With the news that Blizzard and ESL FACEIT are preparing to launch a new esports circuit for Overwatch 2, mere months after the death of the Overwatch League, it's a good time to take stock of the entire esports scene. Things are looking slightly frantic, at least in North America. League of Legends and Rocket League are particularly messy, entering their 2024 seasons with lean budgets and major shakeups. Meanwhile, an expansion of the open-qualifiers model should provide more opportunities for everyday players to compete in Valorant, Overwatch 2, Rocket League and all manner of fighting games. Get those fingers ready, folks.
This week's stories
Xbox lineup in 2024
Xbox held its first showcase of 2024 last week, highlighting a handful of games that have been in development for years. Indiana Jones and The Great Circle is due out later in 2024, and it comes from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus studio MachineGames. The new footage showcased lots of whipping, quipping and Nazi punching, just like Indy would want.
Next, Obsidian’s big fantasy RPG, Avowed, will hit PC and Xbox in the fall. Obsidian is the studio that made Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds, and Avowed looks like its spin on an Elder Scrolls game.
Finally, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II will come out on May 21, nearly five years after it was announced alongside the reveal of the Xbox Series X.
Esports are back and smaller than ever
2024 is a moment of reckoning for esports, especially in North America. Blizzard killed the Overwatch League last year and it’s trying to start a new series with the ESL, viewership of North American League of Legends is on the decline, and Rocket League’s RLCS tournament is in a state of upheaval.
League of Legends is the king of esports, and in 2023, its World Championship tournament broke viewership records, driven by legendary performances from Korean and Chinese teams — OK, mostly Faker. But no matter how hard I cheer for them, North American League of Legends teams are still kind of a joke on the world stage. Last year, the Korean summer split attracted 1.5 million concurrent viewers, while the LCS summer tournament peaked at 223,000 viewers, and that was down from 370,000 in 2022. The 2024 season kicked off this month with regional tournaments, and the North American LCS looks like a brand new beast. The number of teams competing in the LCS has been cut from 10 to 8, meaning Evil Geniuses and Golden Guardians are gone, and the league is using a faster-paced best-of-one format in the regular season. We’ll see how this all pays off at MSI in May.
In the Rocket League Championship Series, budgets are tight and teams are scattered. There will be two major tournaments this year instead of three, plus the World Championship, and there are fewer spots reserved for both North America and Europe. Six established casters were dropped from this year’s events and it looks like only North America and Europe will have hosted tournaments, in English only. The RLCS prize pool is also smaller this year, down from $6 million to $4.3 million. A handful of teams lost sponsorships heading into 2024 and there was a ton of player shakeup among existing orgs. To top it all off, the game’s most famous player, Squishy, announced plans to retire from pro play to focus on streaming. It’s just a confusing time in Rocket League esports.
One side effect of esports shrinkage is a shift to open qualifiers. Rocket League swapped to open qualifiers this year, meaning basically anyone could compete for a spot in the RLCS, rather than teams buying in for the season. The RLCS prize pool is deeper, even though it’s also smaller, and the top 128 teams in North America will receive small payouts.
The Valorant esports scene has been steadily solidifying since the game’s launch in 2020, with a peak of 1.4 million viewers for the 2023 Valorant Champions Tour. The VCT has always featured open qualifiers, and this year that system is expanding with Premier, an in-game competitive track that acts as another funnel for everyday players to compete on the main stage. (As a side note, the VCT Game Changers series highlights players of marginalized genders and it’s really awesome, check it out sometime.)
Just this week, Blizzard announced the Overwatch Champions Series, a multi-region esports tournament for Overwatch 2. Unlike the deceased Overwatch League, the Champions Series will have open qualifiers. The new series is produced by ESL FACEIT, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which makes me sad.
Meanwhile, the fighting game community has been all over open registration for a while. EVO is the biggest fighting game tournament of the year, and in 2023 it hosted more than 9,000 players competing across eight titles. As a one-on-one genre, fighting games often find themselves on the frontlines of experimentation in esports, and EVO is always a good time.
I think open registration is a cool move for esports in general — it allows more people from diverse backgrounds to participate and provides a sustainable entry point for young pros. This is how talent pipelines are built.
After taking a few months off to play other games, I’m back on Cult of the Lamb. The free Sins of the Flesh update landed last week, and it’s big and sexy, adding layers of debauchery and plenty of new content to the game. As Engadget weekend editor Cheyenne MacDonald said in her review, “We’re having a great time sinning, my followers and I.”