For many gamers who consider themselves to be competitive, e-sports leagues have represented this final stage where the great can stand tall and take home fat cheques. The reality is a lot more complicated. There are a lot of tourneys both big and small, but rarely does a game produce anything truly premier in the same way we see in traditional sports. The effect ends up being that professional e-sports is unapproachable for many, both in getting to that level and in being able to enjoy it as spectators.
Back in 2016, Blizzard announced their intent to change that with The Overwatch League, and it looks like they want to take that traditional sports feel and bring it to the e-sports market.
Others have gone big with e-sports in the past and met with varying levels of success. The most notable in recent memory has been the League of Legends World Championship. There are some very keys differences. The LoLWC allows for teams to form around large corporations and other such entities. This is an issue because one of the key factors to the draw of traditional sports patronage is hometown pride. You want to cheer on the local guys, not the guys brought to you by Samsung. Also, the bulk of the LoLWC’s playerbase is located in or near South Korea. This isn’t a surprise by any means as the SK gamer mindset is heavily weighted towards professional gaming, but that does leave the rest of the world in the cold.
The third, and perhaps foremost, issue with most e-sports leagues is that there isn’t a clear path to getting to the big time like there is in traditional sports. A player can want to become a professional and build a paying career off of his or her talents, but the actual process to achieving that is usually hard to see.
The Overwatch League (or OWL) is designed with those issues in mind. Teams have hometowns to represent, and those hometowns are located all over the world. From Los Angeles to London to Seoul, and the players in those teams are also far more diverse. Players now will have a very clear ladder through minor league tournaments that Blizzard has laid out for anyone to participate in and climb towards that major league goal. This creates a far more direct environment to buy into.
Over the weekend, the pre-season matches took place as a warm-up to the inaugural season that kicks off on January 10th, and we got a good look at where things are in the building of this league. Blizzard went through the trouble of designing custom team skins, modified effect colouring, and a sleek new spectator mode to improve the viewing experience. It all seemed to come together quite well. The commentary itself was insightful and what you would expect from professional shoutcasters, while also being backed up with visual stats and other tools that help to communicate the events and narrative of the matches to the viewers.
That said, there were a few things that I found lacking. Firstly, there are only twelve teams. This is probably a much bigger issue to the future success of the league than most realize. There have been many top-tier players who have not been picked up by OWL teams but have the credentials to be there. These players have fanbases that will often not give OWL their attention because players who have every right to be there, aren’t. There are signs that season 2 will have a few more teams.
Secondly, it was surprising to see a lack of advertising during intermissions. You may not be eager to have the latest keyboard or video card shoved in my face, but if you want to be like traditional sports, Blizzard is going to have to push OWL to a lot of faces beyond Twitch and online streaming, and that costs money and influence. Overwatch’s viewership on sites like Twitch is comparatively low when put up against LoL, DOTA 2, and a few others.
E-sports is a growing business. There are e-sports bars popping up all over the world (Toronto has a few already), and they’re spurring on a renewed interest in competition. Twitch and Youtube Gaming viewership also is very healthy. The Overwatch League has plenty of fertile ground to grow in and is taking a lot of good queues traditional sports. There are serious challenges ahead for Blizzard and the community, but everyone wants this to succeed. It’ll be very interesting to see how things turn out.
Check it all out at OverwatchLeague.com