2018 started this grand experiment. Blizzard Entertainment applied the franchise system so prevalent in traditional sports to its digitally and socially sequestered, but no less popular, cousin esports. Investors from all over the world created teams based in cities all over the world because they believed that Overwatch could occupy the same space in people’s lives as soccer, football, and basketball. A global league, supported by fans not just in North America or Asia, but everywhere. In 2018, the Overwatch League was born.
And though you’d find 2018 on the League’s birth certificate, 2020 is when the League truly begins.
“2020 is the starting line,” according to League commissioner Pete Vlastelica. It is when the teams break out of the confines of the Blizzard Arena (RIP to a legend) and ventures out into the wide world of the home market, finally connecting fans with the teams that bear their city’s name. 2020 will be when this experiment meets its first true test, the first opportunity to see if esports can support a franchise model the way it’s fleshier cousin already has.
So if 2018 is the soft opening, and 2020 is the grand opening, where does that leave 2019?
2019 is a transition year; we’re beyond the initial proof of concept that 2018 was and we’re not quite at the stage of globalization as 2020 will be. We’re in that awkward adolescent stage, old enough for a permit, not yet old enough to drive. And therein lies the beauty of the 2019 season: experimentation.
Teams got a taste of the true “home” and “away” experience. They got to connect with their fans in such creative ways heretofore unseen. They realized, some quicker and better than others, that their 2020 season will only be successful if they plant those seeds now. Community engagement, more than any expansion or growth was the true MVP of the 2019 season and the foundation on which all future success will be built.
The Overwatch League added eight new teams. Three in China, one in Europe, two in Canada, and one in the United States. From Day One, there was something different about the new Chinese teams, specifically the Hangzhou Spark. They already knew they were working with something special. Even with the odd logo and the overdone electricity theme (since by this point we already had the Shock and the Charge) the Spark became instant fan favorites with their willingness to forgo the edgier colors of the spectrum in favor of bubblegum pink and powder blue. But beyond that, the Spark endeared themselves to fans outside of the home base of Hangzhou China with their social media campaign. The Spark, while not the first team to employ custom win/loss graphics, were the first to tell a story with it.
Each week, with each new matchup, there’d be a new graphic on their Twitter account where the Spark’s mascot Telly — an anthropomorphization of parent company Billibilli’s logo — would battle with fierce dragons, pandas, valkyries, or lions. Often you’d get a quick lesson in Chinese folklore or history to give needed context to some of the graphic’s themes.
Dragon Slayer, a well-known fantasy picked up for the poster. Fearsome and blazing dragon stands for SHD’s powerful extension. Telly figure with pink claymore and blue cloak rep for Spark. ‘Dragonize’ meme used for Telly becomes a dragon if losing. #bang pic.twitter.com/cwIhDPIROw
— Hangzhou Spark (@Hangzhou_Spark) March 25, 2019
Other times, the message would be clear.
#Behindtheposters Cowboys duel in waste land, with peacekeeper and Stetson hats making poster for Outlaws. Since Beijing time is faster than Central time. Spark's highnoon comes sooner than Houston. Outlaws reveal gold pistol proving they are well equiped in losing poster.#bang pic.twitter.com/wKtEqKfeJB
— Hangzhou Spark (@Hangzhou_Spark) March 27, 2019
Hangzhou “sparked” a revolution in other teams’ social media outreach. Discontent to let the new kid show them up, other teams began embracing artists to bring their weekly games to life, to engender excitement, stir up feelings, or just to make the casual observer say “This is cool.”
“Working with the Shanghai Dragons was a great experience,” says @MattyZeeeee, a freelance artist that worked on art campaigns for the Stage Three champions. “I started out doing fan art of the team then they commissioned “me to do some match posters for them.”
— Matty Commissions Opened (@MattyZeeeee) September 12, 2019
“For the next season, I think a lot of the teams are going to step up their social media and design games now that they realize the impact the branding and promotion have on the community.”
The New York Excelsior was one of the first teams to truly embrace the culture of the city they represented. They were able to marry the images of eight players from Korea to the most iconic city in the world seamlessly.
Thank you New York.
— NYXL (@NYXL) April 5, 2018
The Excelsior set the standard for team/community partnerships by being the first team to pair with local fans to create the first hometown fan community: The Five Deadly Venoms.
The two organizations worked together for charity promotions, watch parties, pop up shop events, and of course, team meet and greets.
Highlights from all that happened at @WaypointcafeNYC during the Homefront Series. A huge shoutout to @NYXL_Venoms for giving us the opportunity to work side-by-side and give back to this amazing community. pic.twitter.com/CmR0Oug7ds
— NYXL (@NYXL) April 21, 2018
Lindsey helps run events for the Five Deadly Venoms and she’s seen the impact of the relationship between the Excelsior and New York. “In the past year, [because of NYXL’s] outreach, there’s been so many more ‘home’ fans we’ve exponentially grown. And it’s such a fantastic thing to see!”
The Washington Justice looked to duplicate the Excelsior’s success through partnering with their own local fanbase Vice & Virtue.
“The Justice did a lot for the fans this season especially with partnering with Washington Vice & Virtue,” Eric, a volunteer with the Vice & Virtue community, tells me. “When they couldn’t do events, they let us do them and together we ended up creating an amazing community — one that will be around for a very long time.”
Art is fun to consume and community partnerships build the link between teams and their home market fans, but the Homestand was the biggest vehicle of fan engagement of the 2019 season. The Homestand made the conceptual concrete and gave us a real time view of what the 2020 season is supposed to look like. In three out of four stages this year, games were held outside of the Blizzard Arena in one lucky teams hometown, giving fans the first chance to see their heroes in their own backyard.
Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles hosted the first Homestands though we can dock points for Los Angeles considering all of the matches so far had been held just a few miles down the highway. The Dallas Homestand presented the strongest case for 2020’s success. This was a team that for all of season 1 scraped the bottom of the barrel in talent and wins yet they sold out both days at the Allen Event Center — a 4,000 seat venue.
And the crowd? Listen for yourself.
This was just Dallas. Dallas. Imagine what a Paris Homestand would sound like (and you don’t even have to stretch your imagination too far. Simply look up videos from the Overwatch World Cup’s stop in Paris to get an idea of how insanely cool the French fans are.)
Et c’est une ÉNORME MARSEILLAISE qui éclate dans le public!
— Équipe de France OW (@avecle6) September 22, 2018
For an awkward, middle child of a year, 2019 was actually revolutionary in its ambition and execution. 2019 was the year of the fan, with teams nurturing and expanding their communities, growing their base and appeal to create the foundation they’ll need to succeed in 2020.