Overwatch’s esports scene is developing in reverse

On May 23, Overwatch was publicly released to massive acclaim and popularity. In about nine months, the player base grew from about 7 million at launch to more than 25 million players as of last month. It was a massive hit and became one of Blizzard’s biggest games upon release.

Its induction into the esport side of the industry could not have come at a more fortuitous time. More people than ever are watching esports. More investors are entering the scene and games are gaining traction into traditional media outlets (such as Turner’s ELEAGUE). I have observed the creation of this esports scene from the sidelines and been struck by how differently Overwatch has established itself as an esport. In many ways, the Overwatch scene is working in reverse, defying the traditional ways esports scenes were built.

In the majority of scenes I’ve followed, the traditional way to grow the scene is as follows:

  • The game is initially released and slowly builds up players over time.
  • Players eventually want to challenge each other to find out who is the best. They either form teams or get picked up by teams who see value in these players.
  • Competition is organized into grassroots tournaments or is picked up by an existing tournament circuit (MLG, DreamHack, ESL all come to mind).
  • It appeals to the targeted audience and gains popularity. This popularity is parlayed into value, real and perceived, that the tournament organizers can sell to sponsors. That money is used to profit and to make more events. In turn, teams and players continue to gain more value from the increasing popularity and then parlay their value into additional sponsorships.

Overwatch goes against that trend. This doesn’t mean that Overwatch will fail where others have succeeded or vice versa. It does mean is that we are headed into some very hazy and unknown territory. This has happened both by circumstance and choice. The release of Overwatch came out at the same time as League of Legends and CS:GO peaked as the largest Western esports games (I ignore Dota 2 because the ecosystem of that game works in a very different way). In order to get some skin into the game for League, you have to pay millions to get a spot or invest in a current team. If you make your own team, trouble seems to follow you, as we’ve seen from multiple Renegades and Echo Fox incidents in League of Legends. CS:GO has had more and more investors pouring into the scene and continues to do so.

Overwatch is a blank slate. This is as close as any investment power gets to being on the ground floor of the next large esport. There is no guarantee that the game will remain large, but it has the basic player base for it, which is the first and most important step. Because of this, Blizzard’s Overwatch esports team created a large mixer of endemic teams and investors at the Overwatch World Cup. At the same event, Blizzard announced the creation of the Overwatch League, but has yet to reveal any details beyond localization.

This is where Overwatch’s evolution has become truly antithetical to the old models. The cliche generally goes, “Build it and they will come.” In esports, it’s rather the opposite. By the time larger organizations adapt a game into their circuit and promote it, the basic player base has established enough interest and lower-level competition to maintain a constant viewer base. Meanwhile, Overwatch has appeared on TBS, and multiple NBA sponsors have already announced their involvement with the game. The scene is being supported by investors before any sustainable audience has been confirmed. As we’ve seen with Heroes of the Storm, you can’t artificially build a scene and assume people will flock to it.

Additionally we’ve yet to have a keystone event for Overwatch. Keystone events is a term I use to designate tournaments that come to define milestone events of an esport, which are commonly upheld as one of the best historical tournaments of the scene and in some way kick off the popularity of a game from growing to booming. Some examples include MLG Orlando 2011 for StarCraft 2, IPL for League of Legends, The International 2 for Dota 2, and the Majors for CS:GO.

The few details we are getting from the Overwatch League sound like they go contrary to what other established esports do. The localization of the league is what strikes me the most. The only time this has happened in esports history was CGS, which was by all accounts a disaster and one of the worst things to have ever happen to Western esports. Localization also goes against the foundational concept that powered every other esport’s growth: the prestige of international competition. There is a reason why even in a regional game like League of Legends, worlds and the Mid-Season Invitational are considered the biggest events of the calendar year. At the same time, localization seems to have been a good selling point to these NBA teams as it’s a familiar concept to them.

One of the most astute points against localization was brought up by Thorin: what makes investors think that even if Overwatch established large local scenes, it will translate into packed stadiums that traditional sports enjoy? A game like basketball or baseball implicitly sells physical attendance as a unique experience: no matter how many times you filch off streams, it will never compare to the real thing. On the contrary, esports viewers have been inculcated to make no hard distinction between the two. Between available options to enhance viewership (choosing resolution, multiple streams for the same event, ad blocking, etc.) and mostly free-to-watch expectations, there are few lures to get people into the stadiums on a regular basis. Seoul, South Korea is the city most entrenched in the esports space with some of the best public transportation in the world, yet they don’t always fill out their studios on regular league days. With a new game like Overwatch in America the problem is exacerbated—the population of the game will be spread out across an entire continent, and America is notoriously known for bad public transportation.

The next issue is the global talent pool. The exact line that reads on the website is: “Proven stars and leaderboard heroes will assemble in one global talent pool. Teams then maneuver to sign the best players and build sturdy rosters for the season ahead.” This sounds like a draft except for one crucial thing, it doesn’t seem to imply that teams take turns picking players. Montecristo pointed out that it’s illegal to have a draft in the States unless there is a player’s union.
Montecristo’s theory is that players will have larger agency in this pool so that pre-established teams won’t break apart if they don’t want them to. But the fact of the matter is is that no one knows the details. Will there be rules about having a certain amount of local talent in a team like what Riot does? Will they allow a team of six stick together? In a way, it sounds like the offseason of a league where all the players’ contracts are up and anyone can buy them. The problem with this is that it’s happening before a majority of these teams and players will have shown a large amount of performances in a LAN setting. Blizzard wants to solve this problem by using the combine and that is a problem in and of itself.
The combine is some kind of camp where Blizzard plan to institute some kind of exercise to measure the players in some objective way. Beyond aim, I’m not sure how they plan on doing this or how they can prove it’s a meaningful showing of skill. Traditional sports are very much anchored in the real world to the extent that running fast, having good reflexes and being strong are universally good aspects. In esports and Overwatch specifically, communication and team synergy will be the most important factors for top teams to succeed. But communication and synergy can change massively depending on the makeup of a six-person lineup. How do you measure that or construct a team in a way that it reliably works? Beyond multiple tournaments that test a six-person lineup for a prolonged period of time against all types of competition, I do not know.

For the last bit, I’ll talk about maps. Maps have been an integral part of every esports game that has had a map pool. It’s been the case in Brood War, SC2, Halo, Counter-Strike, pretty much any game where maps were remotely important. So why is it that Overwatch wants to enforce a policy of no pick/ban? This goes against the ideas of competitive integrity and team identity that have been built up across esports in the last few decades. It also introduces a troubling aspect whether if maps are put on a set rotation, it will dictate the dominance/non-dominance of teams through the season. I’ve yet to read or hear a convincing answer as to why Blizzard wants this to be the case.

Ironically, the only thing Blizzard played straight was talk about trying to stop Overwatch porn. Predictably, production of Overwatch porn increased exponentially.

Overwatch is in a strange place as it’s gotten many of the advantages that many other esports didn’t have at the outset. It doesn’t have any direct competitors like Heroes of the Storm, and no other FPS directly challenges its niche. It started off with a massive player base that continues to rise. Broadcasting stations and sports teams are already on board before it established popularity as a competitive game. Blizzard has all of the resources to succeed, but can it make the right decisions to foster growth? And even if they do make the right decisions, will the viewers come?

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers. You can reach him at Stephen@Slingshotesports.com

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