The Overwatch League governs esports. Then everything went wrong

4 weeks ago
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These issues come at a time of economic recession and esports hype waning, as investors and sponsors become impatient with a pre-profit growth model. 100 Thieves, the second most important esports team in the world, just fired sixth of its workforce. It’s not that esports is dying; the fact is that investors are struggling with highly exaggerated expectations, especially in the US. Discussing the Overwatch League in the same breath with the NFL now seems premature, at least.

“These numbers were completely unrealistic,” says Tobias Scholz, associate professor at the University of Siegen in human resource management and organizational behavior and chairman of the Esports Research Network. “Before, in the US, if you say, “Hey, I did something with esports”: here is 2 million (dollars). Suddenly they feel pressure. It will be very difficult for the teams in the next few years, just like in 2008 when we saw a lot of team turnover.”

The problem is not only financial, it is conceptual. AT Global Esports: Cultural Transformation of Competitive GamingRory K. Summerlee notes that simple comparisons between esports and traditional sports like the NBA and NFL are misleading. Esports currently has more in common with “late sports” as he calls them, the most successful being the X Games and the UFC (and those are just the ones that are lucky enough to survive).

“When comparing esports with traditional sports, there is a risk of making natural equivalents that do not take into account the history of similar endeavors (for example, late sports or sports institutions that have ceased to exist),” Summerlee says in the same article. “ESports is extraordinarily volatile compared to other sports and still only attracts a relatively niche audience, even among people who regularly play or watch video games.”

Compared to traditional sports, the institutional environment of esports is chaotic, says Cem Abanazir, a sports industry lawyer in another document. Unlike modern sports, “esports lacks a monopolistic international federation that has the duty and the right to set the rules for all sports disciplines,” he says. “There are various organizations that organize international tournaments for various video games… the video game publishers themselves have taken on the responsibility of organizing and promoting their own esports competitions based on the video games they develop,” writes Abanazir.

Traditional sports based on mythology and history require cultural capital and institutional stability (and government subsidies associated with this status) – esports lacks the types of support. And comparisons with sports that originated in the first half of the 20th century are simply unrealistic. “The US is trying to copy and paste this NFL/NHL/NBA concept,” says Scholz. “It’s a cultural thing: the US is always around this hype, this identity throwing money at it. They are more risk averse. This is something we’ve seen quite a few times in esports where in the event of an esports crisis, the US is the hardest hit and several teams quit or have to stop.”

Europe, according to Scholz, has always had less wild ambitions and enjoys strong support even outside the big leagues. And the move to Seoul shows just how resilient South Korea remains (or at least how far ahead of the rest it still is). In China, home to four of the 20 Overwatch League teams, league sees promising growthand there were rumors on social media about another local team.

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