Last year, as NBA and NHL teams went into playoff bubbles and UFC decamped for Fight Island, Overwatch League had a problem it couldn’t solve.
With teams spread across the globe and travel restrictions in place, Activision-Blizzard’s professional gaming league couldn’t fly teams to a single location, and internet connectivity between continents was too slow for top-tier esports. The result was a compromise that pleased almost no one—the league spent a season crowning simultaneous tournament champions in Asia and the U.S./Europe. It would be akin to the NBA calling the Lakers and Heat co-champions instead of playing the Finals.
This season, the league has found a creative solution: Hawaii. For all four of its regular season tournaments, Overwatch is planning to fly the top teams in its West division to Hawaii, where they can compete on a faster internet connection with the top teams in Asia. The key is a $1 billion underwater fiber-optic cable network that runs from Japan to Hawaii, which Activision-Blizzard will access as part of a wider partnership with the University of Hawaii.
“There was a period where I was cracking jokes about people suggesting this just because they wanted to travel to Hawaii,” Jon Spector, vice president of Overwatch Esports, said in an interview. “It wasn’t until we got that the latency test back from our IT team where the lightbulb fully went off. It was like, ‘Oh my god, we’ve actually solved the problem.’”
The result will be more expensive—just like the NBA and NHL bubbles were—but it will allow Overwatch League to deliver on its promise to provide consistent global competition, something rarely seen in traditional sports, or even esports. The league hopes to be rewarded in the form of increased viewership for those championships.
“When you look at how a lot of the traditional sports leagues have to solve this problem, they set up the bubble at Disney and spend untold amounts of money doing that,” Spector said. “I think this is a pretty cost-effective solution, but more importantly for us, it’s a solution that is more operationally straightforward and doesn’t require weeks and weeks of set-up at each point.”
The challenge highlights a headache for esports leagues that might surprise casual fans. Though gamers don’t need to be in the same physical location to compete, they also can’t be too far apart. Few internet users notice the delay between an action on their keyboard and it reaching a central server—called latency—as acutely as pro gamers.
Those latency delays are microscopic but also critical. Competing from San Francisco to Tokyo via standard methods produces about 130 milliseconds of latency (about half the length of a human blink). The Hawaii connection will reduce that to about 82 milliseconds. Internally in the U.S., teams compete in the 40-70 millisecond range, depending on how far they are, while teams in Korea can compete against each other at 10 milliseconds, because the country is smaller and has better internet infrastructure. Going across the Atlantic Ocean is also headache, but Overwatch League can set that in the 90 millisecond range.
“This problem exists regardless of the pandemic,” said Corey Smith, director of live operations for Overwatch esports. “When you play any competitive game online, you’re just jumping into whatever hopper is closest to you. The game’s match-making systems don’t allow things to get so far out of whack latency-wise.”
Given that teams could no longer fly to Asia without weeks-long quarantines, Overwatch executives started searching for a solution early in the pandemic. They looked at other Pacific island countries, and at the possibility of adding four different three-week breaks into the season. Neither proved realistic.
Hawaii, however, was the silver bullet. U.S.-based gamers can travel there without immigration/visa restrictions (you can enter with a negative test, Spector said), and the state has kept COVID-19 cases relatively low. Most important, there’s the underwater Japan U.S. Cable Network. Ironically, most internet traffic going from Hawaii to Japan is actually routed back to California before going to Asia, but the university is able to route traffic from its campus directly to Tokyo.
The deal with the University of Hawaii will allow the Overwatch League teams access to campus facilities for their competition (and thus access to the cable’s direct route to Tokyo). The university will also help manage COVID-19 protocols, Spector said.
The Overwatch League launched in 2018 as one of the first franchised esports leagues; Activision-Blizzard had a vision for how competitive gaming could adopt the structure of leagues like the NBA and NHL. For its initial season the league sold $20 million franchise slots to a dozen ownership groups, many comprised of traditional sports owners like Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke. The league has since expanded to 20 across six countries.
For its fourth season, possibly its last before the release of Overwatch 2, the league has divided into two divisions—an eight-team East division of teams competing in Asia (this includes a few U.S.-based teams that are currently overseas), and a 12-team West division of teams in North America and Europe. The season consists of four four-week tournament cycles, each culminating in a four-team showdown to crown a cup champion. For those championships, two West division teams will qualify on a Sunday, fly to Hawaii the following day, and be competing versus their Asian counterparts starting on Thursday. (Plans for the ultimate playoff and finals are still to be determined.)
Everyone at Overwatch League is hoping this solution is a one-season stopgap. In the future, the league plans to fly gamers from San Francisco to Shanghai when the Shock need to play the Dragons.
“This is hopefully a thing that we look back on and say, ‘We innovated in a really cool way in the middle of an impossibly challenging and complex situation,’” Spector said.