Overwatch - eSport In The Making?
Recently, and much to the delight of some of my colleagues, the EU closed beta for Blizzard’s new, hot, young, virile IP Overwatch was recently announced and is coming along sooner than expected. It’s been interesting to watch the development of the game since the first details appeared. What’s even more interesting is where the game is going to go following its actual release. In my eyes, Overwatch is absolutely begging, pleading to be an eSport – it seems to have the mixture of diverse characters, interesting mechanics and quick-wristed FPS action that competitive plays drool over. It’s interesting to note that, in an interview with PCGamer, Jeff Kaplan, Game Director on Overwatch, stated that “It's dangerous to be overly committed to esport too early in the lifespan of the game. This is something we have a lot of experience with at Blizzard and there's a lot of lessons learned around the studio. From its very inception StarCraft 2 was targeted to be an esport and I think there was a lot of grief that came out of that”.
So, Blizzard, much like its other title, Hearthstone, haven’t designed Overwatch from day one as a competitive esport. But, in the same fashion as Hearthstone, the community, purely as a result of the game’s nature, will more than likely turn it into one. At first, small online tournaments will be the norm, then maybe bigger offline events will start up and then it’s only a matter of time to see how long before Blizzard start to create official sanctioned tournaments. The big question for me is not how long before this happens but how big can Overwatch become? Be warned, this is purely a speculative exercise on the possibilities, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously up to the point where this article nails everything about Overwatch’s competitive future and I should be heralded as some sort of minor prophet and Blizzard should probably hire me. A man can dream.
As I said, Overwatch’s own genre helps to gear it towards the competitive crowd. First Person Shooters can’t help but be competitive in the end; the very thought of human players squaring off to see which had the faster trigger finger and the better gun skill. Over the years though, while these themes are remained largely consistent across the genre, different games have chosen to focus on different elements of the genre. CS:GO has gone for more tactical, slow methodical gameplay where knowing exactly where your opponent is going to be and killing him before he kills you reigns supreme. On the flip side, Call of Duty, which only truly developed into an eSport rather recently, is more fast-paced and is more about mastering a Quake-style movement system to outmanoeuvre your foes in order to complete the objective of the game mode. Both examples are extremely fun and gratifying to watch in their own right, though I lean closer to CS:GO, and this demonstrates that, typically FPSs will attract a competitive crowd regardless of whether they were designed to or not. It’s genetic.
On what I’ve watched of Overwatch gameplay, (Believe me, I’ve seen pretty much all there is to see) it’s hard not to conclude that this is the game’s inevitable future. You have FPS game play, based around objective elements, combined with a host of different characters who create a wide variety of different classes and roles to play. In addition, these characters all have abilities that can help turn the tide of battle, which adds an additional layer of mastery because, while a good player will know how to use the ability, a great player will know when it is best to use that ability. It’s not a question of whether it’s going to be an esport, it’s a question of when and will it be supported and allowed to grow.
Official support is critical for a game to become an eSport. Whether that support comes from the actual developer like it does for Riot Games or whether it comes from third parties such as ESL or even events like the SanDisk Invitational, without it, it’s hard to consider it to be a legitimate eSport with reduces its viability for the top players of that game. While Overwatch has the ingredients to be a great eSport, if Blizzard or even companies like ESL do not adopt it and move it onto a wider stage, then it’s hard to consider it among that pantheon of current eSport games. All that scaremongering aside, that is more than likely going to happen. Blizzard did so with Hearthstone and, as previously mentioned, that wasn’t innately designed to be a competitive eSport. But again, TCGs have innately competitive components in a similar way that FPSs do. Of course, people are going to play it to be the best. Blizzard just helped legitimise it through the BlizzCon championship and there were other major events for it like the ESL Legendary series and many other online tournaments held by numerous organisers.
This is precisely the arc I see for Overwatch. The community starts to organise small events with small prize pools; these gather steam and grab attention; others take notice and rosters get picked up for more and more famous organisations and then; BAM. Official offline events with prize pools big enough to swim in and all the entrapping of fame a player could want. While this is all entirely speculative, it’s hard to deny that this feels like the path for Overwatch. While Blizzard may deny that it’s not been designed outright for competition in the same way StarCraft 2 way, Overwatch’s genetics say otherwise.