When the Overwatch League shifted to online play last season, it meant the dream of a global esports league – one with teams spanning three continents – would have to wait. It also meant that fans wouldn’t be able to see the best teams competing against each other. The league split into two divisions with some teams based in Asia and others based in North America. Due to latency issues, those regions never competed against each other until the Grand Finals, which took place in Korea and featured some of the best games of the season.
So as the league began to think about ways to improve the 2021 season, it was paramount to find a way for teams from Seoul and Shanghai to compete against San Francisco and New York. The solution was Hawaii.
By 2021, OWL will have a monthly tournament structure, with teams from each region competing locally, before the best switch moves to each other to compete against each other. The plan is to fly teams from North America to Hawaii, where they will compete against squads in China and Korea. According to Jon Spector, head of the Overwatch League, Hawaii was chosen for a few reasons. It meant that players based in the US would already have the necessary visas to travel, and the league felt comfortable across the island from a health and safety standpoint as well. “Hawaii emerged as a kind of silver bullet,” he says The edge
Crucially, it’s also much closer to Asia, reducing concerns about latency. Spector says the league has studied submarine cable maps in search of an ideal location, and has also developed a minimal latency tool to ensure teams will compete on a level playing field. Spector says the goal is to run matches for 90 milliseconds. “That’s well within the bounds of what our pro players have told us,” he explains, “so they will have a great experience competing.”
However, the installation poses some problems. Namely that teams from North America will be forced to travel and play in a new space, while Asian teams will not. The league is doing everything it can to minimize these issues: Each team in Hawaii has its own space, and OWL also keeps the same patches for each tournament, potentially reducing practice time. But he also points to the San Francisco Shock’s winning Grand Finals as an example of why it should work.
“We already have, at the biggest moment of the 2020 season, a case study of teams that travel, perform at the highest level in that environment and win everything despite demonstrably the [Seoul] Dynasty and Shanghai had a bit of a head start in those last four last year, ”he says.
The plan is also flexible. Spector says if there’s one thing he’s learned to run an esports league during a pandemic, it’s that things change. If travel to Hawaii becomes unfeasible, the competition will revert to regional tournaments instead. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past 12 months is that for every plan we have, there has to be a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D,” said Spector.
Ultimately, however, OWL is expected to come back to in-person events; an important field for the competition is that teams organize competitions in their local markets. The competition has already announced three live events in China for this summer. And while it’s too early to say when similar events could take place elsewhere in the world, the ultimate goal is to get back to those personal matches. “My fervent hope is that things will get better and that it will start to be safe to bring fans back to live events,” said Spector. “I hope we can do something about that this year.”