Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that the Overwatch League has proven there is a sizable audience that is interested in competitive gaming. Even if the OWL were to completely disband tomorrow, the concept is clearly sound. Of course, the fact that Overwatch is an immensely popular and accessible game to begin with doesn’t hurt. That there’s also an unfathomable amount of money being moved around because of the League is likely just a happy coincidence.
In any case, the 2020 Season of the OWL has seen some major changes that affect both the game itself and the viewer experience. The former largely consists of balancing updates and features that have made it so almost every Hero has seen some game time. Naturally, there are still favorites. Lucio for example remains one of the top Healer picks, and Reinhardt is quite popular. However, it’s not as bad as previous seasons where virtually every match was a mirror match. If (or when) Hero bans make their way to the OWL, we can could see even more Hero diversity.
This season is also notable in that it is the first time that teams have to travel to different cities to play. Like traditional sports, the Overwatch League now has home and away games. This isn’t too much of a change if you were watching online anyway, though for those who want to watch in person, it’s probably great. Less so if you have the misfortune of liking a team that’s struggling, but that’s sports for you. A good team that is having a home game is where the new format shines. The NYXL vs. Boston Uprising match in the opening week is a fantastic example of this. You could feel the crowd getting excited by good plays, the booing was both amusing and unexpected, and there was never a moment where the match was boring because people were cheering constantly.
While most of the adjustments thus far have been decidedly beneficial, there is no small number of behind the scenes/production decisions that are questionable at best. For starters, this will be the first year where the Overwatch League will be (officially) broadcasted on YouTube instead of Twitch. This is practically a non-issue unless you have an overwhelming preference for Twitch. If anything, the switch to YouTube allowed Blizzard to upload individual matches instead of the whole day’s stream, which is incredibly convenient.
On the other hand, YouTube does not have the same infrastructure that Twitch has for live event broadcasts. For starters, there’s no YouTube equivalent to Twitch drops. Seeing as how the move to YouTube likely didn’t happen overnight, it’s a little concerning that Blizzard/YouTube didn’t have a replacement ready on day one, doubly so considering how the mechanic was integrated into Overwatch via OWL tokens. The loss of certain paid and premium features is also a huge blow apparently, if you cared about such thingsThen there’s the advertisements. Somehow the move to YouTube turned what was once a mild annoyance to something that actively hinders the viewing experience. For starters, ads have been implanted into the Overwatch League stream. It’s not just a quick shout out or whatever between maps, it’s a full blown segment sponsored by so and so. During the NYXL vs. London Spitfire game for example, an ad popped up right when a pivotal team fight was about to happen—or at least that what it sounded like while the game was obscured. To be fair, the popup was most likely an accident, and the moment turned into a bit of a meme.
What is less forgivable is the fact that the ads themselves are horribly obnoxious. Like seeing the same hammy ad for Call of Duty five times in a row? Well you’re in luck. Oh look, it’s an awkward mobile game ad. Get ready to have it plastered on your screen another three times. Have some insurance and car ads while you’re at it because reasons. You better believe that there’s plenty of downtime just for ads too. About 25% of a game day is reserved for ads alone. The rest is more or less evenly divided between the game itself and supplementary content (Watchpoint, interviews, etc.). In other words, if you only care about the game, don’t watch it live because you might need to skip up to 60% of the stream.
To be fair, Overwatch League’s 2020 season isn’t quite one step forward and two steps back. Depending on how invested you are in OWL, it’s either a fantastic start to the year, a regression in every possible way, or anything in between. Casual viewers who maybe just want to watch their favorite team win a couple of games will probably love the fact that there are diverse matches now. Even dive comps (and Genji) are seeing some play again, albeit to varying degrees of success. Hardcore viewers on the other hand have every right to be disappointed. Declining features, fewer games overall, and the general predictability of some matchups is not particularly good for the League’s image by any stretch of the imagination. Viewership numbers seem great thus far, but for how long will this be the case?