The Overwatch League (OWL) appears to be no more after six seasons. A Blizzard spokesperson told Engadget that "We are transitioning from the Overwatch League and evolving competitive Overwatch in a new direction." That's not to say the publisher is pulling out of Overwatch esports altogether. "We are grateful to everyone who made OWL possible and remain focused on building our vision of a revitalized esports program," the statement read. "We are excited to share details with you all in the near future."
In July, Activision Blizzard laid off around 50 esports staff and revealed that, after the 2023 season, OWL team owners would hold a vote to determine whether they'd continue with the league. Activision Blizzard said that if teams opted out, it would pay each of them a termination fee of $6 million. Blizzard has not said whether the vote has taken place and, if so, what the results were.
However, earlier on Wednesday, the owner of OWL team Toronto Defiant confirmed it was leaving the league. OverActive Media said it had ended its team participation agreement, and that it would receive a $6 million termination payment from Activision Blizzard. The company plans to stay involved in Overwatch esports.
"As we transition into the next phase of Overwatch esports, we look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead," Adam Adamou, cofounder and CEO of OverActive Media, said in a statement. "We are eager to share more about our vision for Toronto Defiant and our plans to return to Overwatch esports. We expect more information to come on this front soon.”
OAM has confirmed its exit from the @overwatchleague. The Company is set for its next chapter with a strengthened financial position and continued commitment to esports. We expect more information to come re: our vision for @TorontoDefiant and our plans to return to Overwatch…
— OverActive (@overactivegg) November 8, 2023
The Defiant are the second team to leave OWL. The Chengdu Hunters did not participate in the 2023 season after Overwatch 2 and other Blizzard games were shut down in China. The team confirmed partway through the year that it was departing from OWL.
Several other teams have been releasing players and others have suspended operations entirely amid OWL's uncertain future. All of the Florida Mayhem's players and staff went into free agency just 19 days after winning the 2023 OWL championship. On October 2, the day after the Grand Finals, Blizzard said it was "focusing on building our vision of a revitalized esports program."
The writing has been on the wall for OWL for some time as the original vision of a global home-and-away league format never panned out. The first two seasons of OWL matches were held almost exclusively in a studio in California. Weeks after Blizzard started on its grand plan to run matches in each team's city every week, it was forced to shift to an online-only format due to COVID-19 lockdowns. That prevented teams from pulling in much-sought-after live event revenue.
Viewership struggles, sponsors dropping out and the sexual harassment and discrimination scandal at Activision Blizzard may have contributed to OWL's demise as well. Although OWL broadcasts and matches were polished and entertaining, there were just too many factors playing against it.
Blizzard may opt to keep using Overwatch League branding in its future esports endeavors. But OWL, at least in its original city-based franchise format, is done.
It's unclear what the professional Overwatch scene will look like next year, but reports suggest there'll be a return to a more open format. According to esports reporter Jacob Wolf, Activision Blizzard has been in talks with Saudi Arabian state-owned ESL FACEIT Group for the latter to run the 2024 pro Overwatch season. In the meantime, a Blizzard-backed Overwatch 2 tournament that features regional prize pools of $50,000 and veteran OWL players is getting underway this weekend.