With around three months to go until Overwatch League Opening Day (for which we still don’t have a firm date), the League has released a new video detailing how the OWL 2021 season will play out. Here’s a look at what to expect.
For the entirety of the first and second seasons, the Overwatch League format ran a basic round-robin schedule in which every team played a set number of matches broken up into four five-week-long chunks called stages. At the end of each stage, the highest-performing teams would participate in a stage championship.
Covid kicked everyone in the teeth just as the third season was to begin, forcing the Overwatch League to abandon its format of live, travelling “Homestand” events. In response, Blizzard split the League into two divisions and held online-only matches structured around regional tournaments. The new tournament structure was fun and exciting for spectators and gave every team a chance to participate with regular-season matches used to determine a team’s seed.
That format is returning for OWL 2021, with the entire regular season structured around four tournaments and a final grand finals tournament that will end the season. Going to an equal-opportunity tournament structure was a good pivot for the League, and I’m glad to see the format come back.
To account for travel restrictions and quarantine protocols, Blizzard split the League into two divisions. The North American and European teams played in the 13-team North American division, while the remaining seven played in the Asia Division. The uneven split was exacerbated by the fact teams could only compete intra-divisionally. “Of course the Shanghai Dragons are so good,” a fan could say. “They only have six other teams to compete against!” Or, conversely, “Of course the San Francisco Shock look so good, they’ve never had to play against Shanghai.”
(No, I will not be looking at the Finals playoff bracket, and you can’t make me.)
To assist with some of this imbalance, this year the Asia division—now called simply East—has added [checks notes] one new team to the region; while this isn’t full parity, at least both divisions now have an even number of teams (seven and 13 make for some wonky brackets). More interestingly, Overwatch League VP Jon Spector stated in the video announcement that in 2021 the League will feature inter-divisional play for all four tournaments.
That’s a big change. In 2020, teams did not have the opportunity to play across divisions because of the high lag associated with connecting teams in Asia with teams in North America. For the 2020 Grand Finals, participating North American teams had to travel to South Korea and undergo the country’s mandatory quarantine protocols in order for everyone to compete on the same server. Now, with the implementation of Overwatch’s “minimum latency technology,” all teams playing online will experience the same latency and inter-divisional play will be more common. Plans for the Grand Finals also include qualifying North America-based teams traveling to Hawaii.
“We are exploring a few different options to facilitate this global competition,” Spector wrote on Overwatchleague.com. “But our current leading approach is to have the top qualifying teams from the West travel to Hawaii, where they will play against the top qualifying teams from the East via a directly-routed connection from Hawaii to Asia.”
Does that mean Aloha for a Grand Finals live event? Maybe?
The team joining the Asia division in 2021 is the Los Angeles Valiant, bringing the total number of teams in the Asia division to eight. Shortly after the announcement was made the Overwatch community erupted with the rumor that the team was actually sold to a Chinese Overwatch organization and all the players and staff let go in favor of Chinese talent. The LA Valiant publicly denied the rumor about the team changing ownership, noting that its parent company, Immortals Gaming Club, “will continue to own the LA Valiant, and we are excited about the opportunity to grow the brand’s global reach this year.”
It wouldn’t be the first time A North American team changed divisions—see also: New York and Philadelphia. And if those unhappy rumors are true, it wouldn’t be the first time a team jettisoned its entire roster and staff after the minimum player deadline—see also: Vancouver. Kotaku has reached out to Immortals Gaming Club for comment.
Spector also spoke generally about the League’s plans to enhance the spectator experience, including a spoiler-free way to watch matches on demand on the Overwatch League website. Details about how Hero Pools will work in 2021, tournament structures, and when the League will start officially are still forthcoming, and more information may be available during February’s Blizzconline—Blizzard’s online version of BlizzCon.
As for me, I’ve enjoyed my OWL offseason, but the second I heard the Overwatch League theme in the video, I was filled with unrestrained hype for a new season. Let’s go Shanghai! I still want my tattoo.