Mike Stubbs . Games . Friday 11th August 2017 . 14:23
After a very slow first year of competition the Overwatch pro scene has exploded over recent months. Blizzard has finally woken up and realised that it had to actually talk about the Overwatch League if they wanted it to start this year, sending everyone, even the mainstream media, in a frenzy when they heard that the likes of Robert Kraft had dropped $20 million to join. For the first time Overwatch esports was a hot topic.
While all this was going on, quietly the Overwatch World Cup started up. After a pretty successful first year, Blizzard brought it back to keep fans at Blizzcon entertained while they try to figure out the Overwatch League. This year the competition featured eight groups each with four teams. These groups were played out at LAN events across the world and for the first time since launch it felt like there was some top tier Overwatch going on outside of Korea.
However, at the Katowice qualifier, we got a reminder of why South Korea is the dominant Overwatch region.
The South Korean team went undefeated in the group stage. Sure this was expected, but they way they did it was quite something. In the four map match against Austria the Koreans only died 24 times, that’s an average of six deaths on each map. They also played pretty much every hero in the Overwatch roster, barely ever sticking to the standard meta and still blowing everyone out of the water.
Other teams have looked good in the Overwatch World Cup, but this was ridiculous. The Koreans never looked like they were struggling at all, and they were clearly a cut above the rest of the competition. This raises an interesting question that really affects the entire Overwatch scene and not just the World Cup. How do you stop Korea from being head and shoulders above the rest?
While having a dominant region in esports is nothing new, the extent of Korea’s dominance of Overwatch is perhaps much bigger than any other esport. This early in a game’s life this presents a significant problem as other regions will fall down the pack and the scene will stagnate there.
The other big worry here is that the Overwatch League features no regional restrictions, so that means that a North American team or even the new London franchise for Cloud9 could just sign a roster of the best Korean players. After all they would probably be a lot better than most of the players available locally, especially in the UK. Of course this would be terrible for the EU scene and the League probably wouldn’t last too long if everything were about the Koreans, as most people want to see local players do well.
Unfortunately the solution to this problem is not easy at all. You can’t just go and tell the Koreans to play worse and you can’t tell them to stop getting better. While you can tell other regions to improve it unfortunately isn’t that simple, and while it might make one or two top contenders it won’t solve the overall issue.
Fortunately Blizzard has faced a somewhat similar situation before in the world of Heroes of the Storm. Unfortunately they didn’t exactly handle that too well. Prize pools in the Korean region were cut and as a result a lot of players lost interest. This meant there was less investment and players stopped playing or put in less time. This combined with increased prize pools in the west meant that as Korea stagnated EU and NA quickly improved and now Europe dominates the scene.
Of course for that top happen in Overwatch would be disastrous. While the Korean dominance is an issue, eliminating them from the top tier of competition would be a crime, as the level of competition would surely drop.
So what needs to happen is quite simple, the western teams need to improve to the level of the Korean teams. Of course it is actually much more difficult than that. This would require a lot of investment from team owners, and potentially Blizzard themselves, and it would need to happen soon if teams are to be ready for the Overwatch League.
The most obvious way to do this is to have the western teams play against the Koreans more often. The World Cup is a start, but most of the teams in the competition feature players from multiple clubs, so they won’t be learning anything as a team they can use in future competition. So what really needs to happen is more international LAN events and that needs to happen soon.
Teams could also go for a long boot camp in Korea. In the world of League of Legends this is standard for pretty much everyone and while it hasn’t helped too much it does at least keep EU and NA somewhat competitive with Korea. You know there is always a chance that a team like Fnatic or TSM could upset a Korean team or two. Unfortunately these bootcamps cost a lot of money, and the harsh truth is that most of the teams outside of the Overwatch League will not be able to afford this.
The only real hope that we have of the scene balancing out and the Korean dominance going away is that the Overwatch League does prove to be truly successful, and that team owners decide to stay local instead of just trying to sign the best players. There is a pretty good chance that teams such as Immortals will choose to do this, and if others follow suit then slowly but surely it may become a more even playing field, as these teams would be playing against the Koreans on a regular basis, which as we have seen time and time again is the best way to improve. It’s not a great solution, as outside of the top 20 or so teams Korea will always be much better, but it is a start.
Sure the Korean franchises will have the advantage of being able to play against the other teams that aren’t in the League, which will undoubtedly be of a higher quality than those in EU and NA, but right now I think this is the best we can hope for.
Blizzard could come in and kill off the Korean scene, like they did with HotS, but no one wants to see that and it would be bad for the still-struggling esport. If we wanted to get real ambitious than the western culture that says playing games for a living all day every day is a bad thing could be changed and the Korean style where these players are A list celebrities could be embraced. That would probably work out great, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution to the Korean problem, and there certainly is nothing we can do for the World Cup this year. If you are hoping for any other country but Korea to win then I have some bad news, but this dominance doesn’t have to go on forever, and that is where the hope is. It will ultimately all come down to how the Overwatch League plays out, which seems to be the case for everything in the Overwatch scene right now. There is a chance that things work out naturally, but the reality is that if the OW League teams do sign only Korean players we could be looking at another StarCraft II situation, and that is a cause for concern.