Competitive Overwatch won’t end with the League

The day Overwatch League fans have braced for has finally come. Yesterday, OverActive Media, parent company for the Toronto Defiant, confirmed its exit from the Overwatch League. The company announced that as a part of its agreement with Activision Blizzard, it would receive a $6 million termination fee, thereby ending all its commitments to the League. This confirms that a majority of teams have met and voted to terminate their agreements with the League, with each team owner receiving a termination fee. The result is that the Overwatch League is finally ending after six seasons.

“We are transitioning from the Overwatch League and evolving competitive Overwatch in a new direction,” said John Nomis, associate PR manager for the Overwatch League, in a statement to The Verge. “We are grateful to everyone who made OWL possible and remain focused on building our vision of a revitalized esports program. We are excited to share details with you all in the near future.”

Photo courtesy Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

This is an ending that came like a whimper instead of a bang. And while that seems sad and kind of pathetic given the League’s lofty goals of revolutionizing the esports scene, l’m okay with this ending. Happy even.

I — and most importantly, the army of wonderful humans who lived, breathed, and worked in and around OWL — didn’t have to wake up to apocalyptic news that the League we’ve loved for six years no longer existed. Instead, we got to watch it slowly drift away from us, like a beloved pet being put to sleep. The slow, inexorable, and inevitable news started at the beginning of the year when it was announced that the Chengdu Hunters would not be participating in this year’s season.

Since then, every other update — from layoffs at OWL teams to the postponement and eventual waiver of franchise fee payments to the more recent news that the League’s fate would be put to vote — seemed to herald the inevitable. I am exceedingly grateful that I had a year to steel my heart for this eventuality instead of the far worse scenario of finding out the League that I established my career as a journalist upon had been dissolved overnight.

Photo by Matthew Eisman / Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment

An end like this was inevitable. Such is the fate of most things propped up by absurd valuations and venture capitalist interest in extracting ever-growing profits. It cost anywhere between $20–$30 million for one of the 20 franchise slots. The investing companies were expecting to make that money back through tickets and other sales when the League broke out of its Los Angeles home base and dispersed to play live game events out of each team’s home market.

The covid-19 pandemic ensured that model, and thereby that money never materialized. It also didn’t help when Activision Blizzard was rocked with lawsuits over the company’s alleged permissiveness of a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. The result of that coverage saw OWL’s biggest sponsors — from Toyota to Coca-Cola — withdraw their advertising dollars, leaving ad revenue to come from places like TeamSpeak, Cheez-Its, and, for one brilliant moment, Butterfinger.

The dwindling interest in Overwatch also did no favors for the League. While Overwatch 2 was in production, support for Overwatch prime languished. After a steady clip of releasing two and three heroes a year after its 2016 launch, when Echo was launched in 2020, the game went two whole years without a new hero. Add to that the mostly unsatisfying rebranding of Overwatch as a free-to-play game with a battle pass and the unfortunate abandonment of OW2’s Hero Mode — the game mode that was supposed to justify the “2” in Overwatch 2 — and the game itself struggles to hold players’ attention, let alone attract more and more eyeballs to its adjacent esport.

“Farewell, to all the Dragons.”

The Overwatch League is dead, a victim of the esports bubble, internal development and corporate turmoil, and the devastation of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

And yet, as Dr. Angela “Mercy” Ziegler said, “Heroes never die.”

While Blizzard’s statement confirms that the League is done, it also reaffirms that competitive Overwatch isn’t going anywhere. Blizzard has not yet confirmed what its future plans are, but there are rumors that it will tap the Saudi-owned third-party tournament organizer ESL FACEIT to run a new League. Indeed, OverActive Media also shared a statement within its announcement that seemed to suggest that it too plans to participate in whatever form the League takes in the future.

“Our commitment to our teams and esports is stronger than ever, and we believe this move is a crucial step to ensuring their continued success,” said Adam Adamou, co-founder and interim CEO of OverActive Media. “We are eager to share more about our vision for Toronto Defiant and our plans to return to Overwatch esports.”

Other teams have joined in on the “farewells” and “thank yous” with some likewise reaffirming that this is not “goodbye forever” but “see you later.”

“Thank you for the memories we will cherish forever,” read a post from the Boston Uprising, the first team to ever complete a perfect state of 10-0. “Until next time.”

My chosen team, the Shanghai Dragons — the only team to ever field a female player and for which I got a tattoo celebrating their 2021 championship — posted, “The flowers bloom brilliantly, yet when you came, it was not spring. Farewell, to all the Dragons.”

But it’s Seung-hun “Checkmate” Baek, tank player for the Florida Mayhem, who conveyed the best sentiment that I feel most fans and players will resonate with here at the end.

“We will always be here, ready to play more games,” he said during the press conference after his team won the 2023 championship, the League’s last. “We’re just waiting for you guys to call.”

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