There will not be an arena full of screaming fans to go along with the Overwatch League’s Grand Finals for the first time in its three-year history. Because of the ongoing pandemic, the league has shifted online for 2020 and it has had to reimagine what its championship tournament will look like. And Blizzard today provided some details about the upcoming playoff format.
Essentially, all of the 20 teams will face off at the end of the regular season in a playoff-style tournament kicking off on September 3rd, with seeding based on how they performed throughout the year. The format will be similar to the league’s tournament structure adopted midway through 2020, with two competitions: one for Asian-based teams, and one for North America. In a double-elimination competition, the top two teams from each of those tournaments will then face-off, culminating in the championship game. (Full details of the schedule can be viewed on the league website.)
Blizzard says the top two North American teams will fly ahead of the final to an unspecified location in Asia, with a few weeks off to accommodate travel and logistics challenges. There will still be the entire competition online, with players, coaches, broadcasters, and producers working remotely. At the very least, that is the plan.
“Whenever we look into the future for two or more months, it’s impossible to predict,” tells The Verge Jon Spector, VP of Overwatch esports. The plan is to crown two regional winners instead of one overall league champion if traveling is out of the question coming September. Spector admits it is not an ideal situation, but the league is trying to plan for every possibility. “It is important we have that backup plan at our disposal,” he says.
Big sports championships thrive on spectacle; the League of Legends World Championships has become known for its elaborate musical acts, while the first two Grand Finals of OWL were celebrity-laden affairs that took place in Brooklyn and Philadelphia’s sold-out arenas. It’s impossible to replicate that type of energy online, but Spector says the league is planning to do some things to make this year’s championship special — though it remains to be seen what exactly that might look like.
“We want to do all we can to create an immersive entertainment experience for those fans who can’t be with us,” explains Spector. He says the league is likely to work with the top four teams to ensure that their remote spaces are as broadcast-friendly as possible, potentially adding things like robotic cameras to make players more dynamic. OWL has also looked at some of the creative ways in which traditional sports dealt with stadiums devoid of inspirational fans. But as of now all, that remains in flux.
The biggest concern, he says, is to ensure the safety of players and staff, which is part of why the finals are not going to take place in a studio environment, even though several Chinese and Korean sports leagues have returned to using studio spaces as social distancing restrictions have been lifted. “We don’t want to take any undue risks,” Spector says.
The sister league of OWL, the Call of Duty League, also announced yesterday its revamped playoff format and it is similar to the one used for Overwatch. On August 3rd, CDL playoffs will begin, with all 12 teams competing in a double-elimination competition. The top four teams will then advance to the weekend of the championship, to be held on 29th and 30th August. The playoffs come at a time when the CDL is riding high; Activision says that during the most recent tournament the league saw its highest peak viewership, with 115,000 viewers tuning in to watch Chicago play at Atlanta.