By Eric Van Allen, Maddy Myers, Nathan Grayson and Cecilia D'Anastasio
After a full year of hype, we now have a decent idea of what the Overwatch League looks like in practice. With the season a quarter over—“Stage 1" just ended—Compete staff checks in on how things are going.
Eric Van Allen: So the first real question, I guess, is do we feel like the league has been a success so far?
Maddy Myers: It’s definitely been a success for Blizzard’s wallet! I think we have to define “success” here before we can answer this, though... like, is it fun to watch? And are enough people watching it that it makes financial sense for it to continue? I do think it’s surprisingly fun to watch, which is something we all said about pre-season. I am not sure if enough people are actually watching it for OWL to hit a cultural critical mass, though. But ... maybe that’s not the type of “success” that’s important right now.
Cecilia D’Anastasio: Since we’re simple viewers/fans/professional Roadhog mains, I think it’s good to evaluate OWL’s success first and foremost as spectators. From that standpoint, for me, it fucking ruled. I had a team. I watched my team. It was easy to watch my team. My team won a lot. My team won a lot in cool, freaky ways. We bonded. I had feelings. It never got lame.
Nathan Grayson: Given where it came from—a rush to get everything up and running, with reports of cut corners everywhere—and the logistics of running daily esports events involving 12 teams made up of players from all over the place, all in one location, I’d say yes. There have been no major tech snafus or event cancellations, and while the view count on Twitch has fallen off since day one, it seems to have settled at around 100,000-130,000 concurrents at any given moment, which seems healthy to me.
As a viewer, I’ve enjoyed it a lot. It’s become part of my daily routine, a mark of success for any sport. I put it on in the background while I’m working or just hanging out. Or playing Overwatch, because actually I have been Jeff Kaplan all along, like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and you all fell for it, you children, you rubes. At the start of the season, I was worried that the top few teams would repeatedly crush everybody else, but already, we’re seeing teams like Houston rise from the bottom to almost make it into the stage 1 finals. Related: I was afraid I wouldn’t have a team to root for (SF Shock is not very good, Dallas is from Dallas), but HOUSTON ALL THE WAY!
Image credit: Robert Paul, Blizzard Esports
Cecilia: Yeah, I’m curious—how did everyone choose which team to root for?
Eric: Oh, purely on home state. I was hovering between Dallas and Houston, but the Outlaws won me over with better in-game skins and a killer Widowmaker player in LiNkzr.
Maddy: This is going to make you so sad, Cecilia, but I really don’t root for any of the teams. I have a soft spot for Seoul because I have so many friends rooting for that team (holdovers from their past as Lunatic Hai). Based on location, I’m a Boston Uprising fan, and I do like those players. But I’m a lapsed Patriots fan and an avowed Robert Kraft disliker, so my Boston Uprising fandom is not even close to as pure of heart as your NYXL fervour has become.
Cecilia: My NYXL fervour is absolutely not pure of heart! I tried them out first because they were local, and I stuck with them because they have cool players and are successful. I would drop them if they started losing or got shitty players.
I fell head over heels for Jjonak, our insane Zenyatta player, and for Pine, our McCree player. If they’d disappointed me, I would have switched to Seoul. Of course, I get a lot more benefit out of rooting for a local team, since it means I’ve been able to have weekly OWL-watching parties complete with beer and wings. Having never had Local Sports Experiences before, it’s a very special thing.
Nathan: One word: Jakerat. Honestly, though, I tried to root for my local team, SF Shock, but quickly realised they won’t be truly viable until later this season, if at all. So then I defaulted to my original home, Texas, and even though I’m from Dallas, Houston’s storyline and penchant for centring their entire strategy around a cackling garbage troll won me over. Also, I enjoy calling them the Houston Deadspin Dot Coms because of their team and logo colours.
I’m not sure I’m SUPER invested in any one team, though. I tend to stop whatever I’m doing and actually pay attention when a match-up seems interesting, such as when two top teams collide, or a massive underdog like Shanghai takes on, say, Seoul. I have enjoyed going to the Shock’s live events, though, if only to drink in the general excitement around these matches.
