Overwatch’s League of Gentlemen

Blizzard’s Overwatch League is about to begin it’s first ever pre-season, before the real competition kicks off in early 2018, and there is already controversy with teams missing the preliminaries and players suspended for cheating. Just like the real sports that Blizzard wants the OWL to be!

And just like traditional sports, there are city based teams with trainers and managers and owners. At first I was wondering how a game that sells for ~$50 could afford to support all this, but when you see the amount of OW merch available it all starts to make sense. Today they announced a new in game currency would be available to purchase OWL skins for your favourite teams. There’s plenty of cash in them thar hills.

It’s quite incredible the amount of money that is being poured into this endeavour, and shows just how important esports are becoming. The 12 members of each team are provided with “USD $50,000 minimum base salary, healthcare and retirement savings plans, and housing provided during the season”, there’s a Commissioner, and super high quality profiles of top players.

What they don’t have, however, is women.

There are 96 official players (8 teams of 12 players), and they are all men. Given the seriously good push for diversity and representation in the game itself, this is incredibly disappointing. This is a brand new sport, invented from scratch, with no rules and no historical precedent, and yet the inequalities of rusted on sporting tradition seem to have been applied.

There can be no argument about physical differentiation in esports, so not mandating some kind of gender balance or ratio seems like a huge missed opportunity. Imagine the positive change that could be made by Blizzard enforcing a 50/50 or 60/40 ratio of men to women. The competition for those spots would be intense and reveal a whole new tier of skilled players. But without the seeing the chance to play at the highest level, professional female players will surely struggle to be motivated.

The arguments would be made that viewers only want to watch the top 100 players, and if they all happen to be men then so be it. But that is of course a self perpetuating problem, and Blizzard could have made a huge and positive difference to how women view, play, and are encouraged to become professional sportspeople, in a way that is uniquely available to esports. Not to mention the incredibly positive press you would imagine this would generate for Blizzard – and they are one of the few companies powerful enough to shut down the inevitable haters.

It will still be fun to watch, but in the back of my mind will be the feeling that it could have been so much better.

EDIT 6 Dec: As if on cue (the marketing people are doing their work) there is a long profile of OWL in Wired. It addresses the gender issue, and predictably the answer from Blizzard is ‘it’s complicated’. Disappointing to read that “When asked what the Overwatch League was doing to attract more female players, nobody at Blizzard could point to any specific outreach or recruiting efforts.”. Perhaps most damning is this quote from Nate Nanzer (Blizzard’s global director of research and consumer insights):

“There was never a question that I was going to sit and play games with my son,” he said. “But then the other day my daughter asked me, ‘Can I play Overwatch too?’ and I was like, oh shit, I gotta be better about this. I gotta treat it equal.”

If the ‘director if insights’ has only just had this…insight…then it’s no wonder the league is a testosterone festival.

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