The Overwatch League’s opening week seemed to confirm what we already knew — Overwatch has the fan base to make it as a top tier esports title. And yet, Overwatch League viewership figures have been trending downwards ever since.
Blizzard would have been expecting this to an extent. The anticipation and hype surrounding the tournament meant that numbers were always likely to be up in the opening weeks. Casual fans would inevitably drop away, leaving behind a more loyal fan base. However, as the weeks go on, Overwatch League viewership continues to shrink.
It’s a worrying sign for Blizzard and an even bigger worry for those that have invested in the competition. Falling figures mean that sponsors and advertisers will be less willing to pump money into Overwatch League. A lack of sponsors and advertisers means less money to be made for the organisations and investors. Ultimately, they will care little about Overwatch League or how much the fans want it to be a success. If there’s no money to be made, there’s no point keeping the competition going.
Investment made up 49% of revenue in 2017, as the global esports industry reached $1.5 billion. However, billionaire investor and owner of NBA basketball team Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, recently expressed that Overwatch League is in decline, with little confidence shown in the competition. Whether this is a view shared by Cuban’s fellow investors is unclear, but it is certainly a worry for Blizzard.
Overwatch League viewership has definitely been falling, but just how big is the problem and is it really as big of a worry for Blizzard as many are making out?
Overwatch League viewership: declining numbers
According to data published by Esports Observer, concurrent viewers averaged at around 280,000 on the opening week of Stage 1. Likewise, that figure peaked at 437,000 on the opening day during Dallas Fuel’s clash with Seoul Dynasty, as Overwatch fans tuned in to see whether OWL would deliver on its promise.
Average viewership had halved by the end of the stage. During the playoffs, viewership averaged around 142,000. However, there was certainly still interest there. The final week saw viewership hit a season high as 1.7 million tuned in to watch London Spitfire take on New York Excelsior in the final round of regular season matches. At that point, these two teams were the strongest in the division and fighting for first place.
That was an anomaly and Overwatch League viewership hasn’t come close to matching those numbers again since.
However, Stage 2 did start strongly, with the first week producing a higher average viewership than the Stage 1 playoffs. Some 154,000 were actively watching the Overwatch League during the opening week, with viewership peaking at 184,000.
There is a noticable difference between the opening week of Stage 1 and 2. However, this decline was nothing more than Blizzard would have been expecting. In fact, things seemed to be levelling out in Stage 2, with viewership climbing by 22.5% from the Stage 1 to Stage 2 playoffs. Stage 2 playoff viewership peaked at 216,000.
Numbers have been getting progressively worse since. Stage 3 opened with an average viewership of 133,000 during week 1 and this fell by another 20,000 to an average of 113,000 during week two. Peak viewership fell by a similar amount, down 11% on Stage 2 week 1.
The Stage 3 playoffs did attract highest average numbers, with 144,000 tuning in on average during the final week as Boston Uprising completed their perfect regular season, before falling just short against New York Excelsior. However, peak viewership was 1,000 lower than in the opening week of the stage.
The opening week of Stage 4 has hardly curbed fears that the Overwatch League is in decline before its inaugural season has even come to an end. Average viewership fell to 100,000 in the opening week, with a peak of just 122,000, lower than the previous stage’s opening week average.
Overwatch League viewership has fallen by an average of 27.8% between stages throughout the first season. If the decline in viewers continues at this rate, average viewership will have fallen below 50,000 by Stage 3 of the second season. It seems unlikely that things will get that bad, but that is the direction that Overwatch League is currently heading in.
How can Blizzard solve the problem?
Making viewers feel more connecting to their teams would be a good start. Sport thrives on that feeling that you’re a part of something and that is largely down to the fact that clubs are usually tied to an area. Overwatch League has tried to mimic that by allocating each team a city.
However, given all OWL teams currently play at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, that means very little. Only those in or around California can really travel to games consistently and support their teams. Moving teams to their respective cities will help fans to connect with their local team and show more interest in following the competition consistently.
Same old winners, same old losers
The competitiveness of Overwatch League is also an issue.
New York Excelsior have taken control of the league in the first season. At the opposite end of the table, Shanghai Dragons have had a terrible year. It’s always pretty each to guess which team will win and which team will lose, which hardly makes OWL the competitive competition that fans were promised.
The problem is, some heroes perform better than others. This makes it difficult for teams to try something new without suffering a sweep. We, of course, should have expected this. Blizzard are surely working hard to balance their heroes and ensure that there is always opportunity for the meta to change.
Stage 4 will certainly provide some useful insight into where Overwatch League is heading. With the grand finals approaching, Overwatch League viewership should pick up again as the best teams to head-to-head for the Season 1 title.
It’s hard to say what Blizzard can do to stop viewership falling. The numbers are still fairly impressive for a new esports competition, so they won’t be too concerned yet. They will hope that the decline halts soon and they are left with a strong core group of fans to build upon over the next few years. However, the future of Overwatch League is far from certain.