Image credit: Robert Paul, Blizzard Esports
Maddy: Yeah. The unexpected upside for me with OWL is that I’ve had more opportunities to just sit around and watch esports on a couch with friends. It’s a rare treat. That said, it’s been tough to convince Overwatch outsiders to get into watching the game. Have you guys had any luck with that?
Eric: It’s definitely still been difficult to get people who aren’t familiar with Overwatch (or esports) to get into the league. The spectating has improved even across the first stage, but there are still elements of this game that people struggle to contextualise. It’s like if every time Tom Brady took a snap, the camera cut to his first-person perspective. A familiar spectator knows what they’re looking at, but someone who has no idea needs time and a patient teacher to understand all the action.
Cecilia: The spectating has certainly improved and the rhythm of the game feels much more exciting than it has in previous incarnations of competitive Overwatch. I love how skilled the camera crew has been at anticipating hype moments seconds before they happen and switching to that view. For newbies I’ve watched with, that’s made the game very difficult to follow and digest. They don’t know whose view it is, why we’re watching a new person, what team they’re on, etc. Maybe that’s unavoidable.
Maddy: Yeah. With my friends who don’t follow many esports, it’s easy to get them interested in tales of beefs between players and teams—all the gossipy drama that both tsports and esports share. OWL has a wealth of that, which is great, and the fact that there are both charming personalities and unsavoury ones helps make those stories easy to follow.
The problem is ... when we actually sit down to watch the game, I notice my non-Overwatch-knowing friends looking away from the actual gameplay in boredom, checking their phones, and getting totally checked out. I do think OWL will live or die on whether it manages to loop those people in. I can’t do all the accessibility work by myself on the couch for them, you know? But they’ve recently hired some new talent on the hosting desk, so I’m hoping that the game will continue to become more approachable to other people.
Image credit: Robert Paul, Blizzard Esports
Nathan: I’ve tried to get a friend who doesn’t play Overwatch to watch, but she mostly hasn’t been interested. The best success I’ve had is with explaining storylines behind certain players—for example, how Esca moved on from Lunatic Hai before they become Seoul Dynasty, and how that was apparently a really tough and emotional thing for Ryujehong—and specific strategies underlying big moments, like what Jake was doing during a crushing point A take on Eichenwalde and how London tried to adapt to him. Those things got her to watch for a few minutes, but both times, she ended up walking away mumbling about how she needs to start playing the game to get it.
It’s overwhelming to watch if you’re not at least somewhat versed in hero roles, and abilities, and I’m honestly not sure there’s any way around that, no matter how good the spectating tools and observers get.
That said, ADD A SECOND WINDOW WITH A TOP-DOWN VIEW OF EVERYBODY’S POSITIONS, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. The casters have access to it at all times, and on the rare occasions they show it to viewers, it’s a godsend.
Maddy: God yes. BIRD’S EYE VIEW. Owl’s eye view, even! Call it that. BRANDING.
Nathan: Too bad Blizzard REFUSES to acknowledge the whole owl thing. They call it O-W-L!
Maddy: Yeah. That’s an important point. Can we all agree to pronounce it “Owl” please?
Eric: Alright, alright. Y’all stop hootin’ and hollerin’, let’s get this back on track. I do find it interesting that we keep coming back to players and narratives, though. If anything, the league has felt as much defined by the players in it as the games themselves—which is great! Bucking the stereotype of the robot gamer designed to emotionlessly win is good. But it’s also been a setback at times. As we go into another stage, it’s cool to see narratives developing, but Blizzard will also keep having to wrangle the rampant personalities of dozens of young Overwatch pros who are always online.
