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Overwatch League 2021 playoffs are set to begin today, with the five North America-based teams competing from Hawaii and the Asia-based teams competing from Shanghai and South Korea. Ahead of the first matches, Upcomer was able to sit down with Overwatch League VP Jon Spector to discuss the season so far, plans for next season and what he’s looking forward to today.

Upcomer: So, the Overwatch League used a tournament structure again this season. How do you think it went since you were able to implement it from the beginning rather than scrambling to pivot to it mid-season?

Jon Spector: Yeah, we’ve been really happy with how this season went. I think the tournament structure of running qualifying matches for a couple of weeks and then bringing the best teams from around the world together has been really compelling from a storytelling perspective and creating great competition. All four tournaments were really great in terms of the the level of play and some of the fun storylines. This is the fifth time this year that we’ve brought the best teams from around the world to face off against each other in the middle of a pandemic; I’m really happy that we’ve managed to do that safely and effectively.

We go back and look every single season when we’re trying to figure out what we do next and say, “what can we do better? What can we improve upon?” And there’s definitely a list there too. But from my perspective, we’re really happy about the overall season structure. And I think one of the things that’s been nice to see has been positive feedback from both players and fans as well. When we talk to players, I think they, by and large, enjoyed this season’s format a lot. When we look at fan research and in the ultimate test of how many people tune in and watch, we’ve seen significant increases this year, which is great.

Gladiators competing in Overwatch League events in Hawaii
This is the fifth time the league has partially operated out of Hawaii this season. Players here will test Overwatch 2. | Provided by Overwatch League

Upcomer: And in terms of the content you produced this year – there was a very different ‘feel’ to it. With the pandemic going on, too, I know you worked with the Korean and Chinese broadcast teams as well. So can you talk through the process of making some of that content, like the pre-match hype videos or even the Gladiators docuseries that just premiered today?

Spector: One of the things that we’ve tried really hard to do – and I think people have noticed it in our overall content, on our social media and on the broadcast itself, on Watchpoint – we’re just trying to have a looser, more fun tone. For years now I think our community has created some of the best memes and fun content of any esport. Competition and who wins Grand Finals is still the biggest storyline, but we looked back at previous years and said, “we can actually have a lot more fun getting there.”

We’ve had a lot of success this year where in Korea, we’ve gone back to pay tribute to some of what I personally loved most about [OGN] APEX, all those hype videos and the player trash talk segment. You’ll see later today, actually – we’re going to air another fun trash talk piece that features all the teams. But then we also just released something from our content team in China, a video of cats playing Overwatch and representing each of the teams. It’s one of my single favorite pieces of esports content ever. I’ve watched it 10 times now and can’t stop laughing.

There’s a lot of that type of stuff. But also, we’ve tried to stay focused as well on the stakes of the competition and telling the stories of our players. For instance, you mentioned that Gladiators docuseries that that we just premiered the first episode of. I think that’s going to be a really nice look into the more serious and competitive side of our league, where you can see just how much this means to all of those players. And obviously, we don’t yet know how that story is going to end over the next couple of days. But I think it’s going to be really interesting and compelling regardless.

Upcomer: There’s still quite a bit of time until next season starts, but broadly speaking, regardless of whether live matches happen or not, do you think you’ll stick with the tournament structure or return to the format that was originally planned for 2020?

Spector: We’re still working through this, but I very much expect that we will stick with some sort of tournament structure. I say that to give myself a bit of flexibility as the team continues to iterate and design things. But we think the tournament format’s been really compelling, and we want to build on that. We have a bunch of minor competition design points, like, is the four-team international bracket the best? Is this the best way to structure the knockouts? Should it be four qualifier matches, or do you try to make that five? There’s those types of permutations on the format where as soon as this season ends and we’re all done sleeping for a couple of days, our team’s going to get to work in kicking off more in-depth conversations with teams and players and looking at the feedback from our fans. I don’t expect we’re going to radically reinvent things. We think this season’s structure’s been really good and working well, and we’re looking to optimize it rather than making wholesale, broad changes.

