Most Overwatch League fans know Jon Spector from his regular cameos in the league’s video updates, where he wields a whiteboard full of plans and a faux “script” of plot twists to spice up the season. In reality, he’s been working with an extensive team of experts as the league’s vice president, organizing this year’s grand finale and rolling toward the April 2022 start date of season five, confirmed to be played on an early build of Overwatch 2.
Ahead of the Overwatch League season playoffs, which begin on Sept. 21 at 6pm CT, Spector sat down with Dot Esports to discuss the victories of the past year, how they’ll shape the future, and what a wide-open postseason playing field looks like. He was open about how much professional players will see of Overwatch 2 in Hawaii (a lot), but we still can’t confirm or deny if he does, in fact, have a script handy.
How do you think the 2021 season went in comparison to 2020?
Spector: In my head, I break up 2020 into two parts: There’s the pre-pandemic part of 2020 and the post-pandemic part of it. When you’re comparing the post-pandemic phase of 2020 to what we were able to do this year, I think we took a lot of really big steps forward. I remain really proud of the team for this, but we had two or three weeks, not even, to rebuild an entire plan for the 2020 season in the middle of things. It showed, in some ways. It was a massive accomplishment to even be able to safely complete the season and crown a champion.
This year, the team had a proper offseason to do all of the planning work for 2021 and that meant being able to do all the stuff that I think has shown every single day in the show this year, like updating the overall tone of the league, refreshing our broadcast graphics, and making sure that the desk looked great.
The proof is in the pudding to some extent when you look at the viewership numbers. Our tentpole moments with tournaments this year are literally almost double the viewership that we had last year. I’m really proud of how things have gone. Obviously, we have to close out the season strong, but so far I think it’s been great.
How did the recent sponsorship changes affect the season, if at all?
We’ve been continuing to work closely with our partners and there’s been a whole bunch of pivoting in general for the postseason. You go back to a couple of months ago, the plan that we really wanted was to have thousands of fans in the Galen Center in L.A. Because we’ve had to go to Hawaii and because of the pandemic situation, so much of our plan at this point is entirely driven by health and safety considerations above literally anything else.
When you look at the types of ways partners would want to activate, a lot of it is often [related to] a live audience or the signage at the big arena and we’re not going to have those types of opportunities this year, anyway. Our focus for playoffs and finals has just been how to close out the season in as strong of a way as possible, drive hopefully our best viewership of the year, and put on a great show for fans all over the world, but doing that in a way that is safe and compliant.
Looking toward next year, what was the timeline like deciding to do next season on Overwatch 2?
It’s been a ton of work over the last couple of months, in particular, with our partners on the development team, trying to assemble what I’ll describe as “an incredibly complicated puzzle.” Any time that you’re going to transition something from Overwatch to the early build of Overwatch 2, that’s complicated by itself, but we’re also dealing with the newly resurgent pandemic and trying to put together a plan given continued uncertainty about what travel and immigration and some of the kind of key elements of a season plan are going to look like.
What we’ve been doing, and I think this reflects an approach that we’ve taken generally in the pandemic, is [doing] our best where possible to stay flexible. Over the course of the spring and summer, I think once we were even one or two tournaments into 2021, we started to feel really good. Once we had that kind of, “OK, things are in good shape this year” thought, the timeline then becomes, “what do we want to build on next year? How do we successfully transition to start using Overwatch 2 when we’re able?”
We did our best to stay pretty flexible given that continued uncertainty about what the world was gonna look like. I think, in hindsight, that probably [caused] some of the bad games of telephone that led to what I would call “misreporting” from some folks about the Overwatch League 2022 season. Instead of, “the league is trying to stay flexible and considering a range of options and has not decided anything,” you get “there’s no 2022 season” and other sort of absurd and sensational headlines.
The whole time through that we were in pencil, mostly, drawing out different options and plans for next year. We were trying to figure out how we could line things up as well as possible with our partners on the dev team to make things work out next year.
How do you think the change to five-vs-five will affect players and staff?
If you go back to when we first revealed the move to five-vs-five, one of the goals there was to make sure that players and staff would have appropriate time to plan for that reality and adjust to it. One of the other loud pieces of feedback, particularly from some of the more (I call it) “competitive” community of the game but also our pro players was like, “well, this is really interesting and it seems cool, but also I want to watch what pros can do with this.”
We’ve spent the last several months really working toward the moment we just announced yesterday, where at Grand Finals we’re going to have the chance to show off a pro player match in five-vs-five on one of the new Push maps.
[Next week], once each team is eliminated from the playoffs, we’re going to have a setup at the University of Hawaii where they’ll be able to start playtesting some of the five-vs-five experience. We’ll be gathering feedback from the pro players on that. Even though we’re only going to air the one full exhibition map with pros in five-vs-five, we’re also going to have the opportunity to debrief the pros on their experience: How did it go, what did you like, what’s your feedback?
What’s your personal favorite Overwatch 2 change so far?
I’ve been playing a lot of Reinhardt recently, so I’m excited for some of what we showed off at the last public stream [of Overwatch 2]. The changes to Charge and Firestrike are just really cool as a Rein player, so I’m excited about that. That’s on my list of stuff I’m looking forward to, seeing what the pros can do with some of those adjustments.
Finally, which two teams do you have in the Grand Finals?
[laughs] I cannot take a public position favoring one team over another.
Leak the script, Jon.
Honestly, the thing I’m most excited about looking into these finals is that it’s genuinely more wide open than it’s ever been in four years.
In season one, it was NYXL’s to lose and then they did actually manage to lose it. And season two, you’ve got the ascendancy of the [San Francisco] Shock and that rivalry against the [Vancouver] Titans that played out the whole year. You sort of knew by the halfway point of the season that you were gonna see Shock vs. Titans at the end of it all. Last year, the Shock managed to stay on top. It was a cool story but, again, they were the best team in the world, [other than] maybe the Shanghai Dragons, for the whole season. Your playoffs and finals, even though they’re still awesome and fun to watch, are in some ways more of a coronation.
This year, from my perspective and from what I’ve heard from people who are a lot smarter than I am about this on our team, is that any of these eight teams can show up in a big way and win. We’ve seen it this year, we’ve done four of these tournaments already and we’ve had three different winners. A couple of months ago, I would have told you that we were going to get Dallas [Fuel] vs. Shanghai again in the finals, that those two teams are the best. But I don’t know that anymore. Gladiators looked incredible in the Countdown Cup, the Fusion have started to heat up at just the right time. Washington, if they can shake some of the inconsistency, they looked incredible in the play-ins dispatching Houston. I genuinely don’t know and that has me incredibly excited.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.