Featured Image courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch League’s third season seems almost cursed. The league’s revolutionary homestand model had its legs cut out from under it by the COVID-19 epidemic after just two events. Some teams weren’t able to play for months because they were based in China. Others moved regions so that their players could compete closer to home. This once global league is now region-locked; 13 teams are competing in North America while the remaining 7 are competing in Asia. Hero pools have gone through what seems like countless revisions.

Numerous players have retired, including last year’s MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won. He, along with Corey “Corey” Nigra and Zacharee “ZachaREEE” Lombardo, have left competitive Overwatch behind to pursue a career in Valorant. It’s likely that more players will follow suit after this season is over. Then, of course, there’s the Vancouver Titans.

The Fall of the Titans

The Titans were last year’s grand finalists, and came in first place during the regular season. The Titans squad was signed from the Korean Contenders team Runaway, one of the most recognizable brands in professional Overwatch. Players such as Kim “Haksal” Hyo-jong and Sang-beom “Bumper” Park have been in the professional Overwatch scene almost from its inception. After Runaway finally claimed their first title in Korean Contenders, the Vancouver Titans organization signed the entire team for their Overwatch League spot. The former Runaway squad still holds the League’s record for the longest win streak at 19 straight games. They finished Season 2 with a 25-3 record. The team tore through the playoffs, only falling in the finals to the San Francisco Shock.

The Vancouver Titans looked to be solidly in the running for another playoffs run in 2020. The Titans cut Bumper in the main tank position but replaced with him Chan-hyung “Fissure” Baek, a legendary main tank player coming out of retirement. They also signed fan favorite Jehong “Ryujehong” Ryu, another early Overwatch legend. Even with the stiffer competition in Season 3, the Vancouver Titans were a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, on May 6th, the Titans released every player from their contract. This move didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been rumblings since 2019 that the players were unhappy with the management. This article by Richard Lewis covers the team’s situation in depth with allegations of poor housing and a gross mishandling when it came to basic needs such as interpreters.

Cut Loose

The longer the story continues, the worse Vancouver looks. Players posted Twitter statuses talking about being relieved that they were no longer on the team. They acted like they’d been freed from prison. All the players mutually parted ways with the team except one; the Titans cut Fissure for contract violations. As a result, none of the Titans players had their contracts paid out. Most of the players have found a new team, but Fissure is among those who haven’t. Instead, Fissure has discussed his time on the team, and now alleges that he was cut from the team despite wanting to finish out the season.

Fissure alleges in the above clip (in Korean) that he was wiling to stay even if the team brought in English players, and was willing to learn English. He wanted to finish out the season for Vancouver. In particular, though, he mentions that teams have to pay out the contracts of players that they release if they don’t mutually part ways, but he claims Vancouver didn’t do that with him.

Vancouver claims he was released for contract violations, and thus they didn’t have to pay him for the full season. If this isn’t true, it’s not only another strike against the Titans organization, but a breach of contract that could be brought to court. This is, potentially, a very serious legal situation for the Vancouver Titans. Despite that, Blizzard and the Overwatch League have remained nearly silent about the entire affair. We haven’t heard about any kind of investigation. Despite the fact that this seems like a team that was woefully ill-equipped to care for the players they have under contract, all the Overwatch League has said was that Fissure was fired for cause.

Why a Union?

The implosion of this once legendary roster is a travesty both for the players and the professional Overwatch scene. The level of mismanagement described by those willing to discuss it seems almost too absurd to be true; what team hires a full Korean roster and doesn’t bother with an interpreter?

The existence of a players’ union for the Overwatch League would help solve problems like this before they start. Imagine if the Vancouver players had been part of a union; do these problems still exist when someone is arguing on their behalf? A union could help guarantee all teams featured access to a full-time interpreter, as an example. If teams had more specific guidelines for housing, do the Vancouver players still end up living in a training facility? Do they still end up stuck in the facility in their off-time because there is no one to help them adjust to living in a foreign country?

