For its first three years of existence, the Overwatch League has kicked off early in the year. But that’s going to change in 2021. Today, Blizzard announced that its ambitious esports league will begin play in April. It will also be the first season in which the league is played entirely online — and there will be some big changes to accommodate that. “To take full advantage of what was learned last season, we’ve made several changes that will improve the quality of competition and the fan experience for this coming season,” Blizzard says.
First is a structural change. Blizzard says the 20-team league will be split into two divisions — one made of teams from China and Korea, the other North America and Europe — and they’ll play against other teams in their region during the regular season. The top teams from each division will then qualify for four major tournaments that will happen throughout the season. (Full details and scheduling aren’t available just yet.)
OWL features teams from 19 cities that are spread across North America, Europe, and Asia, and Blizzard says that it’s developing a new tool to make it possible to play across regions. It’s described as “a new system that establishes minimum latency connections so that teams anywhere in the world can scrimmage against one another or conduct practices if players are apart.”
The league’s first season was in 2018, but last year was expected to be a big one for OWL; the league was going to move to a home-and-away format, similar to traditional sports leagues, with teams playing out of venues in their home cities. Those plans were disrupted by the pandemic, with Blizzard eventually shifting to an online format, which continued through to the championship game.
The other controversial change in 2020 saw the league shift its broadcast from Twitch to YouTube, after Activision Blizzard signed an exclusive streaming deal with Google. The change came with a decline in viewership, though OWL says it’s planning to improve broadcasts for this upcoming season:
For our fans, we’re working very closely with YouTube as we enter the second year of our partnership. There are a lot of things in the works that we can’t reveal yet, but we can say that we’re going to level up the quality of our match streams, add more value to watching live matches, and improve the discoverability of live Overwatch content.
We’re also making improvements to our match broadcasts with a new and improved virtual set, a freshly redesigned graphics package, and changes to our show format that place even more emphasis on match play. We’ll have more to share on this later in the offseason.
And while the league is planning for a season of largely remote competition, Blizzard also isn’t ruling out a return to live matches in the future. “While we cannot predict the future, we hope to welcome fans back to live events if health and safety conditions improve in 2021, but that might not happen, and it might not be at every location where teams compete,” the league said in a statement. “Our top priority remains to keep our players, fans, and staff safe.”
Yesterday, Activision announced that OWL’s sister league, the Call of Duty League, would begin play in February.