The Overwatch League has been active for nearly as long as Blizzard's squad-based hero shooter has. It was founded in the same year as Overwatch launched and has since been a huge part of the esports scene.
However, Blizzard and the Overwatch League have found themselves in hot water recently, with the United States Department of Justice looking into potential legal issues and violations that the competitive league might be committing.
What's happening between the Overwatch League and the DOJ?
To understand what's going on with the Overwatch League and why the Department of Justice is probing it, we'll need to explain first how it works.
In terms of structure, the Overwatch League borrows from other traditional North American sports organizations and leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL). However, unlike both leagues that have player-run labor unions, the Overwatch League doesn't.
The Civil Conduct Task Force is heading the probe launched by the Departure of Justice. Its main goal is to take a closer look at the soft salary cap that Blizzard has imposed on teams. The said cap aims to punish organizations that pay salaries higher than $1.6 million by imposing a luxury tax. This would make it difficult and costly for Overwatch League teams to stack up on talented players just by spending as much money as possible.
According to reports, Blizzard is "cooperating accordingly" after the Department of Justice sent a notice about its inquiry. In fact, Blizzard has reportedly instructed team executives to remind them not to tamper with evidence about player salaries.
To be more specific, the DOJ is looking into the Overwatch to see if it is violating the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. This is a law that, in a nutshell, prevents companies from restricting competition to focus on maximizing profit.
It's worth noting that the DOJ's investigation of the Overwatch League is non-criminal. However, this doesn't necessarily make it less of a big deal. The worst-case scenario here is that the DOJ finds the Overwatch League and Activision Blizzard in violation of the law. If that happens, Blizzard could find itself in an even more precarious situation.
To make matters worse, the inquiry comes at arguably the worst possible time for a struggling Overwatch League.
While Overwatch remains a popular game as players look forward to Overwatch 2, its competitive side has seen better days. Viewership has gone down considerably over the years. For example, peak viewership was around 47,000 on Twitch in 2019. In contrast, that number has gone down to less than half at just 17,000 viewers as of March 2021.
The inquest might also lead to some discussions about the importance of esports player unions. It could also affect the structure of the Overwatch League. The effects might even extend to other games too - in particular, Riot Games' League of Legends. The competitive branch of the popular MOBA title follows a similar structure to the Overwatch League.