The Overwatch League playoffs kick off today, the last event before players test Overwatch 2
The Overwatch League playoffs kick off today, the last event before players test Overwatch 2. | Provided by Overwatch League

Upcomer: Right – and I know you probably can’t talk too much about next season, what with the Overwatch 2 of it all, but how closely are you working with players and developers when it comes to that? And how closely are they working with each other?

Spector: We’ve publicly talked about how we’re going to running some Overwatch 2 play tests for our pro players who are in Hawaii, starting in a couple of days. We’ll have our first teams eliminated from tomorrow, and we’ll start running those [Overwatch 2] play tests. That’s an opportunity to show players all over the world a little more about what 5v5 looks like at the highest level, but it’s also a chance for pros to get a sense of what it’s going to look like. And it’s an opportunity for our developers to start a process of gathering feedback from pro players, what they like, what they don’t like, and make sure they have the ability to take that into account.

Throughout the season we typically have a number of direct pro player/developer feedback sessions, and we’ve done that this year as we have in the past. We run a Discord server that has pro players, team staff, league staff and developers all in it, which gives everyone a direct opportunity to talk to each other about these issues.

Upcomer: Alright, so, I think that’s all the questions I have about the league at large, so now I’m going to ask you about the playoffs. Which match today are you most looking forward to? And you can’t say all of them.

Spector: Okay, if I had to say one, I think it’s probably Shanghai vs. Shock. I think every single one of the matches today is going to be great and compelling, and the stories are interesting for every one of those matches, but for me, Shanghai vs. Shock rises to the top. It’s a grudge match – nobody expected Shanghai to use their first seed to go for revenge and pick the Shock. It’s such a cool story, and we’ve not seen peak Shanghai in almost two months now, really since the end of the Summer Showdown. Seeing what they’ve been up to is going to be really cool. Similarly, the Shock going for a three-peat is a really cool storyline. I think we’re going to see this afternoon if they have a legitimate shot at that or if they’re likely to fall flat.

The San Francisco Shock won the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
The San Francisco Shock won the 2019 and 2020 seasons. | Provided by Overwatch League

Upcomer: On the logistical side of things – and we’re going to see this later, but I just have to ask – since the Chinese teams are playing out of Shanghai, will you be working with the Chinese broadcast team? Or will the broadcasts be separate?

Spector: Our broadcast team and IT folks have worked really hard to find ways to level up the show. This is the fifth time we’ve done this global competition with Hawaii, but we went back and said, “okay, we still have the global pandemic going on and following all the restrictions continues to be paramount. But within that context, what can we do to make this feel worthy of playoffs and finals?” For instance, in that studio in Shanghai, we will have the ability to show you the teams there. Here in Hawaii, we’ve set up a camera in each of the rooms and we can show that shot in addition to the player cams.

The biggest thing we’ve done – which is a slight tangent from the question – is that we’ve brought the whole desk to Hawaii, and you’ll see later today we’ve set them up in this beautiful, iconic location. I think that’s going to help make this feel more special, and I think the desk has done an incredible job this season in spite of the fact that when they’re talking to each other they’re actually looking at cameras and green screens. Bringing the four of them all together where they can play off each other in person – that’s going to be amazing too.

Upcomer: I’m excited to see it. So, after play-ins, I had the sudden realization that we only have 14 matches of Overwatch 1 left in the Overwatch League, which is sort of bittersweet… how important was it to you and the team that this be a good send-off to the original iteration of the game?

Spector: Yeah, more recently I’ve started feeling a lot more nostalgia for the years of this. We just released a video showing the path that the previous three grand finals champions took to get there, and that type of stuff, for me, is really helpful for trying to put a narrative wrapper of sorts around this chapter of Overwatch League. I’ve continued to feel throughout this season that we’re seeing the best professional Overwatch that we’ve ever seen in terms of the quality of play and the entertainment of the matches, the diversity of different comps and strategies that teams are playing… for me, it feels like we really are hitting this amazing high note as we start to close this chapter and make the transition into next year.

The Overwatch League 2019 grand finals.
The Overwatch League 2019 grand finals; this was the last-in person event before players test Overwatch 2. | Provided by Overwatch League