The formation of Overwatch’s professional scene

The success of Blizzard’s Overwatch comes as no surprise to the gaming industry. The idea to combine a fast paced first-person shooter with a myriad of colorful characters and real-life locations has created a whimsical, fun package for millions of gamers. Having only officially released two weeks ago, despite multiple closed and open betas, many are still feeling their way through Blizzard’s newest hit.

That is, unless you already play Overwatch professionally.

The idea that an esports scene would develop around Overwatch was openly speculated. From Heroes of the Storm to Hearthstone, Blizzard is used to professional gaming scenes developing around their products. The rapid pace at which Overwatch’s pro scene formed, however, was impressive.

While the game was still in beta testing throughout 2015 and into the early parts of this year, reporting and statistics website GosuGamers was already hosting tournaments with cash prizes. By March, well-known organizations including EnVyUs, Team Liquid and Cloud9 decided to stake their claim in a game still in its infancy, two months shy of release. With no rank system in place, or even a finished product to practice, it is no small wonder how players already found themselves noticed and acquired by these big-name clubs.

Unlike some of the more established esports scenes such League of Legends or Dota, though, it is not the organizations that are at the forefront of the competitive scene but rather the players themselves. Players already considered professional at a game so new are treated as such because they are just that good at the game. Most of them had access to the betas, allowing their skills to develop much sooner than the general public.

Player-formed teams such as google me and IDDQD were dominating GosuGamers’ weekly tournaments, among other competitions, and organizations took notice.  Europe in particular was ranking at the top, despite playing on American servers with high latency issues.

After a lengthy scouting process, Cloud9 announced its acquisition of google me, and EnVyUs was quick to follow by signing IDDQD, both teams now operating under the respective name of their new owners.

“We already told ourselves we were going to get involved,” Cloud9 general manager Danan Flander said. “A top team was another way for us to signal to Blizzard that we were involved. That we wanted to be consistently involved. We were committing early. We were committing a sizable amount of resources early. We want to be involved in Overwatch esports and we were on the same page as them.”

Cloud9 knew of the game’s potential: It wanted the best talent and wanted to be first. Flander said he and other members of the organization observed the beta tournaments and approached different teams, ultimately deciding with the google me.

Flander said Cloud9 wanted the team to be based in North America for various reasons stemming from convenience, but beyond that the most appealing characteristic about google me was its performance.

“How often, how quickly, they change things. Its pretty easy for us to judge from experience when a team needs to change so it’s a pretty good sign to us when a team, in this case ‘google me,’ watch them kind of make changes and make the kind of changes we would be making if they were already with us,” Flander said. “We could see players that were underperforming or struggling to fit into the roster, and even without an organization on top of them they were making the necessary changes to be more and more competitive, from ninth, to seventh, to sixth, ultimately I want to say when we picked them up they were around third or fourth. Factoring in that they seemed self-sustained, they seemed like they had a pretty good head or a pretty good understanding on what they needed to do to get better without an organization; that’s another huge factor.”

Even more surprising than the speed at which professionals have adopted Overwatch is the background of some of them. A portion of pro players of Blizzard’s new game have never played a day of professional esports in their lives.

All of Team Liquid’s current roster has previous experience in esports, while some organizations, such as Luminosity, have a mixed roster, acquiring veterans of the industry like retired Team Fortress 2 player Brandon “Seagull” Larned and newcomer James “Esper” Southall. Cloud9’s players were just friends who loved playing together. Aside from one of the team’s support players, Greg “Grego” McAllen, none had experience playing professionally before.

As Flander put it: “This is one of the, if not the, least esports experienced rosters Cloud9 has ever worked with.”

That newness — of both the game and professional scene — has made practice difficult at times. In developed esports, such as League of Legends, playing the game is a full-time job. Many members of Cloud9’s team have jobs outside of Overwatch, though that doesn’t hinder them from being the best, according to GosuGamers’ Overwatch rankings.

“What they do have is an amazing amount of synergy,” Flander said. “Three or four of the guys have been playing together for seven or eight years. They played pretty much every MMO that existed. They played every beta, every team- or group-based game they could. It was originally a group of six that did this for a very long time. Ultimately two of them moved in a different direction, either choosing not to complete or competing with a different team. But three or four of them stuck together to basically form was the initial core of google me.”
Looking forward, Flander seemed hopeful Cloud9 will stay at the top of the Overwatch rankings, pleased with the team’s first-place win at Agents Rising last week, despite how new both the team and scene are.

“Most of our focus is just on general improvement of our strategies,” Flander said, adding they’re also keeping an eye out on EnVyUs, ranked second behind Cloud9 in the world rankings.
Other large North American organizations like Team Solo Mid and Counter Logic Gaming have yet to officially announce their entrance into the rapidly budding scene, though the former is accepting applications for their soon-to-be professional team through their website.

As Overwatch ages, the positive growth surrounding its esports scene seems certain.

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