Overwatch League wants to 'level-up' online matches and tournaments for 2021 season
By Teddy Amenabar
The Overwatch League's 2021 season is starting to take shape and - despite what the pandemic may bring - the league is preparing for a series of regular season tournaments where the top teams across three continents will compete against each other online.
In a league update posted Thursday, Overwatch League's Vice President Jon Spector told fans the fourth season will kick off in April with teams divided into East and West conferences. The West will be composed of twelve teams competing from North America and Europe, while the East will include eight teams in China and South Korea.
The Overwatch League is attempting to improve on the virtual format it was forced to create last year when the pandemic essentially split the league in two - between Asia and North America. Teams will now regularly compete against opponents outside their region. Four stand-alone tournaments spread through the season are set to pit teams from both regions against each other, which is no simple feat.
The farther two teams are away from each other, the higher the ping and the greater the potential for lag - a delayed response time from a stroke on a keyboard to the game. Professional players prefer competing in-person on local networks because they worry a split-second delay could be the difference between a win or a loss. To combat this, the league is introducing a new tool that means two teams competing against each other online will always play on the same ping.
"It's a way to sort of move the minimum latency up to a floor where we can put everybody at the same playing field," Spector said.
Some teams may compete across thousands of miles in 2021. The league is attempting to run global competitions without players having to travel internationally. Spector told The Post they're planning for top American teams to travel to Hawaii to compete in tournament finals against opponents in Asia.
"What Hawaii allows us to do with undersea cable routing is that we can connect from Hawaii to servers in Asia," Spector said. "In today's environment, we feel confident that we can pull that off."
In December, OWL ran a remote tournament series for Contenders teams using the minimum latency tool Activision Blizzard developed. It's actually now a feature inside of Overwatch for any player to configure during a custom match.
For Spector, the priority for OWL's online competitions is ensuring there's competitive integrity to the results of every match.
"What matters is that, at the end of the day, the best team wins," Spector said. "I don't think we've ever had a problem with that in Overwatch League."
Most - but not all - of the 20 teams in the OWL will be based in or around the city written on their jersey. The Philadelphia Fusion, one of the top franchises in North America, plan to train and compete in South Korea this year. The New York Excelsior will remain in South Korea, after moving there to compete last season. And, the Los Angeles Valiant will train and play from China in 2021.
Jeffery "blasé" Tsang, an American DPS player now on the London Spitfire roster, told The Post he will be based in Los Angeles, training remotely, while the rest of his team is based in Europe. Last season, the Spitfire and the Paris Eternal both were based in New Jersey.
Activision Blizzard first created the Overwatch League to be a city-based, international sports league that mirrored format of traditional sports franchises. Teams are set in local markets so fans can support their hometown. But OWL has never been able to fully realize that dream. The pandemic made it impossible to hold live events last season and some franchise owners were counting on ticket sales and local sponsorships to balance their team checkbooks. Ticket sales are one of the few revenue streams from which the league does not withhold a sizable percentage.
Spector said the league will decide whether to return to live events on a "market-by-market" basis, adding that teams in China already want to book venues for events later this year. Bilibili, the video-sharing site that owns the Hangzhou Spark, aired a series of in-person exhibition matches hosted by the Shanghai Dragons in early December.
"In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, I think we'll hopefully see some live events," Spector said. "Whether and when it's safe to do that in the U.S., I don't know right now. Obviously, it's not really today."
When asked whether franchise owners are happy with the online format this season, Spector said the teams "understand the environment we're all operating in" in the middle of a pandemic that will be "a reality for much of 2021." Spector said owners are interesting in finding ways to "level up" broadcasting the online matches this season.
To that point, the league announced Thursday they're working closely with YouTube to improve on the quality of their streams and to "add more value" for fans watching matches live. There are also plans for league videos spotlighting players, teams, tips and analysis from experts.
And then there's "Overwatch 2." The upcoming sequel was first announced over a year ago. There's an expectation from some in OWL that the new title could reignite the fan base for the game and the league. But Activision Blizzard doesn't have a release date for the sequel. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan recently said fans can expect more details about Overwatch 2 at Blizzconline in February.
Spector declined to comment on whether Overwatch 2 will have any impact on the 2021 season.
"Can't wait to talk to you more about Overwatch 2," Kaplan said. "We still have a ways to go."
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