offer intra-division matches during the regular season. While ESPN stated that it should be easy for Blizzard to obtain new American teams, investors for teams from Europe will be more difficult as they tend to look for security and history for investments. ESPN also identified that South Korean investors will not likely be invited, given that their products lack a global distribution, while many of the main Chinese investors already have possible conflicts of interests with other esports leagues.
While the first season saw all players under contract, Blizzard does not rule out the potential for players to form trade unions, with Nanzer stating that such a decision would be left to the players. Nanzer further stated that Blizzard planned to have all teams playing at home stadiums for all such games in 2020. Teams would play half their games at this home stadium, and the other half away at others. In their scheduling, Blizzard would arrange for teams to play away games in geographic clusters and through more divisional matchups, as to minimize travel on players. While there are still plans to expand to 28 teams, Nanzer said that they would maintain 20 teams for the third season in 2020 so that team owners can focus on the scheduling logistics first.
The league launched in 2018 with twelve teams, each based in a global city. Eight additional teams were added in the league's 2019 season. Prior to the 2020 season, the teams were divided between two divisions: the Atlantic Division with the American East Coast, Eastern Canadian and European teams, and the Pacific Division with the American West Coast, Western Canadian and Asian teams. With the 2020 season, the two divisions were elevated to conferences, keeping the same team distributions, but with now two divisions within each conference. Additionally, teams will begin playing in home/away games, with each team having one or more venues to host homestead weekends.
As of the 2019 season, 20 different teams have competed in the league, with 2 having won at one Grand Finals title and 6 winning at least one mid-season title.
- Grand Finals and Midseason titles
|London Spitfire||1||2018||1||2018 (1)||2||2|
|San Francisco Shock||1||2019||1||2019 (2)||2||2|
|New York Excelsior||0||–||2||2018 (2, 3)||2||2|
|Los Angeles Valiant||0||–||1||2018 (4)||1||2|
|Vancouver Titans||0||–||1||2019 (1)||1||1|
|Shanghai Dragons||0||–||1||2019 (3)||1||2|
Pre-season play for the inaugural season began on December 6, 2017. The official season began January 10 and continued through June 2018, with a six-team championship series to crown the season winners in July. Outside of the Grand Finals, teams played at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, though Blizzard hopes that teams will eventually travel to compete in each other's home cities in future seasons. The Grand Finals were held at Barclays Center in New York City on July 27 and 28, 2018, in which the London Spitfire swept the Philadelphia Fusion 3-1, 3-0 to become the first Overwatch League champions.
Intel and HP were the league's first sponsors, in multiyear agreements including the provision of HP gaming computers and Intel processors. After the first week, Blizzard announced that Toyota was a sponsor, with the car company providing support and running contests for viewers, in exchange for advertising space during matches and in Blizzard Arena. At the start of the championship finales, Blizzard and Disney signed a deal for ABC, ESPN and Disney XD to air the post-season games alongside the official Twitch streams, which would also extend into future seasons
Viewership of the first night of play through the English broadcast of Twitch reached over 415,000 viewers, while never dropping below 285,000 once play started, exceeding typical Twitch viewership numbers; additional viewers not included in this include those watching the other language broadcasts on Twitch, and MLG's own streaming media. Blizzard reported that over the first week, over 10 million viewers across all streaming formats watched League play, and that the Blizzard Arena was sold-out all four days of the week. According to Kevin Chou, the CEO of KSV Esports which manages the Seoul Dynasty, the owners had considered consistent viewership over 50,000 during regular system to be a success for their investments. The finals were watched by more than 10.8 million people, a magnitude comparable to viewership of NFL regular season games.
New York Excelsior's Bang "JJonak" Sung-hyeon was named the 2018 Overwatch League season's most valuable player. London Spitfire's Jun-Young “Profit” Park was awarded the finals most valuable player award. During the Overwatch All-Star Weekend, which was held August 25–26, 2018, Dallas Fuel's Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod was awarded the Dennis Hawelka Award, which was created in honor of esports player and coach Dennis "INTERNETHULK" Hawelka who died in November 2017 and is awarded to a player who made a positive impact on their community.
