Despite being announced only a few days ago, the Overwatch Open is already underway. As I sit here, watching the first phase of the European open qualifiers it is clear that this event will set the bar for top Overwatch tournaments going forward. Alex “Machine” Richardson hosts the broadcast, having just come off the back of hosting ESL One Cologne and the Call of Duty World League Stage 2 finals, while Daniel “ddk” Kapadia takes on casting duties, bringing his professional style that he perfected while on the first season of ELEAGUE’s Counter-Strike competition. This is arguably the most well-produced Overwatch tournament to date, and it’s only the first day of the online qualifiers.
But the presentation and overall quality isn’t the only area of the tournament that is outshining the rest of the scene. There is also the whopping $300,000 prize pool. ESL’s Atlantic Showdown has already been beaten on the prize pool front, with the winner of the Open receiving the same amount as the Showdown’s entire $100,000 pool. The GosuGamers events, which just a few months ago were the biggest tournaments in the scene, now look like the minor leagues, meaning both organizers will probably be looking to increase their prize money for future events, or drop out of the scene entirely.
On the surface, this massive prize pool looks great for the Overwatch scene. Having such investment, from a company that is still quite early in its journey into esports, shows just how much potential Overwatch has as an esport. As we have seen with the likes of Dota, the more money to offer, the more attention the game and its esports scene receives, and generally speaking the more money on offer, the more the scene grows.
But, to quote Australian rock band Airbourne, this is too much, too young, too fast.
See, Overwatch is still very much in its infancy; the game itself only launched a couple months ago and only now is it starting to find its feet with regular, high-quality esports events. As we have seen with countless other games, starting out small during the early months is the way to go. Sure, you can have the high-quality production and top names casting the event, but purely from a prize pool perspective, throwing a ton of money at a game this young is not a good idea.
Let’s look at CS:GO, one of the biggest esports in the world right now. It took years before prize pools were as big as the Overwatch Open. Up until this year, the biggest events in the scene only offered $250,000, and that allowed things to grow naturally, with many teams being able to go full time and the wealth being spread around fairly evenly. If Valve had come in and said the majors would have $1 million on the line straight away, then the scene would have been damaged, the wealth spread across fewer teams. Ultimately, CS:GO probably wouldn’t be where it is today.
All we have to do is look at Dota 2 to see how extreme prize pools can hinder the scene. Last year, before the majors were introduced, events such as StarLadder and ESL One would have featured many of the top teams in the world, but since the majors have come in, those teams have only played in Valve events, along with one or two others, because there is little point in competing for $150,000 when a good result at a major will net you $1million. That has ultimately damaged the Dota scene, as organizers are more reluctant to host events, and there is less top-quality action for fans to enjoy outside of the majors. It’s also worth noting that Valve’s implementation of three other majors was to create more prestigious tournaments aside from The International — an attempt to correct this very problem.
We have already seen other events suffer as a result of the Open, and it’s only the first week. Many teams that would have usually competed in the GosuGamers event instead competed in the Open, and that trend appears it will continue as the qualifiers roll on. This really leaves two options: either increase prize pools and compete, or scale back tournaments or drop out entirely. Neither of which is particularly helpful. With the former option, we hit a state much like Dota, where only the major events feature the top teams, while with the latter the scene becomes stale, with only a few tournament organizers running events.
At this stage in Overwatch’s competitive life, the aim should be getting more people involved and creating a large group of solid teams. The best way to do that is to spread the wealth and make sure all of the teams can support themselves. Giving $100,000 to a single team is all well and good, but if you split that say three ways across three extra teams then you get more teams that are financially stable. For a team in Overwatch to win $33,000 from one event is still quite significant, and would keep them going for quite a few months.
Of course, we can’t predict with exact certainty what will happen as a result of the Open’s massive prize pool. It could be the best thing for competitive Overwatch, boosting prize pools across the board, bringing more tournament organizers who want a slice of the pie and fast tracking it to become the largest esport in the world. Or it could go in the other direction. It could become the landmark event, and ultimately the only one teams really care about, hurting the scene outside of ELEAGUE’s competitions and resulting in only a few teams being able to financially support themselves as full-time players. The latter appears much more likely, and the only hope is that Blizzard comes in and starts to have some control over the competitive scene.
Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see how things play out, though we will have one incredibly well-produced Overwatch tournament to watch in the interim.