Blizzard explains how home and away games will work in the Overwatch League

For the 2020 season, Blizzard’s Overwatch League is moving to a home-and-away format much like a traditional sports league. However, while we’ve known this was the ultimate aim for the league, it hasn’t been clear how exactly it would actually work, particularly given the OWL’s global nature with teams spread across the world. But today Blizzard finally provided some details on what its city-based e-sports league will look like. “Next year is really when we start to run,” says Jon Spector, senior product director for the Overwatch League.

Essentially, the OWL will become something of a roadshow. Blizzard is adopting what it calls a “homestand” model, where every team will host a series of matches in their respective cities. Each team will host at least two of these two-day homestands, and some, such as the Dallas Fuel, will host as many as five. While Blizzard will handle the broadcasting responsibilities, the teams will be selecting and operating the venues themselves. Every single game will be played out of a team’s home venue — goodbye, Blizzard Arena — for a total of 52 homestand events over the course of the season.

This model is an expansion of something Blizzard began experimenting with this year. While the majority of Overwatch League games currently take place at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, three homestand weekends were planned this season to test out the format. The Dallas Fuel hosted the first back in April, while the second took place in early July in Atlanta. The Los Angeles Valiant will host the final homestand weekend starting August 24th at The Novo at LA Live. “The homestands this year were explicitly designed as a test and an opportunity to learn,” Spector explains. “The initial feedback on the model has been nothing but positive, and we feel really good about moving forward with it into next year.”

While this marks a major shift for the OWL, many other aspects of the league will remain the same. Teams will still play 28 regular season games — a change made in season 2 in an attempt to reduce strain on players — and the league won’t be expanding beyond its current line-up of 20 teams next year. However, those teams are being reorganized with a focus on geographic proximity. The four new divisions are as follows:

Pacific Conference

  • Eastern Division: Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Seoul, Shanghai
  • Western Division: Dallas, LA Gladiators, LA Valiant, San Francisco, Vancouver

Atlantic Conference

  • Southern Division: Atlanta, Florida, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.
  • Northern Division: Boston, London, New York, Paris, Toronto

According to Spector, the events will be divided equally between the four divisions. “What that structure allows us to do is — for example you have Guangzhou, Shanghai, Seoul, Hangzhou, and Chengdu in one of the Pacific divisions — the way that we’ve structured the homestand format is each division is hosting the same number of events,” he says. “We’re going to have 52 homestand events next year, and a quarter of those will be in Asia, for example.”

Overwatch League Photo courtesy Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.

There is one casualty of this new format, however. Right now, an OWL season is divided into four stages, the first three of which culminate in a mini-playoff series that adds a bit of mid-season excitement before the Grand Finals at the end of the year. With the new format, however, the stage structure will be gone in 2020. “For me, I loved the stage playoffs this year, I think they were really exciting moments,” says Spector. “But given the logistics in travel moving to a worldwide, global league, some of the issues that come up from a visa perspective and other practical realities of moving to the homestand format, we won’t have stage playoffs next year.” (That said, the mid-season all-star game will still happen next year.)

“We feel really good about moving forward with it into next year.”

It’s going to be a big shift for players in particular, who now have to deal with the extra challenges that come from traveling across the globe for games. Several of the teams I spoke to — including the Dallas Fuel and Toronto Defiant — said they plan to have their players live in their respective cities during the season. (Currently, all OWL players live in the Los Angeles area during the regular season.) Spector says that the new structure will also comes with more breaks, with teams receiving a bye week roughly every three weeks. “We’re doing our best to minimize the burdens of travel, even though we know it’ll be tough,” he explains.

After launching in 2017, the Overwatch League is entering something of a pivotal period. The league achieved early success with big-name team owners, major corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and Intel, and prominent broadcast partnerships with ESPN and Twitch. However, the league’s pitch has always been city-based teams reminiscent of leagues like the NBA or NFL. Next year will be a important showcase for whether or not the format is viable for e-sports. It also comes not long after OWL commissioner Nate Nanzer left Activision Blizzard to head up e-sports at Fortnite developer Epic. And at the same time, a new professional Call of Duty league, also run by Activision, is eyeing a similar structure for next year.

Meanwhile, OWL season 2 just wrapped up its third stage, where the once-hapless Shanghai Dragons took home the mid-season championship with a win over the San Francisco Shock. There’s one stage to go in August before the playoffs, which will culminate in the Grand Finals at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on September 29th. After that, the Overwatch League will start to more closely resemble its final form, where the ultimate goal is for teams to host regular home and away matches like a typical pro sports team.

“It’s still incredibly ambitious,” says Spector of the league’s 2020 plans, “but it’s a big step forward instead of a giant leap.”

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