Prior to the end of the 2018 season, Blizzard had stated their intent to add six expansion teams for the second season, bringing the total number of teams to 18. Blizzard desired to have two or three based in Europe, and with the new franchise fee raised to US$50 million. Blizzard began shopping for investors for new teams in March 2018, but because of the higher projections, stated that the franchise fee for new teams in Season 2 would be higher than US$20 million. In September 2018, Blizzard announced eight new teams to play in Season 2, which were the Atlanta Reign, Guangzhou Charge, Hangzhou Spark, Toronto Defiant, Paris Eternal, Washington Justice, Vancouver Titans, and Chengdu Hunters, bringing the total number of teams in the league to 20.
For the season, existing teams began re-contracting existing players, trading players with other teams, and bringing on any players from affiliated Contenders teams starting August 1 and ending September 8, 2018. All unsigned players became free agents at this point. From September 9 to October 7, 2018, the expansion teams had exclusive rights to negotiate with the free agents to build their team. Following October 7, 2018, all remaining free agents were free to negotiate with any team in the League. Teams were expected to have signed a minimum of eight members by early December 2018, and had until early 2019 to build and change their roster to the maximum size.
The regular season began on February 14 and ran August 25. The four five-week stage format was used again, with stage playoffs after the first three stages. Each week featured twelve matches across Thursday through Sunday. Each team played a total of 28 games during the regular season, seven per stage, which means that teams had one or two matches each week or may even have a bye week, addressing issues related to fatigue and mental health of players that had arisen during the first season. The playoffs were among eight teams: the top team in each division, the next four best teams across both divisions, and then the top two teams determined by a play-in tournament of the 7th through 12th place teams to be held after the completion of stage four in lieu of a stage four playoff. The season's All-Star Weekend was moved up earlier to between Stages 2 and 3. While most regular season games were played at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, select Homestand Weekends matches took place at locations in Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles; these were used to evaluate how away/home games would work in the following season. The total prize pool for the season is US$5 million.
German sports channel Sport1, which broadcasts to Switzerland and Austria in addition to Germany, made a two-year deal with Blizzard to broadcast Overwatch League games live starting in the second season. Blizzard again offered its All Access Pass to streaming viewers, adding in the ability for viewers to use the "command center" app introduced during the 2018 Overwatch World Cup, to be able to view matches from different camera angles in real-time. Blizzard signed Coca-Cola in a multiyear deal as the League's official non-alcoholic beverage sponsor, covering not only League games but also Overwatch Contenders, Open, and World Cup, as well as for the annual BlizzCon event. During Stage 2, Bud Light signed to be the League's alcoholic beverage sponsor for the rest of the 2019 season outside of China, with their support used to fund additional television broadcasts. Xfinity signed on as a sponsor for the 2019 OWL Playoffs and Grand Finals. Overall global viewership was estimated at about 218,000 per minute on average across all games with most coming from outside the United States, which only had about 95,000 viewers per minute on average.
In May 2019, before Stage 3 commenced, league commissioner Nate Nanzer announced he was leaving Blizzard for Epic Games. Pete Vlastelica, the CEO and president of Activision Blizzard Esports, took Nanzer's place to become the league commissioner.
The 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals were held on September 29, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The San Francisco Shock swept the Vancouver Titans in four matches to become the season champions. Choi "ChoiHyoBin" Hyo-bin of the Shock was named the finals MVP.
