The Overwatch League started this past week and it’s kind of a big deal. It’s the first real push to make e-sports into a viable, watchable event in the same vein as regular sports. Normally e-sports are focused around tournaments – a company or organization sponsors a particular team who will work together and compete in tournaments across the globe all year for money and prizes. One organization can sponsor teams for multiple different games – Cloud 9, for example, sponsors teams in Rocket League, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and Overwatch among others. In certain genres, though, there aren’t teams and it’s just individual players who play at all the tournaments that are hosted at different conventions. Fighting games are a specific example – for tournaments like EVO it’s all individuals who are competing for the prize money.
Overwatch League is an attempt by Activision Blizzard to make e-sports more than just single tournaments that happen across the year. They’re specifically using the popularity of Overwatch as the game to launch their bid into a possible multi-billion dollar sports league that will generate revenue through thousands of fans watching the games. Like regular sports teams, the teams competing in the Overwatch League are based out of particular cities so there are “home” and “away” teams just like other sports. There are owners of teams who are forking up the cash to get the team in the league – Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is the owner of the Boston Uprising team in the Overwatch League. If that doesn’t make you realize how big a deal this is and just what Activision Blizzard is attempting to accomplish with the Overwatch League, I don’t know what will.
And to their credit, Activision Blizzard has done a phenomenal job. Spectating Overwatch matches used to be dreadful – it was very hard to tell what was going on and who was on what team. They’ve tweaked the user interface of the game and added different color highlights to represent each team’s colors – away teams are always highlighted in white during the games, while home teams are whatever their main color is – the Dallas Fuel is blue, the Los Angeles Gladiators are purple, etc. There are first and third-person cameras to follow the action, along with an overhead view to track player positioning. There’s a nice overall scoreboard that lets you not only keep track of match progress, but the health and ultimate meter progress of both team’s players. It’s very polished looking and makes for a decent viewing experience when following the matches along at home.
A screenshot of an Overwatch League match – look at that pretty UI.
Unfortunately, everything else around the league feels very…well, manufactured. Since Activision Blizzard wanted to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak, they rushed out the Overwatch League to try and make sure Overwatch was still relevant enough to launch this new business. This meant that all the teams hadn’t had time to establish places in their home cities for matches to be played. So for the inaugural season, all the matches are going to be played in a specially built center in Los Angeles – thus removing the whole home game/away game aspect of the sport. It does make organizing and scheduling a bit easier – all the teams have relocated to L.A. for the duration of the first season, and after that they’ll be expected to move to the city of their team and live there during later seasons. But the idea of having a home team where you can go watch the games live is a big aspect of rooting for your team in regular sports – and currently only people in Los Angeles (or people with the ability to fly to L.A.) have that option for their Overwatch teams. Not only that, but the home and away distinction is basically moot right now – it ends up feeling like they’re just playing another longer, more fancy tournament.
There’s other aspects, too. During the first few games, the announcers were trying very hard to fabricate rivalries. The marquee match-up of the first night – Dalls Fuel vs. Seoul Dynasty, the supposed best Western team vs. best Korean team matchup – was a great match and a very fun and tense watch as the teams were fairly evenly matched through most of the game. However, it didn’t help that the announcers kept throwing out “oh man, you can see a rivalry brewing here” every five minutes as the game progressed. No, a rivalry isn’t brewing if they’ve only played one game against each other. Similarly, the next night when the New York Excelsior faced off against the Boston Uprising, the announcers kept saying “New York and Boston are rival cities, these two teams are going to have a big rivalry!” No, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!
In baseball, the Yankees have a rivalry with the Red Sox because of years upon years of history and playing each other. The Patriots have a rivalry with the Giants because Eli Manning torched Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl – and one time he stopped a Patriots undefeated season. The Overwatch League is so desperate to be considered a “real sport” that they’re trying to skip through all the establishing characteristics of a sport. Instead of trying to let it grow naturally, the announcers, creators and some fans are trying to impose their will on the teams before they’ve even played each other.
Let’s take a sidestep here. Another sports related thing happened for me this weekend – the Jacksonville Jaguars made it into the AFC Championships in the NFL this weekend. This is a big deal because I’ve been a fan of them since they were an expansion team in 1995 – this is the first AFC Championship they’ve been too in nearly 20 years, and they’ve never been to a Super Bowl. I’ve been a fan of them when they were great and when they were awful. I’ve been using Blake Bortles as my QB in Madden for a few years now and suffering through his low rating. But more importantly, I haaaaaaaaaaaate the Tennessee Titans.
