Online-Only Overwatch League Has Been Weird But Fun As Heck

By Ash Parrish on at

The coronavirus has cancelled or postponed almost every single major and minor social event across the world. Just this week, we learned that the 2020 Olympics will need to rebrand to the 2021 Olympics with the announcement that the games have been postponed until July of next year. Other sporting institutions like the Premier League have also been forced to postpone or cancel matches. But while traditional sport has ground to a halt, some esports leagues have still been able to adapt and continue on.

For example, League of Legends’s European and American leagues shuttered for a couple of weeks before returning in full force with a completely online broadcast. IEM Katowice, one of the premiere CS:GO tournaments, reacted to the sudden closure of their live venue by holding its matches to a completely empty arena and record-breaking online viewership numbers.

The Overwatch League was one of the many esports leagues forced to reconsider its programming in light of the new restrictions placed on live gatherings. The 2020 season was supposed to test the viability of holding live events in each team’s home market – called “homestands”. But even before opening day, the League first postponed and then cancelled all the Asian homestands; the European homestands then followed, leaving only North America left with live Overwatch action. The result was an extremely lopsided bracket of games that saw the same handful of teams playing every week in the same handful of cities before those events too succumbed to covid-19 cancellation. After that, the Overwatch League did like all its esports brethren and shifted all future games to a purely online broadcast.

Changing the format of your broadcast while doing your best to ensure reasonable fidelity to your live show is no mean feat, and viewers could tell it wasn’t a seamless transition. The broadcasts were plagued with audio and video issues, weird cuts to ad breaks, ping issues, and tech issues. At one point Mitch “Uber” Leslie had to cast parts of several games solo because his partner, Matt “Mr. X” Morello, kept disconnecting.

After many weeks presumably full of production staffers working behind the scenes, the League did manage to retool from a Los Angeles-based studio broadcast to a completely online broadcast with the on-air talent, the casters, the observers, and the teams all working from their homes. Though the abandonment of all League homestands was undoubtedly necessary, some fans feel like, even with the shift to online, the season is beyond salvation. To those disappointed fans, the 2020 season has become the bottle episode of the Overwatch League – included but not essential to its history. But with that many moving parts all subject to the whims of internet stability, that anything came out of this weekend at all is a miracle, and deserves the same consideration as any other season.

All that energy and dedication bled into the very games themselves, creating one of the most entertaining weeks of matches to date. Last year’s champions the San Francisco Shock lost both their matches, only their second and third of the season, to their considerably weaker instate rivals the LA Valiant and LA Gladiators. The Seoul Dynasty is finally looking like they’ll live up to the expectations placed on them three seasons ago, having now earned decisive wins against the very same Valiant and Gladiators. And the four Chinese teams – Guangzhou Charge, Chengdu Hunters, Hangzhou Spark, and the Shanghai Dragons – completely disregarded the prevailing meta for their own chaotic style of play and ended up garnering a perfectly balanced arrangement of wins and losses that would make Thanos proud.

But the greatest moment of the entire weekend came after all the games were said and done.

This season, the Overwatch League introduced the concept of Hero Bans, which means that heroes of every class are banned based on their usage percentage from the week previous. In practice, the bans have been questionable at best and laughably bad at worst, because every week since its inception, the one hero everyone agrees should be excluded, Mei, has always managed to evade the ban hammer. Previously, it was up to the talent desk to choose the banned heroes. Every week they failed to rightfully ban Mei. Since there was no talent desk this week with everyone working from home, host Salome “Soe” Gschwind decided to let her cat, Nori, choose.

Having a cat choose the next round of hero bans was met with the kind of scepticism you’d expect. Something, something, professionalism, blah, blah, blah. But that all scepticism turned instantly to devotion as Nori finally had the courage to do what weeks of hero banning could not: Nori picked Mei.

Every bump, hiccup, and technical difficulty of the past two days was completely forgotten as the entire Overwatch community, fan and professional alike, came together in a single shared moment of joy – a moment that would have never happened without all the hardship that preceded it.

Ash Parrish is a freelance writer and a good mum to her dog and a bad mum to her plant. Read her rants about esports, video games, and her precious Shanghai Dragons on Twitter @adashtra.

Featured image: Screenshot: Overwatch League (Twitter)