News that Activision Blizzard chopped its esports division by 50 employees recently is unfortunate, but at the same time, unsurprising and yet another sign that the company has again failed to understand the esports market. Reports indicate that the move mostly affects both the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues, but the past few years have shown trouble in all the organization’s attempts to create a vibrant, self-sustaining esports market.
In 2016, CEO Bobby Kotick spoke about the future of Activision Blizzard’s esports presence as comparable to the long-term potential of other major sports organizations, “When we think about our franchises, we think about our responsibilities to our fans and the associated business opportunities through the lens of these leagues, like the NFL, the Premier League, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL.”
For years, Activision Blizzard has tried to grow its esports brands in several ways, and the Overwatch League went the route of emulating other sports with big arenas, massive crowds of spectators, and an attempt to create larger-than-life personas for the best players. Buying into the Overwatch League with a franchise was and remains pricey. During its inaugural season, teams in the US, European, and Asian first needed to pay $20 million each to officially join, and that figure went up as revenue surpassed expectations in its initial years of operations.
Obviously, the ongoing pandemic has forced most in-person esports events to shift exclusively to online formats, and this is supposedly a major reason for Blizzard terminating so many employees. Blizzard pumped an incredible amount of money into growing the Overwatch League brand as an in-person spectacle and has done so for years. Now it seems that Blizzard is betting on smoothly transitioning its in-person to an online format, but if we take a quick look at other attempts, this might be a major hurdle to jump.
Apart from Overwatch and Call of Duty, Blizzard has also tried several different ways to grow its esports presence in Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and World of Warcraft. The story of how Blizzard took Starcraft 2, a sequel to a game that can truly be described as the origin of real competitive esports in the world and squandered its opportunity to create an esports scene is both fascinating and sad. Check out this article for a deep dive into the troubles Blizzard had in Korea.
When it comes to Hearthstone, Blizzard has had a different set of problems. Competitive tournament formats change often, even during the same year on more than one occasion, leaving the pros scrambling to learn how best to tackle whatever has been selected and players wondering why Blizzard cannot simply choose one and stick with it.
The lack of a formal tournament client is another major issue that has caused problems at high levels of competitive play, which is something a small indie company might not have the resources to tackle but should not be the case with CEO Bobby Kotick taking home over $200 million in compensation while laying off employees. Some competitive players have left simply due to the heavy focus on RNG in Hearthstone, something that Blizzard seems to lean into more and more with each new expansion.
However, Blizzard’s biggest obstacle in growing the esports scene for Hearthstone can best be described as an odd, inexplicable attitude of total apathy towards its own game. While other games moved to an online format during the pandemic and thrived, Hearthstone was for some reason virtually abandoned in terms of marketing and letting fans know where to catch the best players in the world.
This culminated in December of 2020 with the Hearthstone World Championship. It was a weekend of solid play and contender Glory from Japan took home the top prize and coveted title. It should have been a celebration of all things Hearthstone, and yet, viewership was down 95% compared to last year, largely thanks to Blizzard’s near-total lack of promotion.
In the end, the cause of the low viewer count was due to several factors, like Blizzard switching from Twitch to YouTube, no promotional tweets from its official channels, and not adequately advertising the event on the Battle.net launcher. For a company as big as Blizzard, these bare minimum efforts should be automatic. Was it truly apathy that let the World Championship go on without viewers, or incompetence? One of those could easily be fixed, but the other is problematic if trying to be a relevant force in the online esports scene.
With a vaccine right around the corner to bring some manner of normal back for everyone, Blizzard may not need to transition too hard towards an online-only presence for Overwatch and Call of Duty. It is entirely possible that in 2022, it will again be pushing for sold-out arenas and in-person tournaments, which might be the only way that its esports scene succeeds for these games.
This is an important point to consider, because if things are soon going to return to normal, laying off too many employees seems like a short-sighted move on Blizzard’s part. At least, it would be, were it not for its shady behavior in 2019, when it terminated nearly 800 employees with no warning, and then soon after posted job vacancies to fill many of those same positions at lower wages. Time will tell that was Blizzard’s true intention in this matter, and if so, it will be yet another sad, but completely foreseeable play on its part.
As for the question of a whether Blizzard can have a successful Overwatch League in an online-only format, that too would take time to see, but given Blizzard’s past efforts, things are not looking good in the long-run.
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The Fantastic, Science-Fiction, and Horror are Patricio’s go-to genres for literature, film, and gaming. Dead by Daylight is his daily bread and butter as he writes for TheGamer. He teaches Spanish at McGill by day and writes next to his Staffy x Boxer rescue from the SPCA by night.
Patricio graduated from the University of Alberta in 2006, 2012, and will have one more degree in hand by 2020. Innovation in game development, the economics of making games profitable, and the downward, decadent spiral of former great gaming companies fuels his soul to write daily. Will Blizzard Entertainment do something controversial often enough to keep this reference relevant? Patrick certainly believes they will.
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