Earlier this week, 113 Overwatch League players piled into a ballroom for the inaugural Player Summit, a series of presentations on the league format, conduct expectations, and life as a pro. Presenters included Jeff Kaplan and professional baseball player Trevor May. Holding the event was a deft touch on Blizzard’s part, and the reaction to it has been almost universally positive.
However, one thing that emerged from the Player Summit that wasn’t met with a warm response was the news that Blizzard would be prohibiting players from organizing pick-up games (PUGs), which they had been doing in the weeks leading up to the Summit. Additionally, when playing in regular games, they would only be able to queue up with a maximum of one other OWL player.
According to former-pro and O.W. moderator Eric “PapaSmurf” Murphy, players complained about the new rules, and Blizzard has promised to change them. It’s too soon to know what Blizzard will come up with, but it’s unrealistic to expect a complete reversal of the policy.
The argument for pro PUGs
High-level players have been unhappy with ranked play almost since it was unveiled. Common criticisms of ranked include the skill discrepancy between the pros and some of the players they are put on a team with (for example, diamond players in the same game as Top 500 players), and “one tricks” (players that only play one hero, regardless of whether the map or the enemy composition calls for that hero). Players voice those frustrations on stream, and their fans then amplify those complaints on the forums and on reddit.
However, as Houston Outlaws coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim pointed out on Twitter, the issue with ranked goes deeper than just an unpleasant playing experience; there’s little relationship between ranked play and professional play. As we saw in the pro PUGs, professional play involves significantly more communication, coordination, and strategy than would be possible in ranked play. PUGs also allow players to choose maps that are relevant to them and skip ones that aren’t in the upcoming stage’s map pool. Finally, pro PUGs ensure that each team has the proper number of players for each role; they’re not going to get four main tanks on one side and four flex supports on the other. For these reasons, pro PUGs make for significantly better practice than ranked play does.
Pro PUGs also appear to be a more enjoyable experience for fans. The pros themselves are happier, the level of play is higher and more consistent, and since the pros all know each other, fans are treated to their humorous interactions with one another. More fans tuning in means more subscriptions, which means more income for the players. Players were understandably excited about growing the PUG project, as well as growing their streams. A specialized Discord for coordinating PUGs had already been set up, and there were plans in the works to track wins and losses across games.
The argument against pro PUGs
Judging from the reactions on Twitter while the PUGs were being held, Blizzard employees enjoyed the pro PUGs just as much as other fans did. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t arguments against having them. While Blizzard hasn’t officially stated the reason for the ban, there are a couple of sound-looking options.
First and foremost, PUGs split the pros out of the player base. While it’s true that pros would not be playing pro PUGs exclusively, they would likely be giving pro PUGs preferential treatment over regular ranked games. Since the original Krusher99 video, Blizzard has been selling the community a vision that anyone could become the next pro; that you, yourself, could be Krusher99, with the big contract and the ogling fans. Pro PUGs, which are open only to players with histories in the professional scene, undercut Blizzard’s “it could be you” marketing.
Additionally, there’s been some suggestion that the two OWL player maximum, as well as the ban on pro PUGs, is an effort by Blizzard to prevent other high-level play from diluting the OWL brand. It’s not the strongest argument at the moment, as there is some stellar talent left out of OWL that will be tearing up Contenders in a few months, but Blizzard is putting in place policies meant to span years. Once there are more teams and scouting has improved, the brightest stars will almost all be in OWL, and Blizzard wants there to be no question in fans’ minds that the Overwatch League is the place to go for high-level Overwatch play.
Room for compromise
Blizzard and the pro community have butted heads before, on such things as hero limits, tournament formats and map pools, hero balance, and components of the ranked play experience. As the owner of the game, Blizzard has the upper hand in these discussions. At times, they’ve been very receptive, and at times they’ve been the opposite.
Had there not been several weeks of pro PUGs before the Summit, banning them might not have been as big an issue. However, once players and fans saw how good pro PUGs could be, simply axing them was bound to elicit pushback. Blizzard’s reported willingness to come to the negotiating table immediately is a positive sign, both for this issue, and for player-league relations in the future.
Here’s what I’d like to see as a compromise solution:
Blizzard will embrace pro PUGs as a regular source of high-quality Overwatch content, but create specific broadcast windows for them. Players will be able to play PUGs whenever they want, however during match weeks, they will only be able to be broadcast them on days that games are not being played. Once Contenders starts, players will not be able to broadcast PUGs while Contenders games are being broadcast. During playoff weeks (both end of stage and end of season), players won’t broadcast PUGs at all. During the OWL offseason, players will be able to broadcast any time or day they want, except while Contenders games or other major tournaments are on air.
Overwatch League players will make a conscious effort to include Contenders players in the PUGs, ideally with four to six of the twelve players from Contenders. This way, Blizzard will be able to use pro PUGs to showcase the talent pipeline. The increased exposure for Contenders players might also make Contenders spots more valuable to organizations looking to get into (or back into) Overwatch.
During the regular season, Overwatch League players will be permitted to queue up with up to two other people, and they can both be other Overwatch League players. During the offseason, there will be no restrictions on who players can queue with.
Blizzard and Overwatch League players will form a working group to have frequent, candid discussions about the issues in ranked play and how to improve them. Blizzard will make a good-faith effort to act on the most feasible solutions that the working group develops. Pro players, for their part, will tone down their public criticism of ranked play. This last part isn’t a suppression of freedom of speech; its office politics. If Blizzard is working on improvements suggested developed in partnership with Overwatch League players, those players need to do their part to create an environment where the community isn’t breathing fire down the developers’ necks.
The compromise above would allow Blizzard to protect the Overwatch League brand and promote Contenders, while also allowing players to play in a format that’s more appealing to them and more conducive to building a streaming audience.