The Coronavirus Could Be More Than Just a Setback for the OWL and E3
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March 12, 2020

The Coronavirus Could Be More Than Just a Setback for the OWL and E3

The Coronavirus is officially a pandemic according to the World Health Organization. Countries around the world are scrambling to figure out proper responses to the disease that has infected over 125,000 and killed nearly 5,000 people. In esports, there have been extensive ramifications for many leagues, teams and tournaments.

League of Legends has seen play suspended and tournaments moved. IEM Katowice was forced to be played without an audience. Conventions from SXSW to the GDC were outright cancelled. For most of these events, the Coronavirus is just a momentary setback, but for E3 and the Overwatch League, this outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time.

E3’s Recent Struggles Will be Accelerated by the Coronavirus

E3 has been on a downward trend. At one point the premiere destination to show off new games, E3’s history is packed with hyped moments. In recent years, major publishers have dropped out of the expo. Activision Blizzard first pulled out of the event in 2016, but then returned in the following years. In 2019, the major developer didn’t have a show floor space. Compared to the days when AB was one of the most anticipated presentations, the companies focus on E3 has clearly waned.

That’s also true of EA, one of the first major developers to pull out. Instead, EA has hosted EA Play during E3’s spot on the schedule. Nintendo also moved their presentations online instead of holding in-person events, although the company does still have a spot on the floor. Last year, Sony became the most notable name to drop. Other developers like Microsoft and Ubisoft still hit the event hard but there’s clearly been a drop off in participation in recent years.

This year’s absence of the event – the first missed a year since 1995 – will show every developer what they are missing by skipping E3. As some companies have already figured out, they don’t miss much. In addition, now companies will be forced to figure out contingency plans. Assuming something catastrophic doesn’t happen and E3 can return in 2021, developers may just run with the contingency plan they were forced to develop this year. While Coronavirus won’t be the sole reason E3 falls off, the outbreak could accelerate the collapse of the event.

The Overwatch League’s Regionalization Experiment is in Trouble

While the Overwatch League hasn’t seen the same steady decline as E3, the Coronavirus heightens already present concerns. Investors and Activision Blizzard will tell people they are happy with the league’s success over three seasons but viewership has not matched the lofty buy-in numbers. In 2020, the league moved over to YouTube from Twitch and saw average concurrent viewership drop by about 30% compared to opening weekend of season two. The change of platforms is a huge part of the reason but when the league should be seeing growth, its seeing decline.

The big issue is that the buy-ins for the league which reached up to $40 million for some slots were based on the potential value of in-person events. “Homestand Weekends” was set to be a new esports experience that would create extra value through ticket sales and venue sponsorships. But that requires people to actually be able to attend events. Due to the virus, Activision Blizzard announced that all events through April have been cancelled. The four teams in China haven’t played any events at all and the original goal of making them up in Seoul was also thrown out the window.

Most teams were only set to host two or three events in total. Having half of their events cancelled really hurts the opportunity the OWL was set to capitalize on. For other esports leagues and tournaments, losing major events hurts but its easier to fall back on the status quo. With so much riding on the success of regionalized OWL events, the virus hurts this league more than other esports events.

The virus is going global, every city is now on high alert. The nature of the OWL means that moving games in-studio is an option but takes away what made the league special in the first place. Once the virus finally subsides, the OWL will try to recapture as much of the season as possible. With a league already in a precarious position, it may be too little, too late.

Written by Mitch Reames

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