June 15, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

OWL Head says Overwatch esports is “not going away anytime soon”

The Overwatch League has returned for its sixth year, and to get the lowdown, Dexerto sat down with Head of the Overwatch League Sean Miller to talk about the direction of the game as an esports, and the future of the product.

The Overwatch League has had a strange life since its inaugural season in 2018. A lot has happened since then, not just to Overwatch as an esport but to the broader esports landscape – hell, even to the world. It’s been a complex time to have started a franchised league.

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Heading into this sixth season, though, there was a lot of change. In fact, it’s hard to keep on top of just how many points of discussion there’ve been. The question of YouTube exclusivity for the league, co-streaming, investment into the product like the new studio, the inclusion of Contenders teams in Tier 1, the evolving situation between Blizzard and China and where that places the Chinese teams, the age restrictions lowering, the Chengdu Hunters’ reported disbandment – it’s been a lot.

Thankfully, we got to sit down with Head of the Overwatch League, Sean Miller, the day after the league’s return to discuss all of it. Most strikingly to me, if I can editorialize, a theme that kept coming back as we discussed these topics was the sense of Overwatch 2 as an esport outside of the League itself. That seems to be a shift from the OWL’s monolithic dominance over the scene since that inaugural season.

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I’ll let you come to your own conclusions. Here’s what Sean Miller and I got to talking about when we sat down.

Sitting down with Sean Miller

Patrick Dane: I watched the opening day last night and left impressed with the enhancements this year. It’s nice to see the desk have an actual desk and interact. Would you say that indicates increased investment into the product, the realities of “post”-covid, or the reallocation of resources?

Sean Miller: We’re obviously always assessing what matters most to the fans and the players, and keeping a pulse on other publishers and what they do. If anything, we’re committed to Overwatch esports and growing a community, bolstering it. Between the stuff you mentioned as well as. when you take a step back, how seismic the Contender’s inclusion is this year and the product, right? And it’s just taking a holistic look at what we’re doing. To me, it shows a strong commitment to Overwatch esports. They’re not going away anytime soon.

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PD: On Contenders’ inclusion, can you talk to me a little about the logistics of that? How did that come around, why was it considered and what were the challenges involved in getting it as part of Tier 1 Overwatch? 

SM: Yeah. I think most people probably don’t realize what a seismic shift that actually is in a franchise league. I think it’s worth backing up and saying that my goal, as the leader of Overwatch esports, is to create compelling competitive communities all across the globe and at all competitive levels. That’s what I want to do. And I want every player who wants to compete to feel like they have a place where they can truly belong. At Blizzard, we continue to recognize that there is great power and strength in these communities and these ecosystems. And, frankly, I think with this year, with ProAm, Contenders’ inclusion, Calling All Heroes, the Flash Ops invitational, I think we’re just scratching the surface of the ecosystem and communities that we’re trying to build out.

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PD: How does esports within Blizzard and Activision feel for you right now? How has it changed since you arrived in 2020, and is that fire still there to get this right?

SM: Yeah, there continues to just be an even greater acknowledgment that esports is such a phenomenal tool for players to feel engaged and connected with both each other and the game itself, right? Being able to have these ecosystems that people can go to, no matter if you just want to watch or participate or you’re just there for the drops [laughs] or whatever, there’s just a way to stay engaged with the game. Those are the kinds of conversations we’re having right now, and it’s really exciting to me. I’ve had a lot of conversations within the esports scene and with the development team, talking about how there is so much potential in being able to do it in that way.

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YouTube and co-streaming

PD: Look, you know I’m going to ask – with CDL back on Twitch, the big question right now is what’s the status of the OWL and YouTube deal? Are you exclusive to the platform by choice or by contract?

SM: Totally. You have to ask. [laughs] YouTube has been our partner for years, and we appreciate their commitment to the Overwatch League. And, that’s all I can say at this moment.

PD: Let me try and rephrase it another way. Is there a reason that information hasn’t been communicated yet? 

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SM: Yeah, I can’t touch on that, unfortunately. 

PD: I tried. [Laughs] Actually, tangentially related, do you think co-streaming is a big part of Overwatch’s future? Obviously, the Avast co-stream has been popular in the last few years. Do you hope that bridge can be better managed in the future or are you content with where things are?

