This week saw the start of the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, Blizzard’s big budget attempt to drag esports into the mainstream with a proper league structure, regional teams to try and spawn local support akin to real world sports, and a legitimacy that might see more people acknowledge esports as “real” sport.
There’s no doubt that it’s already possible to call this a success, with the opening night drawing in excess of 400,000 viewers at times for the English language Twitch stream (more than some Champion’s League matches have drawn on BT Sport), which doesn’t take into account other languages and MLG’s own streaming system. That’s hugely impressive, especially as it never dropped below 285,000 either.
Tuning in for a match between London Spitfire and Florida Mayhem last night, it was immediately clear how much effort has gone into making this a watchable sport. The commentators – they weren’t shouting enough to be “shoutcasters” – did a great job of keeping up with the action and explaining how the tides of the battle were turning, the production team was able to serve up interesting view points and quickly bring up replays of key events from view points we hadn’t seen at the time, and viewers were always privy to the broadcast overlay that showed the outlines of players through scenery and let us keep tabs on who was alive and dead. Even the match analysis was on point, with punditry that delved into how teams were set up, how particular tactics had succeeded, and so on.
By the halfway point in the match I had already come to know some of the names and the characters they tended to play as, with Profit’s long streak of kills as Genji helping him stand out. I’d also learned something about how the teams were working together and what they were trying to pull off with each play. Of course, there were still moments of pure chaos in some particularly close matches, such as when Spitfire came back the brink of defeat in the Control round to capture the point in overtime and win the first point.
Each match between teams is best of four rounds, with a fifth round available in case of a tie breaker, and these shift from one map and game type to another. There’s a flavour of American Football to the overall presentation, with a half time show at the midpoint where pundits can weigh in with analysis and opinion, not to mention just the visual style having similarities to NFL broadcasts, right down to the chunky headsets the commentators wear.
This also extends to the overall structure of the league, with the twelve teams split up into an Atlantic and a Pacific division. The ultimate goal is to win at the knock out grand finals in July, but getting there means you either need to top your division, receiving a first round bye in the process, or be one of the best four non-division winners in the overall standings. There’s a long road to get there, with four Waves that are five weeks long, with each team playing twice per week – over the course of a “stage”, they’ll play all but one of their rival teams – with the best three teams from both divisions then competing one last time to win the stage and a prize pot of $100,000. It’s an interesting set up, and one that ought to keep the intrigue and engagement up with matches week in, week out.
One thing that doesn’t quite sit right with me, however, is how forced some of the team franchises are. Each franchise was sold by Blizzard for $20 million, with nine of the twelve available slots situated in US cities, and one each in China, South Korea and London. In the long run, it may well end up that local support bases grow for each of these teams based on the country and city of origin, and it’s true that I specifically tuned in to watch London Spitfire competing against Florida Mayhem. What I wasn’t expecting was that none of the players on either team hail from their team’s ostensible cities, let alone their countries.
Most of the teams have a mix of nationalities, just as football teams fill out their roster with players from across the globe. However London Spitfire, as I soon discovered from the pre-match commentary, is a team with a pool of twelve South Koreans that has effectively merged two teams into one, and is actually owned by LA-based esports organisation Cloud9. Meanwhile, Florida Mayhem is owned by London’s Misfits, with the team made up of four Swedes, a Finn and a Belgian.
What’s puzzling about all of this is that there’s more than enough Swedish players in Mayhem alone, not to mention the league as a whole, to have a team based in Stockholm, yet the London Spitfire are the only European team. It’s equally strange that LA hosts two teams, while Seoul only gets one despite there being more than enough interest for a second. Blizzard want this sport to grow organically around these teams and have a groundswell of local support, eventually having home and away matches where the teams play at their own local arenas with their home fans cheering them on, but these two examples in particular feel incredibly forced when this is an international sport.
That oddity aside, the first couple of days of the Overwatch League really show that Blizzard are trying to make this into a real, grown up sport. It’s bound to be confusing for people who’ve barely touched Overwatch and don’t know how the character-based multiplayer shooter works, but for those with even a passing familiarity, the production that is being put on makes this one of the most watchable esports going.