Ever since the first academy team dropped out of Overwatch Contenders, we have been telling ourselves that Blizzard is the one at fault. First, it was GGEA. Then NRG. Then Mayhem Academy. With the world cup having wrapped up, Gladiators Legion and XL2 followed up in quick succession, disbanding their team. It was at this point that people stopped asking questions and started making assertions.

Blizzard only wants to keep tier one alive.

Blizzard is letting tier two die.

Blizzard does not care about their tier two scene.

With no obvious alternative culprit, last year’s withdrawals fall squarely on Blizzard’s shoulders. This year, with six more academy teams gone, it is easy to play that old tune. However, it would be foolish to not factor the global COVID-19 pandemic into your judgement. Recently, we have seen ardent debate across the two stances, but here, we will investigate: Was COVID-19 just a catalyst for the downfall of tier two?

Examining the data

Firstly, we deal with the numbers. After discounting GGEA, which can be counted as anomalous, four academy teams disbanded pre-coronavirus. Three never existed and six have withdrawn in 2020. Now, only six are still active- two in China, two in Korea, one in Europe and one in North America.

Source: https://liquipedia.net/overwatch/Overwatch_Contenders

It should be noted that Blizzard already has started this debate at a disadvantage. Without a doubt, five teams who decided tier two was no longer worth investing in is a poor look for Blizzard. Some may cite financial problems, but the LA Gladiators, for instance, have incredibly solid financial backing from the Kroenke Family, dispelling any rumours. Similarly, the other four teams’ parent organisations do not suggest financial issues.

The Abstainers

Secondly, let us deal with OWL teams that have never fielded a Contenders team. Firstly, the LA Valiant, owned by Immortals. Then, the Vancouver Titans, owned by Canucks Sports and Entertainment, and the Washington Justice, owned by Mark Ein

The Valiant’s decision to not field a team is odd. Time is not the issue; they are the only season one team without one. Likewise, financial issues strike as unusual. Immortals is no organization to scoff at, ranking in Forbes’ 2019 “Most Valuable Esports Companies”. Compare them to Misfits-owned Mayhem Academy, who had a much less successful league team, and the decision to abstain from contenders seems out of place. Maybe they, from the beginning, presumed that tier two was not worth investing in, coming to the same conclusion as the five teams last year. 

With the Titans, one can confidently assume that their decision to stay uncommitted came from a lack of funds after buying out the most sought-after squad in Season Two. Similarly, we know the Justice had financial struggles after signing Janus and WizardHyeong, which justifies their decision to opt out.

Pitting six against six

Now to the newly inactive six. For convenience, below are the teams and respective owners.

OWL TeamContenders TeamStatusDate of WithdrawalParent OrgParent BusinessRegion of Academy
ATLATL Acad.Inactive (hiatus)22/03/2020Cox Enterprises/Province Inc.Communications media/finance adviceNA
DALTeam EnvyInactive27/04/2020Envy GamingEsports/gamingNA
TORMontreal RebellionInactive06/04/2020Overactive MediaEsports and entertainmentNA
CDHLGE.HuyaInactive (stopped partnership)16/01/2020HUYA Inc.Game livestreamingCN
GZCT1W.GZAInactive (stopped partnership)07/02/2020Nenking Group(E)SportsCN
PAREternal Acad.Inactive25/04/2020Drew McCourtEsportsEU

Most do not raise eyebrows on the surface, but if you examine the ownership and counterparts, you can start to build a case against Blizzard. Below are the six remaining active academy teams.

OWL TeamContenders TeamStatusDate of WithdrawalParent OrgParent BusinessRegion of Academy
BOSUprising Acad.ActiveN/AKraft GroupPackaging/ (E)SportsNA
HZSBiliBili GamingActiveN/ABiliBiliVideo sharingCN
SHDTeam CCActiveN/ANetEaseTechnologyCN
LONBritish HurricaneActiveN/ACloud9EsportsEU
PHIT1ActiveN/AComcast Spectator/SK TelecomSports and entertainment/ telecommunicationKR
SEOGen.GActiveN/AGen.GEsportsKR

Dealing with China

To begin with, take the Chinese academy teams. The Nenking group (Guangzhou Charge), who deal mainly in sports teams and real estate, would be expected to struggle financially with this pandemic. However, HUYA Inc. (Chengdu Hunters) deals in exactly the kind of industry which could expand during this crisis. Furthermore, by looking at the public stock price data, you can see that all four of these companies fared quite similarly, with a net change of around -5% on the market. 

However, NetEase (Shanghai Dragons) and BiliBili (Hangzhou Spark) are much more powerful organizations, whose industry would also not suffer as much during this pandemic. Playing devil’s advocate, one can say that the two Chinese withdrawals cannot be wholly placed on Blizzard’s shoulders, seeing as there is not much out of place in this region.

Communications Showdown

Even so, looking down the inactive list, there is one name that should surprise you: Atlanta Academy. Owned by communications powerhouse Cox Enterprises, (on a joint venture with Province Inc.) it is worrying to see them tap out. This is especially if you consider that the communications industry is one of the “winners” of the pandemic, as much as there can be one.

If the pandemic really were a financial blow to these organisations, we would surely see similar corporations also tap out. However, T1, owned by a joint venture of Comcast Spectator and SK Telecom, which are in a similar business to Cox Enterprises, have stayed in the race. Admittedly, the pandemic was handled much more efficiently in Korea, showing a much lower unemployment rate than the US, among other things. Even so, you would still reasonably assume that companies such as the ones that own Atlanta Reign would be able to tank a blow like this.

We can see the same situation by comparing esports giants Envy, which has withdrawn from contenders, and Gen.G, which is still playing. Two Korean counterparts staying is more than coincidence, and pushes the case that the stronger Korean pandemic response, added to Korea’s power as a competitive region, make the difference here. On the basis of only this, it becomes difficult to incriminate Blizzard.

Tipping the Scales

Assuming a different perspective, we must realise that the teams that dropped out knew that the COVID-19 pandemic would not last forever. In fact, Korea and China, among other countries, have already begun recovering and returning to business as usual. Therefore, taking a financial hit would not matter if it could be recovered in the next Contenders seasons. But what these companies realised is that their losses would not come back in Contenders, which ultimately led to the decision to disband the team. Admittedly, teams such as Atlanta Academy (on hiatus) could come back, but time will tell whether this will become a redeeming factor.

I recognise that much of what has been said here is without knowledge of internal matters, but the evidence to support the claims is there. Furthermore, logistical issues have not been mentioned, but if they really were the culprit, we would see unowned teams with inevitably worse infrastructure struggle more. Although the issue remains foggy, a conclusion can be drawn.

Altogether, the decisions made by the organisations are too blatant to hold the pandemic fully accountable. It does hold credit in accelerating the process but allowing the situation to escalate so much shifts the weight distinctly to Blizzard. To put it simply, Blizzard set them up, and the coronavirus knocked them down.   

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