When the Overwatch League shifted to online play last season, it meant that the dream of a global esports league — one with teams spread across three continents — would have to wait. It also meant that fans wouldn’t be able to see the best teams compete against each other. The league split up into two divisions, with some teams based in Asia and others in North America. Because of issues around latency, those regions never competed against each other until the Grand Finals, which took place in Korea and featured some of the best matches of the season.
So when the league start thinking of ways to make the 2021 season better, figuring out a way get teams from Seoul and Shanghai to face off against San Francisco and New York was paramount. The solution was Hawaii.
In 2021, OWL will feature a monthly tournament structure, where teams from each region will compete locally, before the best move on to face off against each other. The plan is to have teams from North America fly to Hawaii where they will compete against squads based in China and Korea. According to Jon Spector, head of the Overwatch League, Hawaii was chosen for a few reasons. It meant that players based in the US would already have the necessary visas to travel, and the league also felt comfortable about the island from a health and safety perspective. “Hawaii emerged as something of a silver bullet,” he tells The Verge.
Crucially, it’s also much closer to Asia, reducing latency concerns. Spector says that the league studied maps of undersea cables in search of an ideal location, and it also developed a minimum latency tool to ensure that teams will be competing on an even playing field. Spector says that the aim is to have matches running at 90 milliseconds. “That’s well within the bounds, from what our pro players have told us,” he explains, “so they’re going to have a great experience competing.”
The setup does create some issues, though. Namely that teams from North America will be forced to deal with travel and playing in a new space, while Asian teams won’t. The league is doing what it can to minimize these issues: each team in Hawaii will have their own space, and OWL is also keeping patches the same for each tournament, potentially reducing practice time. But he also points to the San Francisco Shock winning Grand Finals as an example of why it should work.
“We already have, at the biggest moment of the 2020 season, a case study of teams traveling, performing in that environment at the highest level, and winning it all despite arguably the [Seoul] Dynasty and Shanghai having a bit of an advantage in that final four last year,” he says.
The plan is also flexible. Spector says that if there’s one thing he learned running an esports league during a pandemic, it’s that things change. If travel to Hawaii becomes unfeasible, the league will revert to regional tournaments instead. “One of the biggest lessons that I’ve internalized over the last 12 months has been for every single plan we’ve got, there has to be a plan B, a plan C, a plan D,” Spector says.
Eventually, though, OWL is expected to get back to in-person events; a major pitch for the league is having teams hosting matches in their local markets. The league has already announced a trio of live events in China for this summer. And while it’s too early to say when similar events might happen elsewhere in the world, the ultimate goal is to get back to those in-person matches. “My fervent hope is that things get better, and it starts to become safe to bring fans back to live events,” Spector says. “I hope we’ll be able to do some of that this year.”