By Teddy Amenabar
The Overwatch League’s 2021 season is starting to take shape, and although the epidemic may bring, the league is preparing for a series of regular season tournaments in which the best teams from three continents will compete online against each other.
Overwatch League Vice President Jon Spector told fans in a league update released on Thursday that the fourth season will begin in April with teams divided into East and West conferences. The East will feature eight teams from China and South Korea, while twelve teams from West, North America and Europe will compete.
The Overwatch League is trying to improve the virtual format it had to create when the pandemic league essentially split between Asia and North America last year. Teams will now compete regularly against opponents outside of their territory. Four independent tournaments spread throughout the season are set to knock teams from both regions against each other, which is not a simple feat.
The further away the two teams get from each other, the higher the ping and the greater the latency potential – delayed response time from a keystroke to game. Professional players prefer to compete face-to-face on local networks because they worry that a two second delay could be the difference between a win or a loss. To combat this, the league offers a new tool that means that two teams competing with each other online will always play on the same ping.
“This is a way to get the minimum lag on a floor where we can put everyone on the same playground,” Spector said.
Some teams could race thousands of miles in 2021. The League tries to organize global competitions without the players having to travel internationally. Spector told The Post that the best American teams are planning to go to Hawaii to compete against rivals in Asia in the tournament finals.
“What Hawaii allows us to do with subsea cable routing is that we can connect from Hawaii to servers in Asia,” Spector said. “In today’s environment, we are confident we can achieve this.”
In December, OWL held a remote tournament series for the Contenders teams using the minimum delay tool developed by Activision Blizzard. It’s actually a feature inside Overwatch for any player to configure during a custom match.
For Spector, the priority of OWL’s online competitions is to ensure competitive integrity in the results of each match.
“The important thing is that the best team wins at the end of the day,” Spector said. “I don’t think we had any problems with this in Overwatch League.”
Most – but not all – of the 20 teams in OWL will have their jerseys written in or around the city. Philadelphia Fusion, one of North America’s top franchises, plans to train and compete in South Korea this year. New York Excelsior will remain in South Korea after moving there to compete last season. Los Angeles Valiant will train and play from China in 2021.
Jeffery “blasé” Tsang, an American DPS player currently on the London Spitfire roster, told The Post that he will train remotely in Los Angeles and the rest of his team will be in Europe. Last season, Spitfire and Paris Eternal were both located in New Jersey.
Activision Blizzard first created the Overwatch League as a city-based, international sports league that reflects the format of traditional sports franchises. Teams are formed in local markets so fans can support their hometown. However, OWL has never been able to fully realize this dream. The pandemic made it impossible to host live events last season, and some franchisees relied on ticket sales and local sponsorships to balance team checkbooks. Ticket sales are one of the few revenue streams that the league does not cut by a large percentage.
Spector said it will decide whether the league will return to live events “on a market-by-market” basis, adding that teams in China want to reserve places for events later this year. Video sharing site Bilibili, which owns Hangzhou Spark, published a series of face-to-face exhibition matches organized by Shanghai Dragons in early December.
“I think we will hopefully see some live events in some parts of the world, especially in Asia,” Spector said. “Right now, I don’t know if it’s safe to do this in the US and when it’s safe. Frankly, it’s not really today.”
When asked whether franchise owners were happy with the online format this season, Spector said the teams “understood the environment in which we all work” amid an epidemic that would be “a reality for most of 2021”. Spector said it’s interesting for owners to find ways to “level up” as they post matches online this season.
Up to this point, the league announced on Thursday that they are working closely with YouTube to improve the quality of their streams and “add more value” for fans watching the matches live. There are also plans for league videos highlighting players, teams, tips and analytics from the experts.
And then there’s “Overwatch 2”. The upcoming sequel was first announced more than a year ago. There is an expectation from some at the OWL that the new title could reinvigorate the fan base for the game and league. However, there is no release date for the sequel to Activision Blizzard. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan recently said fans can expect more details about Overwatch 2 at Blizzconline in February.
Spector declined to comment on whether Overwatch 2 would have any impact on the 2021 season.
“I can’t wait to talk to you more about Overwatch 2,” Kaplan said. “We still have ways to go.”
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