Jon Spector on Overwatch League 2020 changes and possible expansion

The senior director of the Overwatch League talked about map set changes, home game hype, and more.

Photo via Blizzard Entertainment

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The Overwatch League is facing a lot of changes in 2020. Next year, every team in the league will be moving to their home cities and matches will be held around the world. New conferences have been created, new venues have opened, and new rosters will irrevocably change teams.

At BlizzCon 2019, a special Watchpoint preview panel outlined more big changes coming to the 2020 season. Every Overwatch League match will now be a first-to-three competition instead of a four-map set. Control will always be played first and other map types will cycle after. A new midseason tournament was also unveiled at the panel. The tournament will take place during the halfway point of the season before the All-Star Games. 

After the Watchpoint panel, Jon Spector, senior director of the Overwatch League, spoke to Dot Esports to offer insight about the Overwatch League’s changes and possible expansion in the future.

What inspired the introduction of a midseason tournament? 

Spector: It’s one of the things I’m most excited about for next year. As we were putting together the 2020 plan and the [Overwatch League] format, [I thought] one of the things that was really cool in 2018 and 2019 were those stage playoffs. It’s given us a chance at various points throughout the season to see who’s the best.

Waiting a whole season to answer that question in playoffs and finals next year felt too long. So, we wanted to be able to bring in a midseason tournament to give fans and teams and players a chance to answer that question halfway through the season instead of waiting for the whole year.

We obviously designed the 2020 match schedule before we knew this but look at, like, [San Francisco] Shock vs. [Vancouver] Titans. Those were some of the best matches we had all year. It was an amazing grand finals and amazing stage playoffs they competed in. I forget the exact week, but they don’t play each other in the 2020 regular season until the 20th week or so next year. If they are the two best teams in the world again, we have a chance to have them demonstrate that and clash against each other and put on a show for their fans. 

The goal of the midseason tournament is really, in the absence of stage playoffs, to bring back some of that excitement. I also think by virtue of having one big midseason tournament instead of the three stage playoffs, the stakes are going to be even higher. It should feel bigger and I’m really excited about it.  

Note: San Francisco and Vancouver play each other in the 15th week of the 2020 Overwatch League season.

Screengrab via Blizzard Entertainment

Similarly, how did the map changes come about? These awesome map changes? 

I’m glad you like them. When we made the choice in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League and in 2019 to play the four-map set. We have four game modes in Overwatch and we thought it was important for teams and fans to see all those different game types and to make sure that teams are practicing all of them. The different types of maps all showcase different types of skills and require a different set of strategies, so we thought that was really important. 

When we were playing all the matches in the Blizzard Arena, playing four maps gives you a little more consistency in how long a match takes. There are a whole bunch of benefits to doing that. 

In 2019, with stage playoffs happening every seven matches, map differential often did matter a lot. In stage one, we had, like, four teams who were 4-3 and one or two of them made it in based on map differential. You can build hype and excitement around that, but now when we’re not comparing team records until halfway through the season and then again at the end of the year, the odds that there are two or three or four teams with the same record are just a lot lower.

Map differential will still be our first tiebreaker in the event that it ends up mattering. Without having that comparison point every seven matches, it became much more compelling to say, “Great. Once a team has won, let’s stop playing.”  

And it’s done. And you’re good.

I think the first-to-three [concept] should be really exciting. Obviously, it’s the World Cup format right now and we’ve used it for some of our playoffs before for Overwatch League. It’s really exciting and fun. And, now when you have a winner, we’ll stop playing Overwatch [laughs].

How will patches and game updates be integrated throughout the season? 

I think one of our goals generally, and this is about more than patching, is that wherever possible we want whatever the pros are playing on stage to be consistent with what I play when I go home and play not nearly as well as they do. 

With our stage format in the last couple seasons, we thought that was the right way to do patching with stages. Like, “OK, you have a little bit of a break, and now we’ll patch.” But Overwatch League is always “on” next year. We don’t have stages and there are home matches being hosted every weekend with the exception of our new midseason event. 

As we think about patching, the approach we plan to take next year is basically [to upload a patch] as quickly as we can. There will be some lag time for IT and QA reasons, among other things, and also giving players and coaches a little bit of notice. The plan is, when Overwatch the game receives an update or a patch, as soon as we can with that delay, probably in the couple weeks range, we’ll be updating and patching Overwatch League as well. 

There won’t be a “this is patch week” [notice] four times during the season. There will be “the game got a balance update, we’re gonna move that into Overwatch League as quickly as we can.” I think it’s the right approach. Teams are going to need to adjust more times next year [in comparison to] the four times they had this year. With balance patches coming in, it might be more than that now. We’ve heard this from our players, too: that goal of what they’re playing in ranked should be the same as what they’re playing on stage. This will get us closer to that.   

Screengrab via Blizzard Entertainment

What market do you think is most excited for home games in the Overwatch League? 

We had three amazing team-hosted events in 2019 in Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles and fans showed up for all of them. For me, it was amazing to see that. It’s really validating given all the hard work that’s gone into this. Our city-based model is a real differentiator for us from other esports. Honestly, I expect fans of the other 17 teams are going to show up in the same way. Most of our teams went on sale with tickets a month or two ago and many more will in the next couple weeks. I’ve been really encouraged by what we’ve seen there. 

