Let us assume for a moment that Overwatch, which will be released in early May, sells boatloads of copies and millions of players want to play the game on a regular basis. At least, that is my hope, in part because it will also mean the esports part of the game will be taken seriously.
But it also assumes the game is ready for esports, and I’m not yet sure it is.
The core fundamentals of a tremendous game are already there. From the lore of the game, the stories of each hero, the artwork, the voice acting to the map designs, music, weapons and the loot boxes. Combine all of that with truly fun game play, a sense of achievement (in most cases) regardless of hero played, amazing teamwork and that all important aspect of games: Easy to get into, hard to master. Yet for all of this, success as an esport is not a guarantee.
Usually the community and/or leagues decide the esports part of a game, which game type, the rules, length of match and type, etc. But despite ESL, GosuGamers and others all running tournaments, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet as to how Overwatch should be presented as an esport. And it’s not hard to see why because we haven’t yet been given the pieces we need to figure it out. It’s easy to sit here and criticize Blizzard for this, but perhaps they are already busy at work on this before release?
While the point capture games are extremely fun, they waste a lot of what Overwatch has to offer. It still offers a degree of strategy, but not on a complex level, and though almost all of the heroes are still viable, the game more often than not descends into a blind rush and panic spamming of the point (or an abuse of a single hero to win in casual games).
This also means the skill ceiling is somewhat limited. It’s exciting to play for sure, but my viewers have often remarked at how difficult it is to see what’s going on at any given time. And that’s just watching one point of view! Imagine trying to cycle through 12 players (or ask the commentators who have casted the beta tournaments!), it’s not easy. With that said, single capture point does have one thing going for it: It’s easy to determine a winner and doesn’t have any draws! (played over the three-leg system contained within the game).
From my point of view, though, I can’t help but feel Payload would make a terrific esport, not only to watch and compete in, but also to commentate. It has a high skill ceiling where high-skilled players can change the game and come up with new strategies or ways of approaching different parts to the routes and hero choices. It’s largely situational, requires decision making from every player and the team and has a wide range of strategical decisions to be made on the fly. Add in the battles over control points initially and at checkpoints while the opposing team tries to move the payload — plus different hero choices throughout the match and all of the ultimate uses and combos — and you have a massively exciting, interesting and fun, competitive game.
The problem with Payload, however, is that it currently only works in a casual environment. To be an esport, it needs some help from Blizzard within the game. Blizzard has gotten an awful lot of it right already, but the biggest issue with using Payload as an esport is that it has the potential to create far too many draws. Draws you say? Well yes, draws are bad for esports.
Imagine for a moment the grand final of Overwatch on the stage in Katowice, scheduled for 1p.m. in front of 10,000 people in the arena and millions tuned in worldwide. It’s a best-of-five Payload grand final. Two teams have fought their way through the groups and brackets and everything is on the line. There’s a finite amount of time on stage before the next grand final. Kings Row is the first map and Team A makes a full hold, stopping Team B from getting all the way with the payload. Team B then does the same thing when they switch over. This happens three more times, all ending in a draw. 3 hours later and neither team has managed to break the deadlock. Extreme? Perhaps, but there needs to be very little in the way of draw potential in esports or it’s going to ruin an event.
It doesn’t need to be this way. With a few simple additions, Payload could be a phenomenal esport without high draw potential.
If we agree that the current way of playing Payload is great, we wouldn’t change any of the timings within the route on each map, and that playing each once as offense and defense on every map makes sense (which it does!), then what we really need is this:
1. The ability for the game to measure how far the payload is moved by the offensive team during their allotted time (if they don’t complete the entire route). The game should then add a marker on the map, visible to all players for the second half when the other team attacks. If the attacking team on the second half reaches this point, they win the map. If they don’t reach it in the same amount of time given to the first team, they lose.
2. In the event of the first team attacking and completing the route with the payload, the game should record the entire time taken and then display this for the second team attacking (counting backwards once the map starts, so everyone knows how much time is left to complete the route). If the second team fails to reach the end point within the allotted time (achieved in the first half by the other team), then the first team wins.
In a few cases, this might still result in a draw, of course, and that’s fine as it will be fairly rare (depending on map pool of course). The only way a draw would happen with these two additional elements added to the game would be where one team failed to take the first point and so did the second team. Even then, a winner could be decided by the amount of time a team spent capturing the point and stored by the game to use in the event neither team captured fully. I am pretty sure there would be very few draws in this instance.
Adding in these two simple pieces of information within the game framework would increase the competitiveness of the game right away. And think of how exciting it would be with the timer counting down as they draw closer to the marker or the end point. Commentary would go through the roof, excitement would be massive, and the players’ hearts would be racing.
Of course there are other issues. The spectator mode need improvements, too, and are also important in the longer run. It also needs matchmaking based on MMR or equivalent and an internal ladder system similar to League of Legends to help promote the “grassroots to professional” road we so often harp on about being missing from esports.
Balance issues? Sure, they will always be part of the game and the meta as it develops and players find new and interesting ways to abuse the game and the heroes.
But my one true hope is that Payload gets used as the main game type for esports. If it doesn’t, my fear is that single control point will get stale fast and ultimately prove boring for spectators too and in the short term not allow such an incredible game to get its shot at esports success.