Yes, I play Madden. Yes, I always play full seasons as the Jaguars. Yes, I also wallop the Steelers.
In the 1999 NFL season, the Jacksonville Jaguars went 14-2 across the regular season. They were the best team in the entire league. The only two losses that season? Both to the Tennessee Titans. The Jaguars made the playoffs and had a bye week. The Titans made it into the playoffs through a wild card spot. The Titans would have to go through both the Bills and the Peyton Manning-led Colts to even face the Jaguars again in the playoffs. Guess what they did? Yup, they beat both teams. The Jaguars also beat a Dan Marino-led Dolphins team by the small score of 62-7. So the Jaguars and Titans faced off in the AFC Championship game. Surely they wouldn’t lose to the same team three times, right? They’d learned, right?
Nope. The Titans beat the Jaguars for the AFC Title. My heart grew three sizes smaller that day, and it was all because the Titans suck and boy I hate Jeff Fisher and okay my blood pressure is going up, I’m going to stop now.
But you see? I didn’t hate the Titans before that season. I only liked the Jaguars. But through a natural course of events in a season, a rivalry formed. Because until yesterday, the Jaguars hadn’t been back to an AFC Championship game since that season. I despite the Titans. I was actually rooting for the Patriots to beat them on Saturday – I was rooting FOR the Patriots. That’s the depths of my hate for the Tennesee Titans.
Currently in the Overwatch League, I have no vested interest like that. It’s because each team has only played two games. Some of the players have shown some personality – I’m rooting for the Dallas Fuel because Seagull is a part of their team and I like him as a streamer. I’m rooting for the Los Angeles Gladiators because I like their colors and logo and Shaz is a pretty good Zenyatta and I play a lot of Zenyatta when I play Overwatch. But I’m also rooting for good matches. I don’t care if my teams lose or not right now because I’m only half-invested. Nothing has happened yet to make me fully invest, but that’s not the League’s fault at all. It’s a baby – they’ve only just begun, and natural storylines will develop over the course of a six-month season. (Yes, that’s right, the League will be going from January until June, with the playoffs going into July.)
There’s a lot of time for stories to develop, but not a lot of patience for announcers and higher-ups trying to force storylines and rivalries down your throats. If they want to make the OWL into the WWE, that’s fine. Have Ryujehong slam xQc with a chair or something when they’re about to take a point, I dunno. But if they want it to be a serious sports endeavor, they need to just let the league happen. They’ve put together a great base from which it can grow, but they have to be hands-off for a bit and let the players and fans perpetuate the league. If they keep trying to speed their way through the growing pains it’s only going to end up detrimental to the overall product.
There’s also minor quibbles I have with the general presentation. Last week, over the course of 12 matches of Overwatch, we basically got to watch all 12 teams play on the same 8 maps. After a while it gets tiring seeing the same heroes on the same maps. Blizzard will be adding balance patches in-between Stages (there are four stages per season, with each stage being 5 weeks of play) which will help the game stay fresh and change who the best heroes are, so I’m not worried about that. But there are “optimal” maps and if Activision Blizzard is going to give players veto power for map play, it will get boring to the viewers fast. It might make for more exciting games to see two teams face off on maps they don’t have as many mapped strategies on.
I’m also super annoyed at Jack-in-the-Box: they sponsor the Dallas Fuel, and for some money-making reason they decided to plaster their logo on all the Dallas Fuel merchandise. I can’t buy a Fuel baseball cap without becoming a walking advertisement for Jack-in-the-Box. It’s dumb.
Tell me, would you wear this?
But the good news is that for the first week at least, it seems Activision Blizzard’s bid to make e-sports more relevant in the mainstream is working. The first night of matches peaked at 415,000 concurrent viewers – now I realize that’s not Super Bowl numbers, but reaching close to half a mil on your first night as a niche viewing experience isn’t too bad. It’s also been successful bringing other people into the fold – I’ve watched matches on the couch with my roommate as if we were watching a baseball game, and when some friends came over for board games I had the League matches on in the background and fielded questions about the game and League while we played.
It’s going to take a lot of work. What I worry is that the video game attention span problem will end up taking the Overwatch League down with it. Will Blizzard ever make an Overwatch 2? (My guess is no, they’ll just keep updating this game, but who knows). Will they add more teams for the second season? If they get to the second season, will there be enough momentum and market mindshare for people to actual travel to see the games and meet the players? Will players move around and be traded like in a regular league – and if that happens will fans stick with the players or will they really get attached to their home team and root for that team, regardless of the team’s make-up?
I’m on board with the Overwatch League for now. Hopefully it doesn’t disappoint me in the future.