How The Overwatch League Revitalized Overwatch eSports

With the first stage in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League wrapping up later tonight, we weigh in on the number of factors that have transformed eSports surrounding Overwatch from a run-of-the-mill community to one of Twitch and MLG’s premier ongoing events.

Initially introduced during Blizzcon 2016, the concept of a professional eSports league for the largely popular Blizzard-made shooter didn’t seem like that distinct of an endeavor. Such is the life of many massive multiplayer online titles nowadays — League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and even Blizzard’s own Heroes of the Storm — highlighting the best of the best in an organized format is not unseen.

However, what was once an afterthought has turned into a scheduled weekly viewing for many. Against the odds and in the face of some of the game’s own characteristics, the Overwatch League has managed to appeal to the masses in a number of key entertaining ways.

In-Game Integration

In the month prior to the league’s opening week in early January, Blizzard did everything in their power to get word out about the league’s coming debut — and it worked. With staggered reveals of the regional teams to participate in the first season, in addition to their logos and team colors, fans were able to gradually grow a recognition and affiliation with featured squads and players. Then, in an unexpected move, Blizzard converged the Overwatch League with every live copy of the title through a crucial in-game update.

This support came in the form of a simple extra page available from the main menu of Overwatch upon startup. Titled “Overwatch League”, this tab opens up a grid of all professional teams, a current schedule, and even live score updates. On top of convenience, players worldwide are able to purchase and equip skins for their favorite heroes based on their favorite team’s colors — adding a whole new element of team allegiance when simply playing online.

Ease of Accesibility

If there’s one thing that has plagued eSports in the past and thus resulted in the demise of some communities, it is the distinct lack of accessibility. However, this is where the Overwatch League has excelled so far. Just before opening week, Twitch struck a deal with Blizzard to be the exclusive home of all league streams. Even with the familiar nature of online gaming, Blizzard has also made a public event of each day of matches, opening up the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles for fans to come in-person to support their team — just as any sporting event. These teams also each have their own verified social media accounts, which grants yet another level of connection.

Taking this idea of convenience further, Blizzard also developed a standalone app in time for the league’s inaugural season. While straightforward in design, this program gives users everything they need to be informed — once again on a live basis. It provides news, updated standings, score recaps, a schedule of the entire season (which never has more than four days between matches or 11 days between stages), and most significant of all: direct streaming of live matches and VODs of completed ones. Thus, all within a single app, not a single second of the action can be missed.

Presentation Improvements

Specifically for Overwatch in the eSports realm, a common theme has been passed around that the game is actually difficult to follow from a spectator’s point of view. To be honest, this has been understandable for previous large scale tournaments where so much is going on in-game with multiple copies of the same-skinned characters that at times, it was truly an eyesore. While Blizzard knew they couldn’t change the chaotic nature of high-level Overwatch, they knew well that they could alter the presentation of it — which is exactly what they did.

Thinking with the spectator in mind, Blizzard took to developing a camera mode for the league where no matter who’s perspective it was utilizing, viewers would always be able to tell who is on which team and where they are on the map. This is accomplished by displaying color appropriate silhouettes of each character while they are behind walls. Combine this with more cinematic angles and abilities that are color coordinated to each team, and it makes it that much easier to tell who is dishing out the damage and taking control of a situation.

Unexpected Parity

Most interesting, however, has been the actual competition of the Overwatch League itself so far. As with any organized competition and especially with a FPS that has historically been dominated by South Korean players, it’s easy for one to fret over if the sport is even balanced enough to supply watchable matches. Dominance is often a natural thing, but constant steamrolls can become boring to watch. Thankfully, the Overwatch League has — to the surprise of many — avoided this with some serious upsets and performances that have occurred in spite of expectations.

Coming into the season, Seoul Dynasty stood as the heavy favorite to not only win the first stage, but the whole championship. Now, as of last night, a 7-3 Seoul had their stage 1 playoff hopes dashed by a 3-7 San Francisco Shock team. Add this to the fact that six of the 12 teams are still in contention for only three playoff spots on the last day of matches, and it goes to show a true balance of power in the standings. South Korean teams are being challenged and overrun by upstart Western squads from Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philly, while the team that many thought would be the only real contender — the Dallas Fuel — is sitting down the rankings at 3-7.

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