Out of all the ambitious goals proclaimed for the upcoming Overwatch League, perhaps the most eye-catching plan involved streamlining and systematizing the process of becoming a professional player. Throughout esports history, the path to becoming pro has been notoriously random and laden with pitfalls. Sheer luck, nepotism, nationalist predilection and ceaseless grinding have been the guiding forces behind successful careers, which bodes poorly for the vast majority of aspiring pros. To address the will-o’-wisp lure of this venture, Blizzard aims to remove the randomness of the system. Overwatch League promises to create a straightforward, hierarchical system with a clear path from ladder hero to salaried squadmate. The plan seems to be: reach the top of the ladder, make a team, play in the qualifiers, get to Contenders, and then get picked up by a pro team. It is a laudable attempt to reward dedicated players, but there is something essential missing in the infrastructure.
The ladder can never substitute for the pro scene. It decently fulfills its purpose, but its primary focus is to hone individual play. There is some teamwork, but never at the level of the pros. When we look across the spectrum of games, we see this is usually the case. The ladder hasn’t been taken seriously by the North American League of Legends scene since time immemorial; the Korean ladder is fine, but having a bunch of solo queue points doesn’t necessarily correlate to skill. In Counter-Strike, the ladder is defunct because anyone serious about becoming a pro plays in either FPL or Rank S. Dota 2 is the best game I can think of where solo ranking serves as an adequate predictor of professional success. Top ladder players can find themselves drafted into top level teams, though it comes with the caveat of open circuits. With the freedom to qualify and choose which events to play, teams and players are more open to experimenting with newcomers.
The coordinated teamwork taken for granted at the pro level isn’t part of ladder grinding. Most players require mentorship if they wish to move up in the ranks, whether that be a coach, in-game leader or someone they meet online. Overwatch suffers from a dearth of all three. There’s no official coaching or IGL responsibilities online. Friends are OK, but they can’t reliably help a player improve unless they are seasoned pros themselves. In other scenes, a support network naturally emerges from the structure of competition. In FGC games, new players get to accelerate their improvement through local meetups. They face off against similar competition for fun, then have their weaknesses exposed whenever they get schooled by the veterans; from there, the more experienced players teach them the intricacies of the game and help them level up.
Luckily, we don’t need a resurgence of BYOC events to solve this problem. There are already models in play that could serve as a foundation stone to fulfilling Blizzard’s vision, first and foremost FaceIt Pro League.
For those who do not know, FPL is a third party organization that creates a kind of ladder system. Pros and promising amateurs meet at the top of the hierarchy in high-level pickup games, accumulating wins and points for the end of the season. FPL is most well known for its monthly tournaments in CS:GO, but it has also recently launched in Dota 2. The system has built a reputation for being well-run and trusted by the top pros of the scene. On top of that, FPL has an anti-cheat system to preserve the integrity of the rankings. As a simulacrum of a professional environment, it predictably falls short: certainly the players don’t treat it with the life-or-death fervor of a LAN final. Yet the consistent presence of top players combined with FaceIt’s dedication to ensuring quality control makes it an invaluable resource for transitioning to the pro level.
This is especially important as the Overwatch League will be based in NA. North America as a region is infamous across all competitive games for its lack of dedication, self-glorifying assholery, and shortsighted view of the future. In CS:GO, Rank S has become a joke as players seek to make Twitch highlight clips instead of improving their game. In StarCraft 2, the entire NA ladder was abandoned for a period of time as there wasn’t enough players in the region and the matchmaking system wasn’t good enough; West Coast players moved onto the KR server, and the East Coast players migrated to EU. No one has pinned down why we lag behind other regions so unsurprisingly, though I suspect it’s cultural. If there is no external incentive to play, NA players just start messing around at some point. There will always be some hardcore players, but the vast majority aren’t like that.
The best illustration that comes to mind is Daniel “KoreanDJ” Jung from Super Smash Bros Melee. He was a nobody when he started, but he wanted to get better. He decided the only way to improve was serious practice and to ensure no one was fucking around during these sessions, he always made them money matches. He was essentially paying other people to teach himself. That became the base from which KoreanDJ would eventually become one of the most renowned Smash players in history.
Blizzard and Overwatch face a similar problem. Blizzard has tried to incentivize the ladder by making it the clear pathway to becoming a pro, but I don’t think that is enough. If you want to develop talent worthy of Blizzard’s grand commercial ambitions, you need to lay all the structure in place from the first timer to the celebrity. You need minor leagues, in-house leagues and pick-up games like what FPL can provide. There are additional benefits to this too: FPL is prime streaming content for players and a good way to get their name out there.
It will depend on Blizzard itself. As Overwatch continues its trajectory, it seems Blizzard has become more tyrannical in deciding what third-party associates and partners can do. If FPL (or something similar) can’t access the game, then this entire argument is defunct. I hope the community will see the benefits of FPL and can try to convince Blizzard to come on board with the idea.
Cover photo courtesy of Blizzard