You probably know Swedish esports star Emil Pathric William Christensen as HeatoN. Under that moniker, he earned himself a reputation as one of the finest Counter-Strike players of all time. The 33-year-old currently manages Ninjas in Pyjamas.
His name is now on the lips of many Overwatch players following some explosive comments in the Swedish newspaper Metro on Jan. 18. The subject of HeatoN’s ire? The structure of the new Overwatch League.
HeatoN opined the new league “stinks of plastic, American money.” He also questioned whether Blizzard’s league will benefit esports gamers at a grassroots level.
The new league
In putting forth his criticism, HeatoN draws a comparison to Counter-Strike teams that have “developed and competed freely under the surveillance of game-developer Valve for almost 20 years.” Here’s a long excerpt:
“The established teams have been able to build a committed fan base that has strong relations to the organisation, its brand and players. The teams and stars have, after many of hard work in climbing to the top, become standard bearers and ambassadors of esports. They have developed a brand that is impossible to buy for money. But buying for money is precisely the way that Blizzard has chosen with Overwatch.
“I think it is completely wrong for Blizzard to single-handedly seize control over the game’s process of professionalization by declaring a monopoly – meaning their league will be the only one allowed. Twelve resourceful organisations have been forced to acquire their teams, for an astounding 20 million dollars respectively, in order to claim a seat in the newly started league. Even worse is [the fact that] they aren’t even allowed to keep their names . . .
“Blizzard must believe their made-up team names to be exquisite, but personally I deem it really dorky and think it stinks of plastic, American money. It’s also a question for the future success of esports. I think that the monopoly is striving in the opposite direction to the inclusiveness that our sport otherwise breeds.
To be, the greatest charm of Counter-Strike has been that there has never been any concern about where you are from. Everyone, regardless of their background, who has been able to put in the hours of training has been able to start his or her own team with like-minded players. [They can then try to] climb the ladders and approach the goal of becoming the top team of Sweden, Europe, or even the world.
“I am concerned with the direction Blizzard has taken [with the Overwatch League] and believe that Overwatch will pay a high price for not allowing the [professional] game to grow alongside its grassroots.”
HeatoN finished his editorial with a stark warning for Blizzard. “High-flying plans can come to an end in a fatal crash-landing,” he wrote.
Is HeatoN’s critique valid?
HeatoN’s criticism of the Overwatch League as a greedy monopoly is a harsh and pointed assessment. But does it stand up to closer inspection?
Certainly, HeatoN has a valid point when it comes to grassroots players being denied the chances they were afforded in other esports such as League of Legends, CS:GO, or Dota 2. In those esports, players from anywhere in the world could develop their skills, set up teams, or even join existing teams and become professional players at the highest levels if they were good enough. There was no financial barrier in their way.
With Overwatch League, however, there is no real way for players to join the ranks of the elite. They’d have to earn a spot on one of the teams competing. Furthermore, unless a team can stump up the £20 million joining fee, they’re out of luck.
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On this topic, HeatoN makes some extremely valid and valuable points.
Other complaints are less valid. To be fair to Blizzard, their aim with Overwatch League was not to set up another by-the-numbers esports league. They instead attempted to mimic the setup of several American sports. Here, each team has a clear identity based on a city, together with a clearly identifiable nickname. Think NBA, NFL, or MLB.
In rebranding teams, Blizzard aims for an immediate, geographically defined connection between teams and audiences. It’s a tried and true business move.
As for investment, Blizzard had to make a big bet for Overwatch to become a serious player in the industry. League of Legends’ World Championships and Dota 2’s The International set new records for prize pools year after year. Thus, Blizzard walked up to a high-stakes table with its new league. It needed to attract the best players and, perhaps more critically, sponsors and media coverage.
That Blizzard chose to franchise their teams spreads around the cost of the league. And that approach led to some other positive effects. Many people outside the world of esports are now investing in it. NFL owners Stan Kroenke and Robert Kraft invested, as has music and acting megastar Jennifer Lopez.
Ultimately, the Overwatch League still has many questions to confront, and HeatoN is correct in pointing that out. Interest surged massively when the league launched this month. But how does it fit into the broader community of esports players?