How the Overwatch League ensures competitive integrity with teams playing online

How the Overwatch League ensures competitive integrity with teams playing online

by Jessica Scharnagle

Overwatch League match days are an exciting time for fans all over the world. Even though fans are viewing matches in ways they might not have expected due to the pandemic, the operations team behind the league has made sure that fans still get the exhilarating experience that they’ve come to expect.

What fans might not know is how much thought goes behind match integrity now that teams are all competing in various locations around the world. Nerd Street caught up with senior manager of competition operations for the OWL Adam Mierzejewski to get more insight.

Mierzejewski joined the Blizzard team in 2016 just before Overwatch was released. He helped build the Path to Pro Contenders and Open Division leagues and then moved over to the OWL after it started gaining traction. Today, he is focused on competition operations as well as the products, format and development of the tournament cycles for the 2021 season.

Overwatch League’s format shift during the pandemic

For the first two years of OWL, when the competition was all based out of a studio in Los Angeles, California, maintaining match integrity was relatively easy for the operations team because the environment was controlled.

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Then, matches started taking place at teams’ home locations in Season 3, but only for the first few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and halted all in-person events in March 2020.

Midseason, the operations team were forced to come up with some kind of solution so that competition could continue.

Moving from in-person to online events proved a logistical challenge

Because the events are now online-only, Mierzejewski and all of the teams’ GMs have a close-knit relationship.

“One main thing my team does is work directly with the GMs of each of the 20 teams of the league to make sure they’re being heard and their needs, questions, concerns and feedback is being pushed through a pipeline that the league as a whole can hear,” Mierzejewski said.

Going from in-person events to online-only changed the way Mierzejewski and his team did their jobs.

“The thing that has changed a lot [from in-person events to online-only] is how we monitor the competition spaces,” Mierzejewski said. “From the very beginning of the OWL we always had the stage that we controlled and monitored whenever a player was on it. So during the “normal days” we had referees standing behind the players, we had a dedicated IT team … obviously we can’t do that anymore.”

The OWL competitive integrity team is always watching

Atlanta Reign main tank Blake “Gator” Scott learned the hard way that he is always being watched. When consuming a non-sponsored beverage, he was instantly called out on it, and Mierzejewski said that’s because they’re always watching those field of play and coaches room cameras.

One of the most important features that OWL instituted for online competition is a field of view camera where the players compete.

“It’s our way of monitoring players physically. IT is monitoring the hardware side of things, and my team is monitoring the physical space. Wherever there is a player in a facility, we have eyeballs on them. It makes sure that they’re not doing anything that they shouldn’t be,” Mierzejewski said.

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Mierzejewski recalled an instance where he was watching Yeong-han "SP9RK1E" Kim’s camera and saw that he had his head down and looked like he was fidgeting with something, and it resembled the act of texting someone underneath a desk.

“I’m looking through the field of play camera and it doesn’t look like [he has a phone], so I called [GM Matt “TazMo” Taylor] and I said, ‘hey Matt, what does SP9RK1E have in his hand? I’m very concerned, it looks like he’s texting or looking at his phone.’ And so I see Matt go in the room and check, and he comes out laughing and says he was playing with his hand warmers.”

Taylor showed on camera that he was in physical possession of the phone, and at that point, Mierzejewski apologized for raising the red flag, but it is super important for Mierzejewski and his team to say something if they see something that looks suspicious.

The OWL operations team has to monitor several locations at once

Instead of having teams in two separate green rooms ahead of matches, all 20 teams now have their own locations, and they all differ in how their space is laid out. The operations team was tasked with creating rules that were as unrestrictive as possible without compromising the integrity of the matches.

Although Mierzejewski couldn’t reveal all of the secrets of what goes on behind the scenes in order to protect the integrity of the matches themselves, there are a few things he mentioned teams must do on game days.

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Players cannot have their phones in the field of play. That means no smartwatches either, and nothing that could be considered external communications from anyone. The team communicates through a platform called TeamSpeak, which allows Mierzejewski and his team to listen in and make sure that no unauthorized person is chatting during the match.

If any hardware malfunctions, such as mice, keyboards and headsets, the teams are required to keep factory-sealed backups that can be opened during a pause or in between matches in front of the camera to ensure that the device hasn’t been altered in any way.

The integrity check process

Integrity checks happen two hours before every match for every single team that is playing on a given day. The team checks to make sure that everything is working and that the latest Overwatch patch is installed.

“We had a player last year that goes, ‘oh, I didn’t update yet, I need 20 minutes.’ It’s like “we don’t have 20 minutes!” So we make sure they download the patch way in advance, we make sure TeamSpeak is updated,” Mierzejewski said. “We have required software that monitors their PC for potential foul play, and we have a program that allows us to remote into their PC if they need help with an IT issue, all they have to do is click a support button.”

When players enter their competition space, they must empty out their pockets in front of a camera and ensure they have no electronic communications devices.

During play, they cannot speak during pauses and cannot type anything in chat.

“If it’s a pause, teams aren’t supposed to speak and we come in [to TeamSpeak] and say, ‘hey guys, no speaking during a pause, we’ll give you an update when we know what’s going on,’” Mierzejewski said.

Coaching and match integrity in OWL

In the past when events were played in-person, there were what Mierzejewski called “dugouts” where a team’s coaches could watch only their six players, listen to their TeamSpeak comms and communicate with them during map breaks.

When the competition moved online, Mierzejewski and his team had to come up with a way to keep things fair, but also give the coaches the freedom they needed to do their jobs.

“In the field of play, we do try to standardize it as much as possible to make sure our league standards and minimums are being met. That way we can actively monitor them across the board of all 20 teams, but also it’s competitive integrity, and part of competitive integrity is being fair and equal,” Mierzejewski said.

The rules started off very strict, but Mierzejewski and his team took coach and GM suggestions to heart and implemented some more lenient rules without compromising the integrity of the match.

For example, at the beginning, the rule was that no one but the players were authorized to be in the field of play at any given time during matches. They are now OK with the head coaches being in the room now as long as they are visible on the camera so that the OWL team can tell that they’re not tapping players’ shoulders or holding up signs.

OWL’s dedication to competitive integrity

There is a tough balance between being strict enough to ensure competitive integrity is upheld, and also giving players and coaches the freedom they need in order to do their jobs.

With Mierzejewski at the helm, he and his team are constantly looking for loopholes and trying to poke holes in their own policies. So far, it has been working. Mierzejewski reports that there have been no instances of cheating during the 2021 season.

Although all of the matches are being held online, fans are hopeful for a return to an in-person format soon. If that happens, Mierzejewski and his team are more than ready to fall back on the policies and practices put in place for in-person events whenever OWL returns to the stage.

Lead image credit: Overwatch League

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