Blizzard’s Overwatch League has made some of the greatest strides yet towards bringing the world of esports into the public eye. With permanent teams based in major cities around the world, organized seasons, and broadcasting deals struck with Twitch and ESPN, the Overwatch League, or OWL, is one of the biggest professional esports tournaments around.
Unlike traditional sports, however, the experience of competing in OWL is somewhat divorced from the average player’s experience of competitive play. An aspiring baseball player, for example, won’t just play games in isolation. He or she will join a team, and that team will face off against other teams of their same skill level, working through a bracket to become local champions. An aspiring Overwatch player, however, is left to fend for themselves; even if they find other consistent players to form a team with, there’s no structure to compete against others in brackets or judge their team’s worth until they’re already a world-class player.
Fortunately, the fans themselves have created a solution. Enter one fan named Dan Marino and his vision of a different Overwatch League, one made for amateurs: OWLET.
OWLET is an amateur league run with the same rules and brackets as the OWL itself, just run by fans and open to players of all skill levels. With Major and Minor divisions and one successful season under its belt, OWLET has begun recruiting players for its second official fan-run tournament. We got the chance to speak with OWLET’s founder, Dan Marino, and learn more about what OWLET is all about.
EGM: Hi, Dan. What’s your role in putting OWLET together?
Dan Marino: I came up with the original idea for OWLET and developed the original rules and tournament structure used in Season 1. I brought on Direboyd and Telrek soon after to help run everything. Now, my role is primarily to grow the tournament and make OWLET a viable stepping stone for players, coaches, and casters to get into high level Overwatch and esports.
EGM: What inspired you to start OWLET?
Marino: I started coaching Overwatch about a year ago. I entered a tournament as a coach. Our team had a pretty great run, but it got me thinking about how I would run a tournament. I really wanted to give low SR [Skill Rating] players an Overwatch League experience where they could feel like they were a part of something big and competitive. We were a little ambitious in that we planned to have every match casted with two broadcasters, just like in OWL. After that, everything sort of fell into place.
EGM: How did you go about selecting your initial players? How do you strike the balance between giving low-ranked amateurs a chance, but still wanting competitive players with a chance to win?
Marino: I invited a handful of teams and players I came across from my time as a coach that I thought would be good fits for us. Yeah, trying to balance competition and inclusion was a really tough task. We initially had an SR cap for teams to kind of ensure that teams wouldn’t stack higher ranked players. We ended up removing that rule—something I wish we kept in place. We’re looking at ways we can achieve that very balance of being both inclusive and competitive.
[To extend our reach further], we advertised everywhere we could for signups and vetted the players as well as we could to try to protect against smurfs. [Editor’s note: A “smurf” is a high-ranking player who makes a new, low-leveled account in order to get easy wins in games below their skill level.] From there, we left it to the teams to establish their cultures and select the players they felt they needed. We try to be very selective with who gets the team slots, making sure they’re reliable and understand our mission and goals as a tournament.
EGM: You’ve already held your first complete competitive season with those new players. How did that compare to the regular Overwatch League? Was there anything that surprised you?
Marino: I think we simulated the experience as closely as we could, given our restrictions. I think teams were super excited to participate in something like this, and I think my team did an incredible job of delivering that experience. What surprised me was the interest that came out of our original signups. In the beginning we planned on 12 teams of 8-10 [players]. We ended up fielding 20 teams over Season 1, all around that 10 person roster size.
EGM: You mentioned that OWLET brought on not just amateur players, but amateur broadcasters. What other types of positions did you need to fill to get OWLET off the ground? What work went on behind the scenes that viewers might not know about?
Marino: For Season 1, mostly just players, casters, and coaches. I think what a lot of people miss is how much the Season 1 tournament support team did to make OWLET so great. Before taking on this challenge, I myself didn’t realize just how much needed to be done logistically. Scheduling was a huge challenge, but we somehow pulled it off. Team scheduling, broadcasters, and [referee] availabilities were always in flux, so it was nothing short of amazing that we pulled it off. Now we pride ourselves that OWLET is a space for anyone of any experience level, in any esports field, to participate. Whether that’s playing, casting, coaching, esports journalism, or really anything else that people would like to contribute. We want OWLET to be developmental for more than just players.
EGM: Can you tell me about your viewership? What attracts people to watch OWLET streams? In what ways is what you offer distinct from the experience of watching the official Overwatch League?
Marino: Viewership is something we’re trying to improve upon. For Season 1, we really just focused on getting members of our community to engage with our streams. Going forward, we want to attract more outside viewers that are interested in the amateur scene. Because, while we definitely aren’t at the OWL level, our teams are by and large evenly matched, which allows for some really exciting matches. We have a few plans to increase our viewership for Season 2, but I don’t think we’re ready to announce exactly what we’re going to be doing. But increasing production quality and attracting new viewers is a top priority.
EGM: What would you say separates OWLET from something like Overwatch Contenders?
Marino: Aside from the skill level necessary to participate in contenders, I’d say really only the structure of the tournament. I’d like for OWLET to become a stepping stone for those wanting to get to Contenders. Ideally, for me, the first stop on Blizzard’s path to pro would be OWLET.
EGM: How can aspiring OWLET players join up with you? What’s your recruitment process?
Marino: We are expanding into two tournaments for Season 2. The first tournament will be exclusively for players under Diamond [rank] who just want to learn and develop their skills. Our second tournament will cater to those who want a more competitive experience. To join either, we will be releasing a sign-up form where teams and individual players can join. We are aiming for half of our teams to be pre-made and half to be newly formed teams. We do this so that everyone can be included and participate.
EGM: Thanks a lot for talking to me today! Where can interested players find you to sign up for Season 2?
Marino: Anyone interested should visit our website at www.owelttournament.com.