Overwatch League executive on 2020 homestand games: “Every single event we host next year should be better than the one before it”

Jon Spector, OWL senior director of partnerships and competition, answers questions about the league's bold new direction.

Photo by Robert Paul via Blizzard Entertainment

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All eyes will be on the Overwatch League as it goes global in 2020. Each of the league’s 20 teams will move to their home city, where they’ll host a minimum of two “homestand” weekends for local fans. These will mimic the recent homestand weekends in Dallas and Atlanta. Matches will also be played within four divisions that cross the globe, the league announced today.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but the plan has always existed. Even as the Overwatch League began in 2018, centralized in California, the end goal was to bring the experience to fans on a local basis. Until this point, however, the details of the 2020 “global” season had been unknown. 

Jon Spector, senior director of partnerships and competition for the Overwatch League, talked with Dot Esports about the changes coming to the league next season.

Photo via Blizzard Entertainment

How long have you been planning the 2020 season? You said it’s been years in the making? 

Spector: Yeah! When we first launched the Overwatch League, even in the first conversations we ever had with team owners about them coming on board, the vision has always been this city-based esports league where a team from Boston has a chance to play a team from Shanghai. That’s always been our north star—to get to that. 

We wanted to build to that vision thoughtfully so, as you know, we started in 2018 with all of the matches at Blizzard Arena [in Burbank, California] and had an awesome Grand Finals out at Barclays [in New York City]. This year, we took another big step in that direction and tested this out with the homestand format for a couple of events. Next year is the next evolution in that journey. 

I didn’t talk much about [the 2021 season] deliberately, but I think the important thing to note there is that we view 2020 as a huge step forward. [It’s] getting us much closer to what that ultimate vision looks like from a format and product perspective, but I do expect 2021 could look different from 2020 depending on what we learn. We always want to be evolving and making sure that we’re meeting the needs of our fans and delivering awesome content. 

The Philadelphia Fusion announced they’re building a hometown arena for the 2021 season. Are there any updates on other teams? 

Our teams have been working really hard on that question and we’re not going to share or announce specifics about team venues today. That’s news that our teams will share as they become ready. But one of the things we’ve always been really excited about is seeing the teams’ visions for what live Overwatch League play looks like for their fans and their markets. 

Just to give two examples: when we went to Dallas, the Allen Event Center was perfect. But its main tenant during the year is a minor league hockey team. It seats several thousand fans, but it’s not an esports venue, right? It’s a hockey arena. And Dallas put on an amazing event there. Then, when we went to Atlanta, the Cobb [Energy] Centre is a symphony theater that often has musical performances. It was three decks high of seating with double mezzanine. And they put on an amazing show there.

Those two venues couldn’t look more different, but the fans had an amazing time at both of them. We partnered closely with the teams to make sure that the fan experience and the broadcast experience would be great. I think as you look to 2020, I would expect that continued diversity where teams will look and make a determination about where they think they can put on awesome, epic experiences for their fans next year. We’ll partner with them to make that happen. 

Photo by Ben Pursell via Blizzard Entertainment

Homestands have raised some questions about talent and production. Will talent and production (such as observers, statistics managers) be centrally located or will they travel with teams? 

From a sort of “responsibility perspective” our talent and production teams, the folks who work on the broadcast side of things—the league will continue to stay in charge of that for 2020. Again, really similar to Dallas and Atlanta and the upcoming [Los Angeles] Valiant event, [those events] were tests of that model where the team was responsible for finding the venue and handling ticket sales and making sure the fans on the concourse had awesome stuff to do, things like that. 

The league is going to retain responsibility for what I call “the broadcast,” so that means that talent that you and our fans love, those folks will continue to be involved. The people who have been behind the scenes—our observers, our videographers, all of those folks—will continue from the league side of things to support the show. In terms of how that works from a travel perspective, that answer is one we’re still working on the specifics of and don’t have much to share right now.

I think the answer is going to be a little bit different in different parts of the world. The need to support a show in Korea versus a show in San Francisco might be a little bit different. We’re really, really focused on delivering an amazing show for fans from all over the world and our talent are excited to be a key part of that. 

Photo by Ben Pursell via Blizzard Entertainment

Have players offered you any input on the 2020 format? 

Informally, at every one of the events that we put on, at Dallas and Atlanta, we’ve talked to players and to the team staff through the general managers or coaches about what aspects about that experience were awesome. Universally, they’ve all thought it was really cool, having the chance to go play in front of their homestands and a chance to see different parts of the world and experience different cultures. Most of the players, when they went to Dallas, went out for barbeque at some point. I think players have really enjoyed that aspect of it. 

We’ve gotten a ton of feedback from them around some of the specific logistics of, say, what practice spaces should look like when you’re on the road or how many days you need to spend in a new city before you play a match. A lot of that specific feedback around more “operational” details…they’ve given us a ton of feedback from the couple of events we’ve done so far. We’ve also really closely worked with team leaders, including the general managers, on this format overall. Making sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep the Overwatch League the best place in esports for players, for teams, etc. has been an absolute priority for us. 

What’s your personal favorite part about the upcoming 2020 season? 

I’m really excited to see how fans all over the world react to their players and their teams coming home and playing home games for the first time. We’ve been working on this for so long and have always had this vision of Overwatch League home matches. 

Seeing the fans of the Atlanta Reign when they walked out, all on their feet cheering, screaming, supporting their players was unforgettable for me. I’m personally hoping to go to as many of the matches as I can next year and see what that looks like in London and in Paris and in Hangzhou. I grew up around New York and I can’t wait to go to NYXL’s first home game and see their passionate fanbase welcome them home. I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about—just seeing the culmination of all of this really hard work by the teams and by people on the league, being able to put on amazing shows for fans around the world. 

Photo by Ben Pursell via Blizzard Entertainment

Many people have said the league isn’t ready for localization, that it can’t handle more changes. What would you say to those fans?

It’s a good question. One of the things that I’m most excited about is to pull the curtain back a little bit on all the hard work that’s been going on behind the scenes. I think if you’re a fan of the Overwatch League and you’re thinking about this huge step forward that we’re taking…if you don’t have the context of how much time and energy and planning has gone into this for years, it’s easy to sort of miss that in terms of the preparation that’s gone into [the 2020 season]. 

The most encouraging thing for me, and hopefully for those fans, is that the homestand weekends have worked this year. They’ve been amazing. They’ve sold out every time. We’ve had thousands of fans at each of these events. We’ve had great shows, the fans have loved it, the feedback has been universally positive from event attendees. Most interestingly, we’re now 4-0 for teams who have hosted homestands. Dallas won both of their matches, Atlanta won both of their matches…

Exactly! It’s lucky. 

Or the homestands are powerful! We’ll see how Valiant does with their upcoming matches. They’ve got some tough opponents in [Los Angeles] Gladiators and [San Francisco] Shock. So far we’ve had 4-0, we’ve had sold out events with great fan experiences. I feel really good about the foundation that we’ve laid heading into next year. 

The last thing I’d say is that we know it’s going to be really hard. Our teams know that this is going to be really hard. There’s a ton of learning and a ton of hard work that has to go into this.

The point I’d want to make for those fans is that hopefully they’ve seen our commitment to evolving and improving. Like, when we don’t quite get it right the first time [we’re] making it better the next time. We’re going to continue to bring that iterative philosophy to this. Every single event we host next year should be better than the one before it.