Despite the hype and marketing surrounding the Overwatch League’s inaugural season, it still seems to walk a perilous trail. Some are certain the League will break records and set new standards for the entirety of esports, while others indicate the risks involved and remain skeptical of a definitive success. There’s already been a ton of speculation about the possibility of future success—both now and when Blizzard first announced their plans—but as we near the first games of the League’s first ever season there are still no definitive answers.
So let’s take a look at the trajectory of related esports titles. Based on release schedule alone, Overwatch probably has the most in common with League of Legends, but it appears to have far more in common with HiRez’s Smite when we examine trends. The following graphs are pulled from Google Trends, displaying search interest over a period of time relative to the peak. The vertical lines are my own addition: green marks when the game was first announced, red is the beginning of the closed beta period, and black is the game’s official release. And, for games that already have had a World Championship, blue denotes when the first one occurred.
Almost every game, in fact, seems to follow a similar trend throughout the life of its beta period: a spike at the beginning followed by a dip, and then a gradual crescendo to the release. The exception, of course, is League of Legends. Here is a game that made very little splash until well after release—even examining the period between announcement and release, the beginning of its beta period came and went with hardly any notice at all.
However, I would hardly consider this an initial failing, or an indication of future failure. When League of Legends entered beta, many MOBA enthusiasts were still playing the original Warcraft III mod for much of 2009, until those fans were fractured as development on various standalone sequels split the player-base in two between League of Legends and S2’s Heroes of Newerth, soon after to be joined by Valve’s Dota 2. And when League was finally released in late October 2009 as the first standalone MOBA on the market without major technical issues, it collected a handful of those players from the get-go.
As a community, League evolved in an extremely organic manner over the next year. It was a polished game with bright colors and sounds, and sported a well-guided tutorial to ease any new players into the complexity of a MOBA game. This was also a time when the genre exploded, so as the most readily available example, the game naturally attracted millions of players.
What is interesting to note about each of these games though (aside from Dota 2), is the steady increase in interest between release date and the first world championship matches. On the other hand, Overwatch seems to have exhausted its hype right after launch. I’m sure almost every gamer on the planet has heard of Overwatch, and by now—almost twenty months after release—those who might be interested are already playing and those who might not have already written it off. These other games don’t start a decline until at least two years after their release, whereas since June of 2016 Overwatch seems to be on a slow and steady decline.
This is even more worrying when you consider the trend’s average values over certain periods.
Overwatch and League of Legends share similar values in the last comparison, largely due to their patience with regard to launching the game’s World Championships, but when you contextualize this observation with the fact that during that time period interest in League increased while interest in Overwatch decreased, it’s very possible for Overwatch to struggle in the short term.
But this doesn’t consider the nature of the games at these points in time. The first League World Championship had around 1.6 million viewers (210,000 peak) and was held during Dreamhack Summer 2011, as there was no real infrastructure at that time, while currently the Overwatch League has much more going for it with regard to infrastructure and production. However Blizzard has also yet to release the viewer statistics from the OWL preseason, so it is still unknown how the Overwatch League might measure up according to that particular metric.
This is the first time we’ve seen eight-figure buy-ins from organizations as well as required housing and benefits for the players. Teams represent actual cities for the first time in esports, as opposed to just countries or regions. But Blizzard also seems impatient, wanting to manufacture an endemic league from the start and inject a level of success and notoriety into their game similar to that of League of Legends without regard to any sort of natural growth period. This might have to do with their vastly differing update schedules leading to a larger sense of stagnation in Overwatch (League introduces balance changes multiple times per month), but really it likely has more to do with how ready Blizzard is to monopolize their Path to Pro instead of the way many other esports titles approach this journey: many different organizations running many tournaments of varying payout according to official regulations such that the system has inherent authority and naturally drives talent to the top.
Or maybe it is time for a change. Maybe the traditional sports model can be successfully applied to esports and carry it further into the mainstream. The current state of Overwatch League seems to be an excellent initial proving ground for how well these systems can function in the world of esports, and in the face of failure will serve as a resource for the future. Esports has been on the rise for years and doesn’t seem to show any signs of stopping, so at the very least this sort of risk doesn’t call into question the future of esports as a whole, much less that of the entire Overwatch scene.
The Overwatch League certainly has the potential to launch the professional scene to new heights and set new standards for esports competition. At the very least, the inaugural season alone will be filled with high-octane matches and wild plays and passionate team rivalries certain to fuel the fires in the hearts of their fans. So regardless of speculation: if you love top-level Overwatch played by the absolute best, the Overwatch League will not disappoint.