I imagine a beautiful future not too far down the road when I can tune in to my local radio station and listen to drunk people complain about how Dreamkazper’s DPS game is in the toilet or how ShaDowBurn is really carrying this garbage team they’ve got this year.
Overwatch League, the concerted effort from Activision Blizzard to establish their shooter Overwatch as a competitive game worth watching, does a lot to move us closer to this goal. Even in its infancy it has been a ton of fun to watch. It puts on a show better than any e-sport broadcast I’ve seen. It treats its players like athletes and its audience like a sports audience. It is the most I have enjoyed e-sports. That said, it has some problems that keep it from being the same mass market product (like the NFL) that it has modeled itself after.
Here are my initial impressions of the highs and lows of the League so far:
Overwatch League is a very designed show. Everything from the stage to the logos to the players’ jerseys echo the design of the main game. There is a very unified look to everything that creates the impression that this is an actual league and not just a series of matches between skilled players. It creates a sense of familiarity and regulation that harmonizes well with the extended structure of the season. The vibrant team colors make it very easy for new viewers to get a sense of who is who, and the clean stat presentation makes it easy to track your favorite player. The whole thing presents a sense of professionalism that makes something like The International’s glass cube monstrosity look corny and, well, e-sportish.
I am blessed to have some basic understanding of Overwatch as a game. I have played enough of it to have some basic grasp of what is going on at all times. This made Overwatch League much easier for me to get into compared to other e-sports. Blizzard is obviously targeting a much wider audience than “people who have played Overwatch for dozens of hours,” however, and the fact of the matter is that the broadcasts do very little to explain Overwatch as a game. The commentary is a gross mess of memes, bad jokes, and yelling, with unhelpful analysis thrown in between matches. I understand that it is not the job of a commentary team to explain the rules of a game. It’s not something we expect from actual sports commentators. That being said, it would be infinitely more helpful if there was more synchronization between the footage onscreen and helpful commentary. The commentators spend an alarming amount of time either announcing that someone has used an ultimate or announcing that someone has an ultimate ready to use. What they don’t seem to do very much is explain why a player’s use of an ultimate was good or bad, or why it’s important that the ultimate is ready. These are things that I would love to know and I’m someone who does know what each ultimate does. I can’t imagine what the broadcast is like for someone who doesn’t have that knowledge. Even having a separate commentary team for beginners would be a step in the right direction. DOTA2 has a beginner feed with helpful tips on screen; Overwatch League would be pioneering accessibility within e-sports by carrying that concept forward even further.
In Overwatch League, players are organized into city-based teams with official logos and names. This is one of my favorite aspects of the league. It gives a sense of solidarity to teams. It promotes the idea of picking a team and sticking with them through good times and bad. It gives the viewer a core group of players to follow. It makes teams feel less like collections of interchangeable athletes and more like an actual sports team. It also helps prevent your favorite team from sounding like they’re named after an off-brand energy drink. By naming the teams things like the Philadelphia Fusion or the Seoul Dynasty, Overwatch League comes across more like an actual sports league without losing anything in the process.
As much as the League benefits from the sense of authenticity displayed by these professionally-run teams, they also take on the baggage that other professional teams in other sports carry. The biggest hangup for me, and one that I have seen widespread disapproval of, is the fact that most teams don’t actually have all that strong a connection to their cities. The London Spitfire, for example, feature no British players and are not actually situated in the UK. This isn’t surprising within the realm of broadcast sports, but it cheapens the idea of having these city-based teams in the first place. The fact of the matter is, when I’m cheering for Boston, I’m cheering for people from Korea, Russia, and Canada.
HIGH: The Game
Overwatch League proves to me that Overwatch is as fun a game to watch as it is to play, if not more so. I can bumble around as Junkrat and throw bombs at peoples’ faces all day long and have a great time doing it, but seeing these professional players coordinate their actions and push the mechanics of the game to their limits has opened up a new way of thinking about the game for me. It has inspired me to want to play more, and to play better. It grants a better understanding of the way the game is built. I have learned strategies that would never have occurred to me that professional players take for granted. Seeing teams coordinate respawns, or use certain players as bait to force pushes, or just use Pharah as a constant unending barrage of pain, is inspiring. It’s a great game to watch.
LOW: The Camerawork
I do not begrudge the camera operators for screwing things up. They’re new at this and there is a lot going on at any given time. I also don’t think that showing a chaotic power play is an easy thing to do in general. You have over ten players all doing something different within a tiny space. It can become chaos very quickly. It’s something they need to improve though, as it is very easy to become lost very quickly.
Most of the action is viewed from the same perspective the players each see, which creates a strong sense of tunnel vision. It can be hard to know where other players are in relation to each other. The camera also frequently cuts in a non-elegant way. You might be seeing a Tracer running around not doing much, only to have the camera cut to a different character on the other team in the middle of an ultimate. It’s something I’ve gotten more used to over time but also something I think needs to improve for the sport to become an entertaining thing to watch for a wider range of people of different skill levels.
Overall, Overwatch League has been the best experience I’ve had with e-sports. It takes steps towards making broadcast e-sports more like broadcast sports, and I think those steps are important ones. It presents itself as a mass market piece of entertainment, and I think in time it might get there if they can find a way to make it more accessible to new viewers while maintaining the notion that it is a professional sport that should be taken seriously. It will take a lot of work regarding commentary, structure, and clarity to get there, but I hope it gets there.