Recently I’ve been having more and more conversations about esports, part of this is because its wormed its way into the main-stream media, what with ‘traditional’ sports team owners getting involved, several million dollars to the quick, in establishing new esports team brands or investing in existing ones. Where ‘Big Money’ turns up, people pay attention.
Between League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Counter Strike ,they currently hold the major market-share of viewership, which is growing exponentially year-on-year. Blizzard now have their eyes on a piece of that action in a major way, attempting to harness the overwhelming commercial success of Overwatch and their existing esports infrastructure, pushing it to the next level. Last year they announced the Overwatch League, their attempt to convert esports to the NFL/NBA/NHL model, moving towards waged players and away from prize pools; but can it work?
There can be no denying that Overwatch has a lot going for it from a consumer point of view, it has enjoyed a phenomenal amount of success across the globe, capturing the hearts of people who usually wouldn’t be a prevalent demographic when it comes to team fight games. The diverse cast of heroes in the Overwatch roster has ensured that almost anyone can find a character to identify with, a feeling that Blizzard have been very careful to cultivate. They’ve created a lifestyle/media brand that aligns with all walks of life, amazingly, out of an FPS; turning out comics, animated shorts, lush cinematics, and lore that only deepens and develops with time. Personally, I find the game huge amounts of fun and there are few better feelings in gaming than when you have a really great team that mesh well and conquer objectives with ease.
The companies behind the many and varied esports franchises want you to enjoy playing and watching, to feel part of the action. Last year I got to got to The International 6 (DOTA 2) and had a fantastic time, Valve have put a great amount of effort into ensuring that even someone who doesn’t play the game can follow what is happening (the ‘noob’ stream for The International is fantastic); and its no different with any other company, they want to bring clarity and excitement to their offerings. Their dedication to improving casting tools and their respective spectator modes should be commended; a lot of time, money and effort has gone into their refinement because they know that they are essential to success.
Blizzard have experience in these tools too, of course, what with competitive Starcraft being a major competitive title and spectator draw for many years now. Alongside that, they also have World of Warcraft PvP tournaments that are tremendously popular and manage to serve the action in an easy to follow fashion. So you may be wondering at this point, why am I questioning the viability of Blizzard’s vision to make Overwatch a premier esport? It comes down to the combination of enhanced movement, verticality and chaos.
All successful esports have a combination of the elements I’ve just mentioned; every one has an unavoidable element of controlled chaos to them, its what makes them exciting to play and watch. LoL and DOTA characters posses abilities that introduce new and faster ways to move that change the dynamic of the games. Only when you start to combine chaos, non-traditional movement and verticality, you really start to challenge how people perceive and consume the action, it becomes harder to implement the tools to enable a smooth and enjoyable experience to the outsider. Boosting, wall-climbing, grappling up to rooftops… enjoyable to play, but there’s a price to watching.
In the very early days of esports, games like Unreal Tournament and Quake were intensely popular on the LAN circuits, though despite their popularity when it came to playing, it never really translated into a large viewership. Obviously, we have to take into account that there was nothing around at that time that enabled widespread access to watching competitive gaming, still, even if it had been as widely accessible as it is now, I still think those games would struggle to find popularity on the level of League of Legends because of key elements, such as rocket-jumping. They were just too hard to follow, it was the original twitch gaming. Frenetic to their core.
Overwatch channels a lot of UT and Quake in itself, particularly at the higher skill levels, and to the ‘untrained’ eye it becomes virtually impossible to follow. Even as someone who has played many of the titles I’ve mentioned, watching professional matches in anything that allows fast, vertical movement, requires such a high amount of engagement to keep apace of the action, you might as well be playing the game yourself – watching the Overwatch World Cup confirmed this for me. There is no relaxing into watching competitive Overwatch.
I genuinely would like for the shift away from prize pools to happen and succeed. Solid contracts with fair wages, health care and stability for players would improve standards measurably for the young people involved in the industry. However, despite the fact that there has reportedly been an awful lot invested in the new Overwatch League, only time will tell if Blizzard can solve this hurdle to spectator accessibility. I see it as a fairly large sticking point, because without the right tools to track action, provide replays and train casters that can juggle all of these things – removing as much stress from the consumer as possible – they’re going to end up with a narrow audience and very little avenue for attracting the more casual end of customers. Blizzard boast of some of some of the finest talent in the gaming industry, I look forward to seeing how creative they can get in solving how to broaden the appeal of watching fast-paced, high skill competitive esports.