For me, I grew up in New York. That has nothing to do with [the New York Excelsior] having opening weekend, by the way [laughs]. As a happy coincidence, I think that event’s going to be amazing. As a New Yorker, I can’t miss that, I can’t wait for it. NYXL has amazing fans, they’ve done a great job. The couple watch parties I’ve been to in New York City have been amazing. I’m really excited about that one, personally. 

I also think Seoul should be really cool, too. It’s the mecca of esports, right? But we’ve never had an Overwatch League match there. [Contenders] Gauntlet was really cool there, every event Blizzard has done in Seoul has been amazing, but seeing what the Seoul Dynasty do there [will be great]. 

When the team first launched a couple of years ago, they did a fan send-off event. It was all the Lunatic Hai players. They rented out this big space. They had about a thousand fans show up to basically send off the players to the U.S. It was this amazing event… and no one was playing Overwatch. The fans there are the best and I can’t wait to see that.

You said on Watchpoint that the Overwatch League could expand to up to 28 teams. How do you evaluate a city for possible expansion? 

When we first launched the league and in the first wave of expansion, going from 12 to 20 teams, our criteria has been really consistent. We want the best ownership groups. It’s not just the best in the obvious senses, it’s the best in terms of [being] really excited about the vision of Overwatch League and aligned with the values of the Overwatch franchise. [It’s being] excited and passionate about bringing live Overwatch League events to their city and their fans. 

That’s been, I think, number one, but then we also look at the city and the region itself. Does this city have a big enough and vibrant enough fan base to support a team? Do we feel confident that fans in that area are going to buy thousands of tickets and come out and make these events as amazing as the ones we’ve had so far?

So, there are a couple of those different filters in there, but ultimately the decisions that we’ve made to date have really been about if we believe in the vision that owner has for what the Overwatch League looks like in their city and that believe they’re set up to be successful.   

I think as we continue to evaluate potential new cities and new ownership groups, it’s going to be the same thing. When we go in and talk with them, do we feel really good about what bringing Overwatch League to that part of the world would mean? 

I am obligated to pitch Chicago to you for an expansion team. 

[Laughs] Are you from the Midwest? Normally, any time I’m talking to someone and they say “hey, have you thought about this city?” I’m always like “are you from there?”

I am. I had to just throw that one in there. If you’re thinking about a city, I know some people.

It’s amazing the number of conversations we have with people like “hey, I really want an Overwatch League team here.” Honestly, it’s really inspiring. I think it’s further validation of the city-based model being a really powerful one. People say “hey, I’ve really enjoyed watching the competition the past couple of years, my favorite team is blank, but I’m from Chicago” or wherever it is. It’s mostly really cool to hear that enthusiasm and excitement. But I will make you no promises here. 

I had to try. Back to the 2020 season, how will you ensure rookies get accustomed to both league life and travel at the same time? 

That’s a really good question. Last year, you had rookies who, in a lot of cases, it was their first time away from home if they weren’t from the Los Angeles area. They were still needing to learn a new language and new customs in a new part of the world. I think, despite being in the LA area throughout the season, there were still a lot of those similar issues that rookies needed to overcome. Teams have had a lot of experience from a management, coaching, and staff perspective of relocating players and getting them comfortable in new environments. 

That said, getting on airplanes and flying around the world is a different set of challenges, right? It’s not just rookies. This is going to be a challenge for people who have been in the league for the first two years, too. 

From our side of things on the league, we’re, wherever we can with our format and schedule, using bye weeks and sequencing matches and looking at which team is hosting at different times. When the Atlantic North [conference] is going to play in China or in Asia for a week, they’re not playing in Shanghai and then going back to San Francisco then going to New York and then going to London. They’re playing in Shanghai, then they’re going to Hangzhou, and they’re going to Seoul, and then they come home.

We’ve done everything we can with the levers we have to pull with schedule format while still realizing the vision that we want every team to play every team. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about having home matches all over the world.

That said, I think a lot of the responsibilities will fall on the teams themselves to provide good, supportive environments for their players, to help players manage the stress of travel, and to plan their travel in a way that makes sense. We’re closely partnering with them. We have a team on our operations side of things [to help them]. We have a travel and immigration expert, we have people who are available to help give teams assistance on putting their travel plans together. Teams are submitting the first draft of what their travel plan looks like for next year so we can engage with them on it and make sure that it’s thoughtful. 

We’re aware of these issues is my broader point. Look, I’m not going to oversimplify this by any means: These are real issues and challenges. I don’t expect any of it to be easy, but I do think we’re partnering with the teams to provide the resources teams and players will need to be successful next year.

And when you look at these players, this is their job. It’s an amazing job—you get to play video games for a living—but these are people who are on average are making north of six figures to play Overwatch professionally. So, yes, we’re asking them to travel around the world to do that and we’re asking a lot of them, but these are professional players and I expect them to rise to the challenge.    

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.