Last week, the Overwatch League announced major changes to the league’s schedule for the 2019 season. With the introduction of eight new teams next year, adjustments to the schedule were inevitable. 40 games per team would have given us a staggering 400 OWL matches in the regular season alone. This may sound like a fantastic plan to viewers, especially during the offseason when many of us are starving for more high-level matches to watch, but it’s realistically untenable at best.
Thankfully, almost every one of the announced changes has the end result of ‘more Overwatch’. Taken together, they’re producing both more games and more opportunities for teams to excel in the postseason. Perhaps more importantly, they’re reducing the intense schedule that led to stress and illness for players in the 2018 season. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the changes, and just how different next season will (or won’t) be.
2018: After a one-week preseason in December, the regular season began January 10th. It ran in four stages of five weeks each; each team played two games a week, ten per stage. Stages were separated by one-week breaks, with stage four wrapping up on June 17th.
2019: No details have been released for the preseason, but the regular season will be starting a month later, on February 14th. The number and length of stages will remain the same, but each team plays 7 games per stage, for a total of 28. This gives each team an average of one one-game week and one off week per stage. The League also did not specify the length of the breaks between stages, which is in question due to the expanded stage playoffs.
- The result: Most noticeable is the much less intense schedule for players. The Overwatch League is unprecedented in esports. The sudden adjustment from more relaxed tournament formats to a full six months of two games per week was hard for many players. From gray hair, to ER visits for panic attacks, to players pulling out of their World Cup teams due to burnout, the stress had catastrophic effects for League talent. While playing in the League will still be a challenging job, we should hopefully see less players pulling 60-hour work weeks and then trying to build personal brands by streaming several times a week as well.
While each team will play 30% fewer games, we’ll still see a net increase in games, from 240 to 280 per season, and from 12 to 14 per week. Given that last season already had six-hour streams on four days per week, it remains to be seen how those games will be scheduled. Will we see OWL on most days of the week, with more talent hired to cover the increase in broadcasts? This seems more likely than simply expanding the existing four broadcast days — fans on both US coasts have already complained of how late or early some matches are, never even mind the plight of viewers outside the Americas.
Another concern is that pushing back the season’s start to February could push the end of the season even further into preparation time for the Overwatch World Cup. Some OWWC players and organizers have already said that they didn’t have enough time to prepare for the group stages after OWL obligations ended. A later-starting and possibly longer season might only make this worse, unless OWWC scheduling also changes to accommodate it.
2018: At the end of each stage, the three teams with the best records for that stage entered the stage playoffs. The second- and third-place team played a match against each other, and the victor played against the first-place team for the stage championship. In Stage 1, the entire playoff tournament happened after the last stage games on Saturday; when this led to the London Spitfire having to play three matches in a single day, the stage playoffs were moved to the following Sunday for subsequent stages.
2019: The stage playoffs will be structured in the same way as the season playoffs. The top team in each division will be seeded at #1 and #2, followed by the next six teams in the rankings for an eight-team playoff bracket. However, stage playoffs will only exist for stages 1 through 3.
The result: The stage playoffs have gone from a one-off where a couple of teams battle for bragging rights to a fully-fledged playoff tournament. The top team per stage will no longer go directly to the finals, though they’ll still have top seeding. Even with more teams, we’re going from 25% of teams being in the stage playoffs to 40%. So, while the stage playoffs will be longer, more fans will get to see their favorite teams make it.
This is also likely to affect the schedule further. An eight-team playoff bracket means a minimum of seven total matches, more than we usually see in two OWL broadcast days. The most likely answer is an additional week for the playoffs, followed by a one-week break. Another possibility is that the playoffs are played during the “break” week between stages — but taking away that meager break they just gave the players and staff seems counter-intuitive. Granted, it wouldn’t be the first time a sports league did something counter-intuitive and harmful to its players. But let’s give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt and say there will probably be an extra week of play after each stage.
2018: Stage 4 of the regular season ended on June 17th. The postseason started nearly a month later, running from July 11th-28th. The All-Star Weekend was nearly an entire month after that, on August 25th-26th.
2019: The All-Star break will occur in a newly-extended break between stages 2 and 3.
The result: This change is pretty straightforward, and one that seems to be more financially motivated than the others. According to analytics agency Esports Charts, the four seasons of the 2018 regular season averaged a peak of 270,000 viewers on Twitch, with a season high of 437,000 during Stage 1. After a one-month break, the playoffs and finals then hit a peak of 348,000 viewers. (The numbers above exclude Chinese stream sites PandaTV and Zhanqi TV. These sites showed the regular season and playoff games, but not the All-Star Weekend.)
Another month later, the All-Star Weekend peaked at… under 120,000 viewers. Many faithful OWL fans bemoaned not knowing what to do with our evenings after the season ended, but we sure seem to have found something else to occupy ourselves with by August.
It seems likely the League is trying to hold onto a bigger audience by putting the All-Star break in the middle. However, this past year’s ASW was most notable for its clowning and jokes, culminating in what could be described as ‘professional-level Quick Play’. Fans actually seemed to enjoy seeing their favorite players cut loose and relax, and Blizzard may be counting on that as well — a week off for some playful shenanigans to lighten the mood.
2018: The top team in each division were seeded #1 and #2, and the next four teams in the standings advanced to the playoffs as well. The top two seeds were automatically in the semifinals, while the remaining four played two best-of-three quarterfinal matches.
2019: The playoff bracket is expanded to eight teams. While the first six will be determined in the same manner as 2018, the remaining two teams will be determined by a play-in tournament of the teams ranked 7th through 12th.
The result: A bloodbath that will make the Hunger Games look like a grade-school game of tag.
Much has been said about the consistency of teams’ performance in the face of meta changes and other factors. Some teams started out the 2018 season strong, only to be kneecapped by Mercy nerfs; others found new life late in the season with the addition of Brigitte. Still more saw their fates change mid-season with personnel changes. With a few exceptions, the standings at the end of stage 4 looked vastly different than they did at the end of stage 1.
Now imagine if all of these mid-range teams who either lost their momentum or gained it too late had one more win-or-die shot to prove their worth in the playoffs. Late-season bloomers like the resurgent Fuel or slow-growing Shock could use their new strength to overcome their early game deficit. Faded early-season stars like the Outlaws or Dynasty could pull together a last-minute rally to overcome their struggles. Even teams that have been struggling all season could find an eleventh-hour spark to become a dark-horse contender.
Esports, like most pro sports, has proven itself most engaging with powerful storylines. Nothing gets a crowd on its feet like a “one last chance” game. Offering six teams the chance for one of those at the end of the season? That’s going to be some of the best drama money can buy.
Beyond that impact, while we will see the playoffs go from 50% to 40% of the league’s teams, there will still be far more postseason matches to watch overall.
A Fresh Coat of Paint
The scheduling changes are substantial, but most of the Overwatch League viewing experience won’t change much. We’ll have about the same number of games to watch, with extra playoff madness tacked on the end of each stage.
While you won’t have as many chances to watch your favorite team play, you’ll know it’s for the sake of the players’ mental and physical health. Plus, they’ll have more chances to get into both the stage and season playoffs. And with twenty teams in the league, it will be difficult not to have a second favorite.
Overall, these iterations on the formula are positives. They’ll improve the OWL experience both inside and out, and more importantly, they prove that Blizzard is willing to make changes to keep their players healthy and their fans happy.