SM: So, I don’t think many people know this, but you bring up a really interesting point that I don’t think I’ve ever brought up publicly. Back in 2020, I was actually the lead on getting the very first iteration of co-streaming going for the OWL along with the counterpart for the CDL, and we kind of did a joint initiative. I don’t know if you remember back in the day when Dallas Fuel had Jayne, Florida did one with Jay3 and Samito a couple of times – that was actually one of my projects back in 2020. 

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I mention that because I actually think co-streaming is a very effective way to get your product out into different parts of the community that may or may not be interested in watching the main broadcast. If our goal is to create these compelling ecosystems and communities, co-streaming has a great place in that because you’re allowing people who have their own communities to be a connective tissue. We’ve had discussions around YouTube co-streaming and how we can make it more appealing for creators that are on YouTube to do it, etc. It’s very much a part of the conversation. Costreaming is a great tool for viewers with various goals of watching Overwatch.

Overwatch Leaguie grand finals 2022 stageJoe Brady/Blizzard

PD: Do you think the league could have a more harmonious relationship with the game’s biggest streamers? Some have been quite critical recently, whereas, in other esports, it feels that bridge is much closer.

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SM: I think the Lifeweaver invitation that we did a couple of weeks ago, I remember just watching it and being involved with the lead-up and who was participating and why and I think, you know, leading up to it people were excited. Both pros and creators.

And the feedback we’ve unanimously got since it’s over is that “We want more” from both creators and pros. There’s an acknowledgment that both parties are bringing something very special to the table. To the extent we can do these kinds of programs and be able to bridge that gap more and more, it’s something that we’re definitely looking more at.

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Metrics for success

PD: What does success look like for the league this year? Is it growth? Sustainability? By the end of the year, what’s your hope?

SM: I want to be able to get to the end of the season and look back and be able to say that we have evolved this esport. To have built something that’s authentic, that serves the top-to-bottom player community. That’s interesting enough to engage with if you want to go participate in a community tournament or open division, all the way up to whether you want to passively partake in viewing OWL or Contenders.

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To me, those are the metrics we’re looking at. Across the ecosystem, how are we doing on participation, right? Obviously, viewership will continue to be a very obvious and key part of our business. Also goes without saying that a big reason we’re even able to do these esports is by having esports microtransaction OWL cosmetics in the game. That’s another key indicator we look at, it’s very important.

PD: Do you think the audience over-relies viewership numbers in their conversations about the context of the league? Do you understand why the community becomes so fixated on it?

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SM: I do because it’s the most obvious thing. It’s the easiest thing to point to and say, “This thing is doing good or bad”. In reality, there are, like, five other things we’re looking at that matter as well. It depends very much on which part of the ecosystem you’re talking about. For me, the most important thing at the Path to Pro level is participation and signups. And that’s a little less public, so people don’t talk about it. 

What matters for us there is participation and engagement. We want people to see that they’re engaging. And obviously, at the OWL level, not everyone can be a pro. That’s kind of the reason that there’s a pro level, you know? So, the metric depends on what exact part of the ecosystem you’re talking about.

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PD: With the inclusion of 4K streaming on YouTube, can you talk to me about the process of getting that done and how important it was?

SM: It was very important. It was very important. A lot of emails, and a lot of time from a lot of folks at the League to make that happen. Obviously, I’m not as involved on the tech side of things and I couldn’t tell you very well how exactly that works and what it took technologically, but I can say on the partnership front with YouTube and Esports Engine, who’s producing our show this year, it was very high on the list of priorities to ensure that 4k was up, that we had our studio and that drops were working flawlessly. Those are the three things, in my mind, we really couldn’t miss on.

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The relationship with China

PD: I’m not going to get into the broader reasons for the Overwatch Chinese servers getting shut down. But how has navigating the Chinese market been with those teams and players? What kind of solutions have you been working on?

SM: I really have to hand it to our teams in China. These Chinese organizations that we’ve been working closely with, obviously since inception, but particularly over the past few months – they’re really incredible partners. The fact that they’re continuing to deliver and they’re going to compete this weekend is just a testament to the partners that they are to us, and the support we’ve been able to give each other. I have nothing but positive things to say about our partners in China.

