I know an awful lot of people who roll their eyes at the very idea of esports. I was one of them for a long time, and yet I’ve been tuning in sporadically to watch the Overwatch League and finding some incredible showcases of teamwork and individual skill. This past weekend saw the conclusion of the inaugural season’s first stage, with a playoff between the top three teams that have emerged over the last five weeks of competition.
After largely bouncing off esports for the last few years, I’ve found that Blizzard have managed to strike a balance that makes this fast paced video game watchable and understandable. The opening week showed that they’d taken the time to really hone the championship’s presentation style, with the influence of American sports clear to see across the board. The matches are effectively split into quarters, the commentators and pundits are all wearing chunky headsets with huge boom mics on them, and even the way the teams are split into divisions is straight out of the NFL playbook.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own esports idiosyncrasies. All the players go by their online nicknames, as do the commentators, and there’s the frenetic, dizzying first person motion that only playing at the highest skills with keyboard and mouse can achieve, which makes presenting an already complex video game in an understandable way even trickier. While the season structure is inspired by American sports, it’s still a confusing mess, with lack of easily found explanations of the stages, playoffs and what divisions actually mean for the championship.
Yet Blizzard have pulled it off and created something that I’ll happily tune into when it’s live or catch up on when there are big games. Smart use of third person cameras, switching to bird’s eye views, replays of decisive moments on other parts of the map, and being able to take a step back and actually analyse and explain what’s happened all go a long way to making this watchable.
Of course, it also helps that this first stage has defied expectations, with plenty of upsets through closely fought matches and unexpected teams emerging as front runners. Going into it, the three teams with 100% South Korean rosters – Seoul Dynasty, New York Excelsior and London Spitfire – were the heavy favourites, and while its true that New York and London ended up in the final, Seoul found themselves on a losing streak over the last few weeks that dropped them out of the top three and out of the running for the Stage 1 playoffs.
That losing streak included a dazzling 4-0 whitewash from London Spitfire a few weeks ago, to crush the erstwhile championship favourites, but Spitfire have sputtered at times too and found themselves on the losing side of matches. Instead, it was Los Angeles Valiant, Houston Outlaws and Boston Uprising that found themselves vying for the third spot in the playoffs this time.
The final day of this stage served up nearly 12 hours of matches and interstitial coverage, with the final three matches of the stage leading into the semi-final between second and third in the standings and final between that winner and the top placed team. Where all the Stage 1 matches go toward deciding the divisional and overall rankings that determine the grand final in June, these playoffs were purely for bragging rights and a lump sum cash prize.
A quirk of fate meant that the regular stage matches had the high drama of deciding the playoff positions. London Spitfire and New York Excelsior went into the first match of the day level on wins and losses, and a really high class battle ensued, going to the fifth “overtime” round to see NYE take first place overall. Next up was Houston Outlaws against Boston Uprising, with the result and the number of rounds won determining whether they or LA Valiant would jump up to third or second place, and again, it went to the overtime round, with the Outlaws the winners much to the disappointment of Valiant fans in the LA-based Blizzard Arena.
To cut a long story short, Spitfire came through to win the playoffs, doing so against the odds. Outlaws had beaten them the day before in the regular season, Excelsior had beaten them earlier that very same day, and yet Spitfire somehow managed to turn all of that into victory. In doing so, they battled through 14 rounds of exceptionally high intensity and closely fought Overwatch in less than a day. Sure, it’s “just” video games, but with the adrenaline pumping and the need to pull off nail-biting clutch plays time and time again, that’s still a test of their stamina. Spitfire’s celebrations and just how absolutely knackered they looked afterwards was entirely deserved.
What the Overwatch League has managed to do is create intelligible stories and rivalries that can come to play out over the rest of the season, and given me teams that I can root for. Having been in the first game I watched, I’ve got a soft spot for the Florida Mayhem despite them only winning a single match, and while the LA Gladiators might be the lesser LA team, they’ve got a player called Big Goose, so I’m obliged to support them through thick and thin. Most importantly, there’s an air of unpredictability about a lot of these matches, as we see half a dozen teams that can all beat one each other on any given day, with contrasting and shifting strategies that have evolved over the last month.
Stage 2 kicks off at midnight on the 22nd February in the UK, bringing with it the latest gameplay changes to Mercy, and I know I’ll be tuning on to see how the rest of the season unfolds.