The Overwatch League (OWL) is saying “Aloha” for its 2021 season.
After having success during last year’s Grand Finals by sending two teams based in North America to Seoul, South Korea, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the esports league owned and operated by Activision Blizzard decided that the in-person feel of the season’s most important matches (which will still be held online) is too integral to the competition to ignore.
With a pandemic still raging, visa and immigration policies remaining in flux, travel restrictions always changing, OWL — with 20 teams in three continents — knew that putting two teams in the same room would prove impossible.
The desire to find a location that could connect two teams on the same server for the four in-season tournaments (May Melee, June Joust, Summer Showdown, and Countdown Cup) persisted. Executives began scouring the globe for the solution.
Last season, Overwatch installed in-season tournaments that crowned champions in the two regions of play: one for North America and one in Asia.
“Every single time,” said OWL vice president Jon Spector, “the question fans usually ask is, ‘Well, who’s the best?’”
Now, the top North American team will earn the right to jet-set across the Pacific to the union’s 50th state as the 19-week season starts Friday.
“We know from a competition standpoint we need to get players from both regions close enough to a one-server location so they can compete on at low-enough latency that it’s a high-quality match,” Spector told USA TODAY Sports.
Korea worked last year, but only after traveling teams completed two-week solitary quarantines. In 2021, the league wanted to keep players in mind by limiting the burden of isolation and additional entrance restrictions.
Hawaii has done a satisfactory job of limiting COVID-19 spread, Spector said. The state also requires a negative test for entry, and the league has an agreement with the University of Hawaii to use its facility for teams to compete safely and within guidelines.
“Hawaii kind of emerged as this silver bullet for ‘How do we level-up those tournaments?’” Spector said.
Crowning a true tournament champion four times during the season was paramount for the players, Spector said. And now, on top of the prize money and the glory of winning, players on North American teams have the added incentive of a Hawaii trip.
Different Overwatch “metas” (game settings) that will be changed after each in-season tournament should lend themselves to different teams traveling to Hawaii, although there are concerns of the same teams — such as the San Francisco Shock, going for a third straight championship — advancing to the final stage in-season tournaments.
Players are excited, but it’s not a “go party in Hawaii” accommodation for players, Spector said. There will be no bar-hopping or surfing lessons or excursions.
“This is, ‘Arrive in Hawaii, check into your hotel, go to the campus where we’ve set up strict social distancing and safety guidelines, practice, compete in your match, and safely go home,’” Spector said.
There was also a technological component that made Hawaii attractive.
When the Overwatch League went fully virtual last spring and played an online season, the operations team conducted a survey and realized that player connectivity was a primary issue.
The desired latency — the delay between a user’s action and a web application’s response to that action — for Overwatch players is between 80-90 milliseconds, the survey found, and becomes a competitive issue once it reaches 110-120 milliseconds.
Latency issues of tenths of a millisecond don’t affect a person surfing the web in Hawaii, or even an average gamer – but it’s like altering the size of a baseball between pitches and makes a big difference for professional esports players.
An underwater sea cable allows the internet service provider at the University of Hawaii to connect directly to a cloud-based server the league sets up in Tokyo; the Asia champion will connect to that server from its normal setup.
Activision developed a “minimum-latency tool” during the offseason. It allows the league to set the latencies to make sure they are the same for all participating players, and ended up making the Hawaii plan even possible.
“Not only does the game play better,” Spector said, “but also because we can create a level playing field for everyone, we just have a better competition environment than, I think, really any of our competitors.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.