Most importantly, is Fissure still cut from a team for contract violations that he alleges never even happened? Fissure might have lost something in translation when it came to his termination, considering the team’s track record when it comes to translation. However, if he didn’t, it’s a serious issue that the League seems ready to wash its hands of. The League isn’t there to argue on behalf of the players when it comes to their contracts and their conditions, beyond whatever minimums they’ve spelled out for teams. You know who would be? A union.

Grinding & Burnout

As frustrating and confusing as the Vancouver situation is, it isn’t the only argument for a players’ union. Overwatch League has other, less obvious problems as well.

Players and coaches in the Overwatch League often complain about the grind. Teams work long hours and practice extensively. It leaves the players overworked and exhausted, and hero pools have only added to the problem. For months, every team would have to try and figure out the best strategy for that week within a few days before their matches. If you don’t guess correctly, too bad, that week’s a wash. While the league has moved to a two-week period for hero pools, it took months to reach this point. In that time, teams have struggled with finding the right style from week to week.

Even before hero pools, some teams had incredibly lengthy practice sessions. The Shanghai Dragons, during their infamous 0-40 run in the inaugural season, practiced twelve hours a day for six days a week. The practice didn’t help the team score their first win, but it undoubtedly left them drained. While no other team has admitted to that grueling of a schedule, players from many teams have discussed their issues with burnout over the League’s three seasons. The problem is, you have to keep your nose to the grindstone in the Overwatch League. If you don’t, someone else will and they’ll end up on top. With no limits on practice time, cutting back is a liability.

Mental Health & Motivation

It seems obvious that an environment like this is going to lead to some mental health problems. An esports league like this is going to be a high-stress environment for players and staff, even when they’re winning. When you’re losing, it’s even worse.

Back in Season 1, the Dallas Fuel had incredibly high expectations on them coming into the League. They were “the best in the west” and were consistently ranked in the Top 5 (or higher) before Overwatch League started. The Fuel then proceeded to crash and burn for three stages before making a comeback in Stage 4, thanks in part to the spectacular performance of Brandon “Seagull” Larned. Seagull was one of the most well-known players in all of Overwatch, and was one of the game’s biggest streamers. However, he retired after the inaugural season, citing (among other things) the sacrifices he made to compete.

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

“That whole time though, I had to sacrifice a lot of things. Like a lot of my personal life, a lot of my mental and physical health. I had a lot of problems playing, but it was all worth it because I got to compete.”

– Brandon “Seagull” Larned

Seagull explained on other occasions that he had gained a lot of weight due to his sleep apnea, which was in turn related to the stress of being on a team that failed to live up to extremely high expectations. Hwang “Effect” Hyeon, another retired player for the Dallas Fuel, suffered a slew of mental health problems that ultimately ended in his retirement as well.

Kim “Pine” Do-hyeon, a superstar hitscan player for the New York Excelsior, also left the Overwatch League after mental health struggles over the course of Season 2. However, unlike Seagull or Effect, Pine’s team wasn’t struggling. The NYXL were and remain one of the most dominant teams in the Overwatch League. Still, Pine mentioned struggles with depression before ultimately leaving the league before the start of Season 3. Lucas “Mendokusaii” Håkansson struggled so much with mental health that he never even played a map for the Houston Outlaws during the inaugural season before he retired.

While many fledgling esports see their old guard rapidly outpaced by up-and-coming talent, many of the players leaving the Overwatch League seem to be struggling mentally rather than being unable to keep up. While some teams have hired sports psychologists and counseling for their players, it’s unclear if all teams have such resources at their disposal or if those resources are adequate for their needs.

League Structure & Rules

The Overwatch League has had its fair share of gaffes when it came to implementing radical changes. In Season 1, the addition of Brigitte rapidly shifted the meta away from dive compositions. By the playoffs, the slow double sniper compositions were nothing like what we saw for most of the regular season. In Season 2, the game developers struggled to rein in the power of tank and support heroes. They were unable to use balance patches to kill the GOATS composition, and instead implemented role lock into both the Overwatch League and the main game. Again, the meta during the playoffs was wildly different than most of the season.

