Earlier this year, Activision Blizzard expressed doubt about the long-term future of the Overwatch League, and said its efforts to maintain the city-based pro esports league "may prove unsuccessful." That has turned out to be the case, as Activision confirmed today that the Overwatch League as we know it is finished.
Announced in 2016, the Overwatch League was a groundbreaking idea modelled after conventional pro sports leagues: City-based teams would compete in seasonal home-and-away matches, eventually leading into a playoff series and world championship. But high startup costs—initial base franchise fees were reportedly $20 million—contributed to a slow start, and just a couple years after it went live the league was battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which quashed its live-spectator ambitions.
The situation took a turn for the worse in 2021 following allegations of widespread discrimination and sexual misconduct at Activision Blizzard, which led multiple major sponsors to end their support for the league. The loss of a publishing partner in China—a situation that still hasn't been rectified—only added to the woes.
Activision acknowledged in a May filing with the SEC that it faced "headwinds which are negatively impacting the operations and, potentially, the longevity" of the Overwatch League, and that efforts to address them "could result in significant costs and ... may prove unsuccessful." A month later, the company said in a quarterly financial report that at the end of the current Overwatch League season, teams would vote on an amended operating agreement—and that if they did not vote to continue operating under the new terms, each team would receive a "termination fee" of $6 million, and that would be the end of it.
And that's apparently how it went. Earlier today, the Toronto Defiant (via GGRecon) announced its departure from the Overwatch League.
"We extend our deepest thanks to the Overwatch League, its fans, and the community for their unwavering support," Adam Adamou, co-founder and interim CEO of Defiant owner OverActive Media, said in a statement. "Toronto Defiant has proudly competed under the League's banner, and we've built incredible memories together."
Following that announcement, The Esports Advocate reported that a majority of teams have voted to exit the league. Other teams have not yet made formal announcements of their departure, but hinted at things happening.
In a statement provided to PC Gamer, Activision Blizzard confirmed that the Overwatch League will not return in its current form. "We are transitioning from the Overwatch League and evolving competitive Overwatch in a new direction," a spokesperson said. "We are grateful to everyone who made OWL possible and remain focused on building our vision of a revitalized esports program. We will share details with you all in the near future."
It's not necessarily a full-stop for Overwatch as an esport. Adamou said in the Defiant withdrawal announcement that the ownership group is "eager to share more about our vision for Toronto Defiant and our plans to return to Overwatch esports." There have also been reports that Activision Blizzard is in talks with third parties to operate a returned league in 2024. Whatever happens, the city-based format that was the league's defining foundation is gone, and what will take its place is anyone's guess.