Yesterday, the first round of Overwatch League play in 2023 concluded with the league’s first-ever pro-am tournament. Seven amateur teams from the North American and EMEA regions qualified for the right to play against the professional Overwatch teams of the west.
Most Contenders teams are sorely under-resourced. They’re usually made up of teens and young adults who practice and play alongside their school and work obligations. It is an almost impossible grind for Contenders players to maintain the level of skill needed to compete against professionals who get a salary, access to better equipment and coaching, and in some cases, even housing. Contenders is the backbone of the Overwatch League. Esports has a notoriously high attrition rate, and for the Overwatch League, Contenders is where pro teams source their next generation of talent and staff. Yet, for a while, the scene went almost completely neglected by Blizzard. If you didn’t follow the competitive Overwatch community closely, for the first few years of the League’s existence, you wouldn’t have known Contenders existed.
For the last two years or so, Blizzard seems to have gotten the message, promoting Contenders matches on social media and the Overwatch game launcher. The pro-am tournament feels, then, like the next logical step of those small successes. It was Contenders teams given the opportunity to play in front of an audience who might not be familiar with Overwatch’s Tier 2 scene, teams got to hone their skills against pros, and they were displaying their talents for any team managers and coaches who were watching.
Yeah, sure, none of those teams were able to make it to the final stage of the tournament, and most matchups between a Contenders team and a pro one ended in a swift and brutal shutout (with some pro teams pouring copious amounts of salt in the wound by playing off-meta compositions). But we did get a couple of nice moments when Trick Room, Saints, and Twisted Minds upset their professional opponents, one of which was the two-time Overwatch League champion San Francisco Shock. The talent is there, and it was finally given the grand stage it needed to shine. Oh, and the Florida Mayhem won the whole thing, but whatever, that’s not important.
What is important is that once the League starts up in earnest on April 27th and the eastern teams finally get their opportunity to play, we’ll get to see more Contenders teams join the fray, and this time, the League teams are really gonna have to watch their backs. Eastern teams are more likely to have formal organizational support putting their resources on par with Overwatch League franchise teams. I’m not saying eastern Contenders teams won’t get the shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, but it’ll be far less likely than you think, and I, for one, am looking forward to the kinds of upsets and knock-down-drag-out fights that make competitive Overwatch so damned exciting to watch.
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