Blizzard’s Ban on Third-Party Overwatch Apps Was Never About Competitive Integrity

Spoiler: it’s about the money.

Blizzard’s Ban on Third-Party Overwatch Apps
In 1996, STATS Inc., now the largest purveyor of sports statistics in the world, emerged victorious in a contentious legal dispute against the NBA that would shape the future of sports analytics and fantasy sports for years to come. With cellular networks on the rise, STATS had partnered with Motorola to develop a device that would provide real-time updates of NBA scores to users. The NBA, perhaps seeking to create a similar device or merely to exert control over information about its league, alleged that this was an illegitimate use of “their” data. But because these scores were more or less publically available, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the NBA. The decision presaged a 2006 decision, this time between the MLB and a sports marketing firm, that legitimized fantasy sports. These days, the two industries – sports analytics and fantasy sports – are worth $1 billion and $7 billion, respectively. I thought about the STATS Inc. v. NBA case last week, when Activision Blizzard-announced that it would be banning two third-party “Overwatch” analytics tools, Visor and Pursuit. The former uses computer vision to provide enhanced real-time, in-game information to players, while the latter combs post-game statistics to analyze players’ performance over time.

Officially, the reason for the ban was that these applications offer an unfair competitive advantage to their users.

“Any third-party application that impedes on the competitive integrity in “Overwatch” is not allowed,” wrote community manager Tom Powers on Blizzard’s forums. “For example, a third-party application that offers users information such as enemy position, enemy health, enemy ability usage, or Ultimate readiness creates an uneven playing field for every other player in the map.”

Strictly speaking, Powers isn’t wrong that these tools do confer a competitive advantage – that is why they exist. Knowledge is power, and any iota of information you have that your opponent does not is an edge, especially in real-time competition. Even so, Blizzard has long made space for third-party tools that help serious competitors play their games better, like the vast array of modifications for “World of WarCraft” that are essential to high-level play. So “competitive advantage” alone might not be sufficient explanation. Instead, we might look back to the case of data in the traditional sports, and the thorny questions of who should have access to it, on what terms, and to what ends.

The relationship between sports and esports is complex, but there is one clear break between the two that is crucial to understanding how they are different: whereas meat sports must be made into a media product through the broadcasting technologies, esports are always already a media product. This has significant legal and technical implications: not only is there the matter of IP rights in esports, but networked gameplay affords new modes of control over competitive games and the data they produce.

Even so, publishers have long opened up their games to third-parties, some amateur and some professional, to develop tools that enhance players’ experiences, add value and depth to a game. But different publishers have different views on just how much third parties should be allowed to access this data, be through an official API or some other method, and what they can do with that data. Valve, in keeping with their hands-off approach to esports, has made a tremendous amount of information about “Dota 2” available to third parties, which has led to a rich field of third-party applications like Dotabuff and Dojo Madness. But, with Blizzard, things are a little trickier.

“Blizzard has long tried to walk a fine line with third-party content,” explains T.L. Taylor, a professor of media studies at MIT who researches esports and live streaming. “On the one hand they encourage people to be creative with their titles, and, at the same time, don’t hesitate to crack down when they feel those developments cross a line and work against their own vision.”

Beyond vision,  though, we might also add Activision-Blizzard’s financial interests. In many ways, the company’s approach to policy for third parties is best understood as game-dependent, which is why we have lots of third-party tools for “World of Warcraft” and relatively few for “Overwatch.” But it’s hard to talk about “Overwatch” without also talking about Overwatch League, a multi-hundred-million-dollar experiment that was carefully designed to look and feel like a traditional sports league in order to entice traditional sports conglomerates.

It’s here that the history of sports data comes roaring back into the frame, though it takes a little context to see why. In his 2009 book “Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture,” Tarleton Gillespie, a researcher at Microsoft, argues that digital technologies are not simply subject to copyright laws. Rather, technologies actively impose these laws, placing restrictions on users in line with companies’ self-serving interpretations of the relevant statues. Part of what esports offer, then, is unprecedented control over data about sports for reasons both legal and technical. With that comes tremendous opportunity.

“Esports is exciting to ‘big sport’ because of the possibility of legal monopolization made real by IP law,” says Abe Stein, a content director at Sports Innovation Lab. “Fantasy sports won big when competitive data was deemed public. The software powering esports is the monopoly protection.”

From this perspective, one way of thinking about Blizzard’s choice to shut Visor and Pursuit down, squandering millions of dollars of seed capital in the process, is as a kind of “correction” to one of the history of sports’ biggest missed opportunities. The sports industry couldn’t manage to hold on to data about their games, and two huge secondary markets – sports analytics and fantasy sports – popped up under their noses, but just out of their reach. Overwatch League is a chance to set the record straight. Blizzard’s rhetoric about third-party apps, in other words, smuggles a material goal (the expansion of markets) within an altruistic one (competitive integrity).

This, of course, is only one way of interpreting the situation. Blizzard may yet come to an agreement with Visor and Pursuit that allows these tools to continue operation in some other, limited form. But the likelier, follow-the-money explanation is that Blizzard, someday, hopes to profit from its own version of these tools. Perhaps these will take the form of a subscription-based, in-game analytics suite (not unlike Valve’s Dota+ system) designed to monetize the game’s long-term player base. Or perhaps the company will introduce some kind of proprietary fantasy league for Overwatch League in a future season. But no matter what happens, we can be sure of one thing: if either of these things come into being, they will be under firmly Activision-Blizzard’s control.

Representatives from Overwatch League declined to comment.

“Esports &” is a monthly column about esports, politics, and society by Will Partin, a doctoral student in Communication at the University of North Carolina.