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PD: Obviously, that extends to the Overwatch World Cup, where China will be competing. That scene is still doing great.

SM: You look at Rhodes, who qualified for the East Knockouts, it’s a predominantly Chinese team. And, you know, I’ve got to really hand it to the players and the organization out there. They’re incredible.

Chengdu Hunters on the Overwatch league stage stageRobert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

PD: Is the OWL best with 20 teams in it? Obviously, we are down Chengdu this year.

SM: Obviously, the Hunters will continue to contemplate the future direction of their team as we said, and we’ll continue to work closely with them on that front. 

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Hard to speculate exactly on 19, 20, 27, whatever the number is – the number of teams question is interesting. That question has definitely been discussed a lot over the years in general. “What is the optimal number of teams?” Back in the inaugural season, it was a very different answer even than season 2. It fluctuates and it’s very circumstantial. There are a lot of factors that go into the number of teams there are and how you navigate the evolution of a franchise system.

I think that we’ll have more to share as the Hunters in particular contemplate their direction. We’ll have more to share on what is happening. I think there are a lot of factors, and we’re going to take them all into account.

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PD: I mean, just off the back of that, hypothetically, is there a world where fewer teams are better?

SM: Yeah, so I think the way to frame that is, again, going back to the ecosystem that we’re trying to build. That’s our priority: How do we maximize participation and engagement amongst the Overwatch player base and across the globe? Then, how can we best utilize these franchises, and then how do we create an ecosystem around that? It’s really hard to say right now, as we’ve been so focused on the launch of the 2023 season. But I would just frame it in that way of, like, we’re looking at the ecosystem. It’s not just OWL.

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Young, hungry contenders

PD: As we’ve hit on, there’s been so much change this year. What was the reasoning and process for changing the league’s minimum age this year? You can tell me if it was just to get Junbin in.

SM: Yeah, it was solely Junbin [laughs] No, I mean, as fun as it was to see him yesterday, it wasn’t the sole reason. The main reason was, and we couldn’t say at the time because we didn’t unveil the Contenders teams were going to be part of the East, but it was primarily driven by that decision to integrate Contenders more in the East. 

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There are a lot of reasons legally and also I think ethically to why minimum age exists that can be debated, probably not the best place to do that here, but I think, at the core, as we looked across different esports titles as well as the average age of Contenders players in the East, we found that, if we want to be able to make the competition even more compelling for, you know, teenagers and others that may want to participate in this esport – particularly the orgs, like if you think about O2 Blast, Panthera, all these really awesome orgs out in the East, it’d be wonderful if they didn’t have to blow up their entire teams to participate, right? And still have a reason to compete in this ecosystem.

A lot of it was driven by the simplicity of, like, we want to make this ecosystem as accessible as we can, especially as we’re integrating the Path to Pro folks in.

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Overwatch 2 Season 4 Lifeweaver gameplayBlizzard

PD: Obviously, with these Contenders teams coming in, would you be worried about O2 Blast tearing through loads of OWL teams in a franchise system?

SM: Well, that’s kind of – I think that’s the beauty of a more open ecosystem, right? To me, esports, one of the most – and I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here so indulge me for a second, but everybody can be LeBron, or pick your favorite sports athlete who is a giant and has physical features I will never have. To me, that’s always been the beauty of esports. If that’s a core tenet of why esports as an industry, as a product, is so compelling, whatever ecosystem you build around a specific game needs to incorporate some of that.

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That’s been a core belief of mine for a long time is that, you know, if you strip out all of the other factors to being able to be a Pro, like, ‘hey, you know a coach’ or had awesome training at X place, if you just strip out that and just talk about pure skill? That’s why that open ecosystem is so exciting to me. And, at the end of the day, if this player came up through a Thai team or whatever, name a country, and they ultimately beat these OWL teams? That means this is all working great!

PD: And just to wrap up, less a question, more of a request. Can you just write Houston winning it all into the script?

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SM: [Laughs] Ah, yes. I’ll get right on that. I’ll just go ahead and strike the word ‘Houstonable’ from all of the scripts.