The next season of the Overwatch League is going to look a lot different.
After this weekend’s big Grand Finals event in Philadelphia, the league will look to Season 3, which will fully adopt a home-and-away format, the first e-sports league to do so. Each of the 20 teams will host at least two homestands throughout the season, although three teams — Dallas, Washington and Guangzhou — will host as many as five.
It’s a big change for OWL, which, aside from three homestand weekends in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles this year, has been based at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif. But according to Pete Vlastelica, president and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports and commissioner of OWL, it’s the natural next step.
“The home-and-away format unlocks what we think is special about this league,” he told Variety in a phone interview this week. “In other words, for the first two seasons, we haven’t really done the thing that we designed. We gave everyone a taste of it, and we got a taste ourselves this season with the homestand weekends, but really, the vision for the league is home-and-away. The two are inseparable — it can’t be the Overwatch League without being in home markets.”
Vlastelica saw the potential for jumping into home markets all the way back in the inaugural season, even though all of the matches aside from Grand Finals that year took place at the Blizzard Arena (Vlastelica confirmed that location won’t be used by the league next year).
“Even in year one, when all of our matches were played in Los Angeles, all of our regular season matches, we saw fanbases popping up all over the world rooting for their local team through watch parties, buying merch, buying skins and starting to represent a team on social media and in the game,” he said. “And that was really exciting because frankly, it happened sooner than we expected.”
The league leaned into that in Season 2, with the homestand weekends serving as “trial runs” for a home-and-away format, Vlastelica said. Even with those test runs, revamping the entire structure of the league doesn’t come without its challenges.
It puts more of the onus on the teams themselves, rather than just OWL, to get locals involved. Philadelphia Fusion, for example, is investing $50 million in its own e-sports stadium, which had its groundbreaking this week. As Vlastelica says, it sees OWL switching from “control to support.”
“There is a difference between operating the league four nights a week in an arena we know and are very comfortable with and we know how to bring people out to versus a model or a structure where our teams are responsible for a lot of that work,” he said. “The good news is, we picked excellent partners and they’ve picked us. And we knew that was critical because the difference between a good sports league and a great sports league is the owners.”
The new model also means players will need to get accustomed to being on the road. As gamers already face rigorous practice schedules — and several high-profile players have retired citing stress and mental health concerns — coaches will inevitably have to prepare for the strain that traveling will place on their teams that have been based around Burbank for the past two seasons.
For its part, the Overwatch League addressed burnout in Season 2 by giving players more time in between matches to re-cooperate, also a side effect of adding more teams. Vlastelica said the Season 3 line-up was “thoughtfully designed,” trying to keep flights short and having breaks for teams within the schedule.
“Travel is part of the sport,” he said. “There’s no question it’s part of most sports, and the players will be expected to get comfortable traveling. But we’re going to do whatever we can to the design of the schedule and the design of the division formats to keep the trips as short as we possibly can.”
OWL grew larger in 2019, adding six new teams in cities ranging from Atlanta to Hangzhou. But don’t expect that going into Season 3, with Vlastelica noting that it would be “insane” to get a new team onboarded with the amount that needs to be done before Season 3. Looking to the future seasons, however, Vlastelica, said, “our focus at the moment in terms of expansion is on Europe.”
“We think we’re very well covered in North America. It doesn’t mean we won’t have any more North American teams. There are a couple notable cities that are still lacking a team – Chicago, for example. But we think we’re pretty well covered in North America for the moment,” he said. “In Europe, we’d like to grow. We’ve got a team in Paris and a team in London, but we think there’s room for more.”
He also teased that a Grand Finals could take place internationally in the near future, looking toward next year as “a good opportunity to change things up, geographically” from the first two Grand Finals that took place on the East Coast of the U.S.
But before all that happens, the San Francisco Shock will face off against the Vancouver Titans at this year’s big event. Zedd, a vocal “Overwatch” fan who reached the Grandmaster level last year, will be on hand to perform, and Philadelphia native Questlove of The Roots will serve as the in-arena DJ. While San Francisco Shock player and this year’s league MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won predicted that the Shock would sweep the Titans 4-0, continuing a trend from playoffs, Vlastelica disagrees.
“I don’t think it’s going to continue,” he said. “It’s going to be a great match that’s going to go the distance.”
(Pictured: Shock vs. Titans in Stage One finals and Vlastelica.)