Maddy: I feel like the unpredictability and immaturity of the OWL pros can also be a selling point, though. That drama and tension is part of what keeps people interested, even if only to chant for a player’s downfall. The problem is that Blizzard also simultaneously doesn’t want any bad press, so it’s not like commentators can play up those angles with humorous asides... at least, not beyond basic acknowledgment. It would be fun to see more of that though. Clearly, since I’m the one who’s always covering intra-player drama and trash talk, no surprise that I feel this way.
Cecilia: Eric, could you elaborate? What do you mean, the stereotype of the robot gamer was bucked?
Eric: I think in a lot of cases, esports used to view the players in-game as the subject, and would ignore their lives outside the game. But this year in particular, I’ve seen more scenes talk about the players as a whole, their personality and presence alongside their abilities. It’s the sort of thing that got me to understand meatsports in the first place.
And Overwatch League, in particular, did a good job with this. Little side videos between matches helped you to understand a team’s dynamic as much as watching them play the game.
Image credit: Robert Paul, Blizzard Esports
Cecilia: Partly, that must be because Overwatch is such an expressive game with so many possible ways of playing. New York Excelsior’s Mercy player, one of the best out there, used to be a nurse. I think that says something. He’s been getting lots of kudos for supporting our (Ed. note: Cecilia is such a disgusting NYXL homer that she refers to the team as “we.”) Zenyatta player with damage-boosts, making him an absolute and unprecedented monster. Pride plays in, too. Our now-famous McCree and Widowmaker player, Pine, was all about trick-shots and bold, risky flanks. It built lots of tension. Sometimes, it really didn’t work and messed with the team’s cohesion. And after games, he had kind of a hot dog way of presenting himself.
Nathan: Yeah, I’ve appreciated side videos a lot, though they’re of course very sanitised looks at these teams and players. Teams have obviously been trying to get their players’ personalities out there, too. Pretty much every team has an ongoing video series of some sort, and many players stream in their off-time, for better or worse. A subtle conflict I’ve seen in the telling of these stories is the personality of The Teams vs. the personalities of their players.
Team personas are largely being shaped by social media managers on Twitter and places of the like. Mostly, they focus on match highlights and saying nice stuff to other teams. Also memes. Way too many memes, including inadvisable ones like Ugandan Knuckles. Then you’ve got the stuff players are doing on their streams, which is totally different from all of that, but more indicative of who they actually are. And there are totally different audiences for those two things! It’s a lot to keep up with, and you don’t even necessarily have to until one thing affects the other.
Eric: They are very online boys. Their “drills” are essentially broadcast out to thousands, and they take live viewer questions while doing so.
Looking ahead, what do we want to see from the Overwatch League in the coming weeks? I know I want to see stage playoffs pushed to a separate day. I think watching almost 12 straight hours of Overwatch drove me mad. What about y’all?
Maddy: Yeah, agree. Esports fans are known for their stamina, but watching anything for 12 hours is just plain hard and it shouldn’t be a requirement in so many fandoms. Also, I already said this, but I’m still hopeful about the new talent on the desk lineup. I’m hoping OWL will continue to be more and more accessible to my pals in the coming weeks, because I want to convince more people to watch it while sitting on a couch with me.
Cecilia: I expect OWL to continue being the shit. I’ve had a blast. I’d watch the games at my local bodega, alone and with a beer. I’d watch the games with buddies on the couch or with randos I’ve met through Overwatch. It’s ruled. I’m so happy with it, minus, you know, issues with representation. It looks like OWL is working towards correcting those issues in the future. I’m feeling very positively about that.
Nathan: I want to see if this torrid schedule can sustain my interest for the whole season. We’ve already seen a bunch of these teams compete against each other multiple times now, so how does OWL keep it compelling? What sorts of storylines and rivalries develop? Will there be more upsets? Will the new meta be exciting to watch? Stage 2 will bring a new, less Mercy-focused meta and a handful of new players (including Geguri, maybe!), so I’m hopeful, at least.
After our chat concluded, tsports correspondent and elongated redheaded child Patrick Redford responded to the offer to chat.
Patrick Redford: that was good sports.