The Overwatch League has officially kicked off, representing both the video game world’s increasing swagger in the world of large-scale esports and its inherent inferiority complex: in all of Overwatch’s League’s investment and interest in creating a mainstream esport, it still feels that the best way to do so is to emulate the style of traditional sports. That’s not a bad thing, but I can’t help but feeling that using this game for a dramatic push into the realm of traditional sports still feels like a move that has the deck stacked against it. Overwatch is a great game, and there was a lot to like about the general enthusiasm and vim that the League debuted with. But can this game ever be the thing that Activision Blizzard and Twitch want it to be?
First, the positive — Overwatch is a great esport for players. It requires intense teamwork, it contains opportunity for a wide variety of different strategies and it requires a team to constantly adapt on the fly to a similarly shifting opponent. It contains both the possibility for true strategic dominance and dramatic upsets, managing to both reward excellence and prevent complacency. There’s a reason the game has caught on so well in competitive circles, and it’s because it manages to feel at once wild and unpredictable while still giving true pros a chance to shine. Wins almost always feel earned, defeats always sting.
But that’s not the only thing that we’re trying to do with Overwatch League. An esport, in the sense that companies are trying to get esports to mirror traditional sports, is less about the competitors and more about the spectators. And it’s here that Overwatch is almost comically crippled. I’m not saying that Overwatch can’t become a successful esport on some level, but that so much of its basic setup seems built to stymie the idea of spectating.
First, there’s the essence of how the game operates. There are multiple game modes, multiple maps, and a huge number of characters. Players can change characters at any time during a match, and the objective often moves or shifts. There’s a colossal amount of information to keep track of, and a colossal amount of information required just to start understanding what’s happening at any given moment. There are no set roles and few orienting points. I know every character and game mode in Overwatch from playing it, and even I get lost watching it. Understanding a team’s strategy requires you to know what a new character does, who’s controlling it, and what that character means in relationship to every other character on the board, all of which are different than they were a few minutes ago. It’s outright hostile to anyone that hasn’t played the game, and still pretty confusing for anyone that has. People mock the strangeness of things like baseball’s infield fly rule, but Overwatch is almost entirely composed of the infield fly rule.
That brings us to the second problem, which is that first person shooters just don’t make for good spectating. On an intuitive level we feel that we should be seeing this through the first person camera that we’re used to, and yet that perspective imparts basically no information about the larger match, Overhead views, on the other hand, are almost entirely devoid of drama, because so much of the game has been built to ensure that the first person view is the most exciting. The maps are chock full of obstruction, and that makes an isometric view tough to handle, as well. This comes back to the first problem, which is that there is a giant amount of change and information that needs to be imparted at every moment, and yet there exists no good way to communicate even a fraction of it as the game continues.
We’ll take, for a counterexample, basketball. Basketball only ever has one objective: to get the ball into the basket more often than your opponent does. There is no point at the end of the first quarter where the ref comes out and says that now there will be three balls, and the objective will now be to arrange them in a triangle on the opposing team’s key. Also, the court will now be castles instead of pyramids. Also the center has come off of the court and been replaced by a guy with a Tennis racket, and how is that going to play out? Let’s not forget that Basketball Corp. just introduced a new player with four legs and no arms, now available to all teams!
Watching basketball is comparatively easy. There are no obstructions in the way of the camera, and by and large, a single isometric camera angle lets you know what’s going on. Others are deployed for dramatic flair of course, but the one angle handles the basic legwork during play. Let’s say you wanted to watch a game because you heard about Steph Curry, and you wanted to see him play. And there he is: you can tell because he looks the way he does, and you can watch him play basketball, on screen nearly the whole time. At no point does Steph Curry suddenly look totally different.
For another comparison, we’ll consider StarCraft, which we could call the original esport. No, StarCraft is not simple by any means. But the game does not change throughout the course of the match, and comes with an essentially straightforward set of parameters that remain totally constant. Build your base, destroy the enemy’s base. On top of that, the camera angle that the players use is also the best camera angle to watch it with.
But to return to basketball, I don’t think this is a ridiculous comparison, despite the fact that it must be described in ridiculous terms. The Overwatch League is another attempt by the gaming industry writ large to take the growing esport world and give it one final push into the mainstream, and it wants to do so by imitating regular sports. That’s why we have regional teams, that’s why the game is selling digital and physical sports memorabilia, that’s why the logo looks the way it does. And yet Overwatch, specifically, contains very few of the simple anchors that onboard spectators. Most traditional sports — even the Byzantine thing that is Football — are comparatively simple to understand, and that means that the excitement comes not through the game itself — a new map or character, for example — but from the players and teams. That’s the core of traditional sports: human stories individual and collective seen through the lens of a straightforward contest. The tidal wave of complicating factors in a game like Overwatch serves to obscure those stories and turn a human contest into a technical one.
To put it a different way, Overwatch League still feels like it’s about Overwatch, and not about the players.
Again, I’m not at all suggesting that Overwatch League is doomed. Early viewership numbers are good. But I think that it’s mostly going to be popular among current Overwatch players and that it will mostly serve the traditional role of getting already-core players more committed to upping their game. Overwatch, as a game, is just not built to encourage this particular brand of esport broadcast. It’s going to struggle in its emulation of traditional sports, its onboarding of new players, and it’s ability to successfully communicate drama. I still feel like there will be a breakout, mainstream esport in the West, but it will have to be much simpler than all of this, and I don’t think it can be a first person Shooter. Something like Nidhogg might seem laughably simple when compared to Overwatch, but that’s why it’s a lot easier to watch.