The third season of OWL will be the first year that OWL will fully adopt the away/home format, with games taking place in home arenas for each team; Blizzard Arena will not be used for any games during this season. These home arenas are not required to be dedicated spaces for esports events, though there are some teams working with their local city to develop dedicated esports arenas that can also serve as venues for other sport and entertainment. For example, the Philadelphia Fusion's owner Comcast Spectacor announced plans to build the Fusion Arena by the time of the 2021 season, but during the 2020 season, the Fusion will hold its homestand games at the Metropolitan Opera House in the city and at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. There will be 52 homestand events throughout the season, with each team hosting at least two of these in their home arenas. Other teams which already have secured larger arenas will host additional regular season events to allow the newer teams/arenas to become better established; for example, Dallas, Washington and Guangzhou will host five homestand events. These initial schedules are being developed by the teams as to best manage travel and cost, but Blizzard anticipates taking over the scheduling in the following season. Blizzard provided flexibility in planning the 2020 schedule for teams to develop the necessarily logistics of hosting homestand events, including providing accommodations and practice areas for visiting teams during those weekends. Blizzard will continue to manage all the broadcast and streaming of matches. This expansion is being coordinated with Activision's Call of Duty League, a league founded to take play in 2020 for Call of Duty following the OWL model with twelve worldwide teams, many of which are owned by the same owners of OWL teams, and launching with away/home gameplay in 2020. Both leagues see similar issues in logistics, and will coordinate efforts where applicable.
There is no planned expansion of teams, but the divisions were converted into conferences with each conference having two each. Teams will still play 28 games through the season, but there will no longer be any stages, outside of the mid-season All-Star break. League commissioner Vlastelica stated that once the 2020 OWL is running that only they would they look to potential expansion of the league with a principle focus on more teams out of Europe. The free agency period for the 2020 season began following conclusion of the 2019 Grand Finals on September 30, 2019.
Some commentators observed that of the more than 100 players selected for teams for the first season, none of them were female. Some noted the absence of Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, a teenage South Korean female player who is recognized as one of the highest-skilled Zarya players and who was the first female player to play in the Overwatch APEX league. During the press day event prior to the start of the season, teams acknowledged they had considered signing on Geguri but noted issues with such an action. The Houston Outlaws said that there would have been a language barrier issue with her potential teammates, and complications related to co-ed housing for teams. The team also claimed that if they had brought her on board, there would have been issues from external commentators about whether it was a press stunt or an otherwise legitimate reason, and the nature of this legitimacy would shadow her career. Other teams like the London Spitfire and the New York Excelsior had looked to Geguri as a free agent but in the end desired to work from an established set of players that had already worked in leagues in the past. Team owners recognized that they want to make the player roster more diverse, but this in part requires making the community around Overwatch less toxic and more inviting. Nanzer also said he would like to see further diversity in players in the League, but was aware that there are cultures where there is a social stigma against professional video game players that can be a barrier to achieve this. By mid-February, during the Season 1 free agency window, Geguri was signed on by the Shanghai Dragons, making her the first female player in the League.
Additional concerns were raised following several League-issued fines and suspensions issued against a number of players based on their conduct. Journalists found that some players carried over the toxic nature from their days as YouTube or Twitch broadcasters, in which players would often routinely ridicule their opponents; many of the fines and suspensions follow from similar behavior displayed at the League level. The Overwatch player base outside of the League has also had issues of toxicity, which Blizzard has been trying to handle through better reporting tools. In addition to requiring the League players to follow the code of conduct, Blizzard is also watching how these players behavior on off-League broadcasts, and will fine players if they engage in toxic or inappropriate behavior even if not part of a League session, as well as publicizing when the League takes such actions. Some of this poor behavior had concerned at least one of the League's sponsors, HP Inc., since the behavior becomes associated with their brand, though such problems were not unique to esports, according to HP product manager John Ludwig.
After the conclusion of the first stage of the inaugural season, ESPN reported that the revenue projections for the League has exceeded its expectations, with some insiders claiming that the League's revenue was four times greater than initially planned; this was in part through its Twitch streaming deal and new advertisers, such as Toyota and T-Mobile, that came on board a few weeks into play. Due to the success of the first season of the Overwatch League, Fortune named commissioner Nate Nanzer as one of their "40 under 40" in 2018.
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