Illustration for article titled iOverwatch/i MVPs Mid-Season Departure For iValorant /iDoesnt Bode Well For Blizzard
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Jay “Sinatraa” Won isn’t just any Overwatch League player. After a stellar 2019 in which his team, the San Francisco Shock, took home championship gold, he was declared the league’s MVP. This means that the game’s developers at Blizzard will release an in-game skin to commemorate his exploits. Yesterday, during the middle of season three, Won announced that he’s retiring from Overwatch.

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In a statement on Twitter, Won said that he’s just not feeling the game anymore.

“[I] straight up just lost passion for the game,” he wrote. “I don’t know what the real killer was for me, but maybe it was 2-2-2 [role] lock, maybe it was [hero] bans.” Those were references to new mechanics that force players into predetermined roles and ban select heroes on a regular basis. “I’m not sure,” he added. “I just know it was hard for me to log on to play, and I didn’t have fun in scrims/ranked at all anymore. I did not make this decision in one day. It took a full month of nonstop thinking every day and sleepless nights from being so stressed. It fucking sucked, but ultimately I wanted to do what’s right for me.”

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Won is moving on to the greener pastures of Valorant, Riot’s still-in-testing tactical shooter that doesn’t even have an official esports component yet—though given Riot’s track record and Valorant’s esports-friendly design, it’s only a matter of time. He bids farewell to a scene in which he’d become one of the most recognizable faces, even briefly popping into the mainstream consciousness by appearing alongside teammate Matthew “Super” DeLisi on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show last year.

But he also leaves behind a game that’s fallen on hard times, at least as far as its professional sector goes. The year began with the Overwatch League struggling to lock down major sponsors and low-balling on-air talent, leading to an exodus of several commentators. A last-second move from Twitch to YouTube, meanwhile, resulted in the removal of viewers’ ability to earn skin-unlocking currency by watching matches and a reduction in overall viewership. This was also to be the league’s first season with teams operating out of their own cities instead of all playing in the same arena in Los Angeles. Teams would play home and away games, which led to concerns of increased player burnout and retirements of big names like former Houston Outlaws player Jake “JAKE” Lyon. Ultimately, we never got to see how all of that would pan out, because covid-19 forced the league to cancel games in February and March and scramble to transition into an audience- and travel-free online-only format.

These broadcasts have made for uniquely enjoyable viewing in some cases, but they’ve also left the league in its most awkward spot yet, open to rampant technical issues and dead air. Merchandise sales, in-person appearances, and other key elements of teams’ moneymaking efforts have gone out the window. The roar of the crowd—once a staple of OWL broadcasts—feels conspicuously absent, a distant whisper from a suddenly-bygone era. OWL invested so much in trying to recreate the appeal of traditional city-based sports, only to hit every imaginable bump in the road. This was to be the make-or-break season for that model. Now everybody’s playing (and watching) from their bedrooms.

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Blizzard has done an admirable job of trying to roll with the punches, but it also hasn’t made things easy on itself. Echoing last year’s questionable decision to implement a two tank, two DPS, two healer role lock in the middle of the season, the company switched up Overwatch’s competitive format after season three’s first month, introducing “hero pools” that ban a not-quite-randomized selection of four heroes on a weekly basis. While this was meant to keep the meta “fluid” and spice up competition, it’s also produced uneven performances from teams and led fans to wonder why Blizzard didn’t go with a more traditional match-by-match pick/ban system instead. On top of that, the company decided to change how hero pools work earlier this month, unifying the group of heroes that get banned from both OWL and the game’s competitive mode each week instead of keeping them separate and confusing people.

It’s clear that Blizzard wants to reinvigorate interest in a game that has lost a lot of its shine due to unpopular design decisions, stagnation as people wait for Overwatch 2, and the harsh realities of evolving a game over the course of several years. So far, though, its efforts only appear to be paying off in the most marginal of ways, and covid-19 has detonated even the company’s best-laid plans. All that in mind, it’s not a great sign when one of the best players in the world departs mid-season, at the height of his powers, to take up another game that’s got oodles more hype behind it (fabricated though some of that hype might be).

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Personalities in and around the Overwatch League see this as the beginning of a larger trend. They also see reasons why people might jump to Valorant, a tactical shooter in the vein of Counter-Strike that also includes Overwatch-like hero abilities and has Riot’s backing, all but guaranteeing at least some level of esports success.

“Sadly won’t be the only player from OWL doing that. Valorant is promising,” said Dallas Fuel DPS player Dylan “aKm” Bignet on Twitter.

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“I have no insight here other than my own experience and thoughts, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say players probably feel like it is increasingly difficult to play any heroes at the peak of their capability when they are banned in and out every week,” said former Houston Outlaws GM Matt “Flame” Rodriguez on Twitter. He also noted that Valorant’s aim-focused mechanics might prove more appealing to these players. However, he’s not sure many players will follow Won’s example in the “short term.” This makes sense given that, again, Valorant’s esports scene is still extremely nascent.

Overwatch’s minor league, Contenders, could produce new stars to replace outgoing names like Won, but it’s having serious troubles of its own. In recent months, numerous teams have disbanded, many of them academy rosters associated with Overwatch League teams. This suggests an unsteady stream of new talent into the scene, at least in the near future.

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Despite all of this, Overwatch League is nowhere near done. There is far too much money riding on it for it to just suddenly collapse. Still, repairs can be just as hard as rebuilding from rubble when key structures are damaged, and Overwatch League is gonna have to patch up numerous gaping holes in the coming months. Won’s exit is not, as some have suggested, the first domino to fall en route to an unavoidable end, but it’s yet another sign that Blizzard needs to act fast before it’s left picking up pieces.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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