There’s no question that Blizzard’s Overwatch League has succeeded in its goal of establishing a bridge between the still expanding esports industry and the composition and presentation of established sports leagues, creating a package ripe for consumers of traditional sports to digest. The city-based model employed by the OWL is its smartest strategy as it makes the competition easier to penetrate by giving fans who might have trouble following high-level Overwatch play a rooting interest based on region. The slick design of its Los Angeles based arena and the professional level of its broadcasts resemble those of any edition of the NBA on ESPN. The Overwatch League has risen to the top of competitive gaming in just four months due to this emulation, but serious questions about the organization’s accountability and the management of its player base are exposed when you peel back the layers of snazzy video boards, residential affiliation and unmatched polish.
The league has been riddled with scandals that have impacted every level of the organization in its short history, ranging from a player throwing the bird on camera during a league broadcast, to players and team officials using language and imagery with racist and homophobic connotations on public platforms, to allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches and players alike.
This rash of violations came to a head last month when the Boston Uprising’s Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez was suspended and later released by the team after two underage girls accused him of having inappropriate sexual relationships with them. Both victims attributed DreamKazper’s fame as an Overwatch League player as one reason why they were influenced by his sexual grooming tactics.
Many have pointed to the young average age (22 years) of the league’s players as a contributing factor to the majority of conduct violations, claiming them to be the product of immaturity. A lack of maturity definitely played a part in their actions, but it isn’t the root of the problem. Many OWL players were recruited not just for their skills but also because of their success at building their own brand through their individual personalities. The platforms used to reach the heights needed to land on OWL’s radar, like Twitch, have a history of rewarding problematic and toxic behavior with large audiences of devotees that will stand by their internet hero no matter how caustic their behavior becomes. It comes as no surprise that those same issues followed them to the league, making it their problem as well.
Ultimately, it falls to the league to vet and train their players to conduct themselves in a fashion befitting the league’s desired status. The NBA has done this with the implementation of its Rookie Transition Program, a mandatory program that provides incoming players with training and advisement in multiple fields, including diversity, inclusion, and social media and media conduct. It’s a comprehensive program presented by NBA and NBPA members that helps prepare young athletes for the heightened scrutiny and expectations of the league’s leadership. It also sets standards for players to work towards if they mess up, creating a structure for players to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. The Overwatch League doesn’t currently have such a system in place, but it could greatly benefit from the installation of one. It isn’t foolproof, but it shows more of a commitment than solely relying on reactionary punishment.
While the league has steadily handed out fines and suspensions, its leadership hasn’t been exempt from controversy. OWL commissioner Nate Nanzer has been criticized for dragging his feet on releasing the league’s code of conduct publicly, something every major sports league the OWL wants to be compared to has done. That criticism has spread to include questions over the discrepancies in the amount of time taken to address infractions and the varying level of league punishments based on the severity of separate code of conduct violations.
Even if the league chooses to keep its code of conduct close to the chest, it must determine and maintain consistency in its handling and punishment of infractions. Traditional sports leagues don’t widely utilize standardization of punishments for conduct violations outside of their PED, drug and domestic violence policies, but they have grown to understand the weight of different infractions and their consequences. The OWL’s lack of awareness is on full display when it hands out the same $1000 fine for using a homophobic insult, which the league took more than a month to issue, that it levels foraccount sharing. That $1000 fine makes even less sense when another player received a $2000 fine and four-game suspension for using a homophobic insult. Such inconsistency leads to the unprofessional perception that has plagued esports organizations which the Overwatch League desires to buck.
When the League’s code of conduct and rulebook were leaked in March, the extent of control that the OWL and Activision Blizzard retained over its players was concerning. The leaked documents revealed that Overwatch League players give up the licensing rights to their likeness, backstory, any personal streams of Blizzard games and the majority of their privacy while in team housing and practice spaces when joining the league. We’re talking the installation of 24/7 cameras in any team or league controlled space for the purpose of creating behind-the-scenes reality TV style content with the only escape from the lens being the bathroom. Unsurprisingly, living under the unblinking eye of the camera has led to instances of anxiety in players and team interactions other leagues would keep private.
Every sports league utilizes the likenesses of its players and produces exclusive content that offers a limited backstage look into their lives and careers, but none of those organizations exhibit the level of control possessed by the Overwatch League. The main reason for this is the existence of strong players’ unions. Organizations such as the NFLPA and MLBPA would laugh at the notion of allowing such blanket access to its members’ licenses. That sense of ownership over its players has spawned a movement to unionize OWL players in a similar fashion to other major players’ associations, with a proposal due out by the end of the OWL’s inaugural season. The openness of the league to providing collective bargaining power to its players remains unknown, but the recognition of an OWL players’ association is a needed step if it wants to truly stand as competitive gaming’s translation of major sports organizations.
No league structure is perfect. There has been plenty of ridicule thrown at sports organizations throughout their individual histories for the handling of occurrences similar to those the Overwatch League has faced, but each has addressed their growing pains, building practices and systems to better prepare and prevent its players and officials from bringing the speculative eye upon them. While that evolution is expected when building something from scratch, the Overwatch League had a plethora of examples to look to when building its league model. If they truly want to emulate traditional sports leagues, OWL officials should have delved deeper into how these leagues built themselves to be accountable instead of just slapping city names on a collection of logos and color schemes.
Brian Bell is an intern at Paste.