In Season 3, the Overwatch League added hero pools. Hero pools worked by removing certain heroes with high playtime from the game, in an attempt to shake up the meta. This, along with aggressive balancing, was supposed to bring massive changes. At this point, the hero pool system has been reworked and changed so many times that most people have lost count. Initially, hero pools were active both in the league and in ranked play, but now are only in the Overwatch League. There have been multiple changes to how heroes were selected to be removed. The pools now last two weeks instead of one.

Courtesy of the Overwatch League

Finally, with the addition of a new tournament structure, it seems players and coaches have found some stability. However, their impact on these changes doesn’t seem to be direct; while the developers did adjust things based on the criticism from players, it seems like these changes were made retroactively rather than them being discussed with teams beforehand.

How Does a Union Change Things?

At the moment, there’s very few ways to fix these problems. Individual teams can’t stop practicing as frequently, and a gentlemen’s agreement for fewer practice hours seems dubious at best. It’s possible not all players have mental health care available via their insurance, and for Korean players it’s likely difficult to find someone you can work with due to language differences.

However, a union can change all of that. A players’ union could negotiate with the teams and the league at large to set maximum practice hours per week. Teams could have different maximum hours depending on the number of games they play in a given week, too. Players would have a say in how coaching and practice time is allocated within their organizations. The only downside in this scenario is that the overall quality of professional play might drop. If players are only practicing thirty hours a week as opposed to forty or fifty, the quality of matches definitely could suffer. However, it also means that players aren’t being worn down by hours upon hours of practice. That alone might make the difference in play negligible.

A union could also argue for better mental health resources for players. Even if all the players have mental health coverage as part of their insurance—and we have no way of knowing if that’s even the case—most of these players are young. If these players need to find mental health care on their own, it’s likely very difficult for them. Not to mention, many of these players are from foreign countries. If you’re a Korean living in America or vice versa, finding someone who you can communicate with is going to be a struggle. With a player’s union, the players could guarantee for themselves that they have access to people equipped to communicate with them and deal with their unique issues. A union could require teams to either have their own mental health staff on the payroll, or at least provide adequate resources for players to find their own.

When it comes to the Overwatch League itself, a players’ union could help ease some tension. The biggest thing they could do is make the league proactive rather than reactive when it comes to feedback. If Overwatch League had discussed all these iterations of hero pools with players before launching them, how much faster would we have arrived at the current iteration? If they had discussed hero pools at all, would we even have them as opposed to a pick/ban phase?

So What’s the Hold Up?

If the answer is this easy, you might be wondering why there isn’t already a player’s union in the Overwatch League. Is it because Blizzard doesn’t want one? According to the Overwatch League itself, they believe players already have a seat at the table via their team’s ownership. However, they also aren’t against a union; they’re willing to have that discussion with players, but it needs to come from them first. And that, right there, appears to be the issue.

According to Seagull, he tried to start a players’ union back in Season 1, but there wasn’t much interest. While it’s possible that has changed, if it has there isn’t any evidence of it. The last news of any sort of players’ association was back in 2018, and that was over two years ago. Unless that’s been quietly in the works across nearly two seasons, it’s likely that this attempt didn’t pan out. It’s possible some of the issues loop back around to players being young; they may honestly not realize how beneficial a union could be, or don’t know how to go about getting one started for themselves. Players who have a team that’s already providing for them may not see the need; why give some of your salary away in union dues if you’re already taken care of?

A players’ union would undoubtedly need some of the league’s superstar players involved; if no one but bottom teams and bench warmers are advocating for change, it’s easy to ignore them. If the league’s biggest stars aren’t involved, any attempt at a union is likely to flop, but they’re also the most likely to not need one. Any team that has an all-star player is probably already taking care of them.

In the end, it’s up to the players to spearhead the movement for a union. If they aren’t interested, it isn’t going to happen. However, Overwatch League’s future rests on the players too; if they end up too burnt out or drained by the grind, the league will suffer. They need to figure out if the current situation is sustainable for them and the Overwatch scene as a whole. If it isn’t, then it’s way past time to do something about it.

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