The Overwatch League (OWL) inaugural season is nearing its final stage and it has been fascinating to watch how the league itself has evolved. The aim of the Overwatch League was to become one of the first Esports leagues to institute an infrastructure similar to that of traditional sports. This means having teams based out of cities, a regular season, playoffs, centralized broadcasts and a slew of other operations all managed by Blizzard itself. The reason Blizzard is trying to mimic this structure is because of the history of success and scalability this model provides while also putting in place regulations to improve sustainability. As someone who has been entrenched in traditional sports my whole life, I believe this is a huge step forward for Esports. With that said, Esports and the Overwatch League have qualities that set them apart from traditional sports that I believe are just as important to maintain.
So let’s take a look at some of what makes Overwatch League so special
Overwatch as a game is recognized for the diversity of its cast of characters. Having characters from all across the globe, with a litany of different backgrounds, motivations, and personalities, it’s hard not to find something to relate to within the ever expanding roster. The Overwatch League seems to be following a similar trend in its player base. The league currently has teams based in four countries with players from 19 different nationalities.
Map by u/mkwong
The level of player access and fan interaction in Esports is unrivaled by any other sport. When we look at platforms like Twitch and Discord, in addition to the standard Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. it really shows how much access fans have to their favorite players. This increased accessibility leads to more opportunities to connect with a player on a personal level. That is not to say that you may get to personally converse with them, but rather see them humanized. A lot of times, in traditional sports, we see athletes as larger than life people and while this may create feelings of amazement, it does not elicit the same level of connection that is available in Esports. In OWL we’ve had the pleasure of seeing extremely wholesome things play out on social media. Things like Saebyeolbe’s love for his wife and puppy, Muma wearing a Geguri jersey, or that time the Florida Mayhem took the Blazin’ wings challenge.
OWL broadcasts have a really fun tone to them and it seems that they are honing in on what works best with each passing broadcast. Whether it is all the amazing visuals, the great chemistry of the on-screen talent, or the enigma that is Twitch chat, there is seldom a dull moment during broadcasts. There is something very refreshing about how “loose” the broadcasts feel with the relaxed dress code, casual banter, and oh-so-many memes. Overwatch League lends itself very well to the Twitch platform because of the level of customization it provides on top of how well Twitch chat synergizes with the chaotic pace of the game.
First and foremost, it is truly fascinating to watch a professional sports league be born right in front of our eyes. With leagues like the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA having been around for decades, it is amazing to watch a league in its infancy and watch how quickly it is developing using those organizations as benchmarks. With the league aiming to continue its expansion, one of the cool aspects of the league is the Overwatch Contenders and Open Division. Essentially, these two formats provide a competitive breeding ground for the Overwatch pros of tomorrow, where players and teams as a whole can vie for a spot in the Overwatch League. This allows for a lot of amazing stories and provides motivation for a lot of people seeing a direct route towards achieving their dreams.
The Game Itself
I’ve briefly touched on some of the qualities of Overwatch that are amplified by being played in an Esports format, but that is only the beginning of what makes it all work. Unlike traditional sports, Esports are much more dynamic in that they can introduce new characters, maps, and rebalance the existing roster in order to constantly refresh the feel of the game. On top of that, OWL teams can substitute their own players which can then allow different in-game heroes to be played and can shake things up during the match itself. All the while, viewers can boot up and play the same game the pros are playing and, if you are good enough, can actually play against the pros themselves. Overwatch is such an exceptionally deep game in terms of strategy and playmaking that when you add the layers of team matchups and player ability its like watching a game of 4D chess played out over the course of a season.
Bringing It All Together
Traditional sports are popular because they provide people with something to cheer for, someone to look up to and, beyond anything else, are entertaining. Esports provides this same thing, but in a slightly different, and in some aspects superior, way. Video games are more accessible for a wider range of people and have often been touted as “the great equalizer”. You can play them or watch them, casually or professionally, with friends or strangers. It attracts people of all backgrounds and really acts as a melting pot. While the communities are far from perfect, if you are willing to put yourself out there, you will always find people with whom you can relate and with Overwatch League creating teams based in specific cities, this lends itself towards fandom and all of the comradery that goes along with it.
This is another area where I believe the Overwatch League is providing a positive impact. Much like many online communities, the Overwatch professional scene has not been without its missteps, but what is important is that OWL has dealt with these issues in a public and professional manner to show all of us that certain behavior should not be tolerated. I think that because of the diversity of the players and how much insight we get into who they are as people, the OWL can provide some pivotal role models that show us all how to be better more respectful people.