The Overwatch League is eSports’ Ticket to the Mainstream

Blizzard has outdone itself with the debut of the Overwatch League, with day one clocking in at over 350,000 viewers consistently on its Twitch stream alone, peaking at 415,000. This is big news for eSports, and while there have certainly been technically bigger events — Dota 2‘s The International boasted an astounding prize pool of $24.6 million — the Overwatch League is shaping up to set the bar on how to present an event such as this to both a die-hard and casual audience.

The accessibility of Overwatch makes it a unique proposition for sports investors. Whereas the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2 can be incomprehensible to the new viewer, and high-level can play can even be baffling to those who have a moderate knowledge of them, Overwatch is comparatively simple. It is this simplicity that makes the Overwatch League the most promising attempt at bringing eSports into the mainstream.

Blizzard has a lot riding on the Overwatch League. Shortly prior to it going live, the publisher announced that they had struck a record-breaking $90 million deal with Twitch to stream the event exclusively on the site across its first two seasons. This current season will run until July 28th, with each of its four stages lasting for five weeks apiece before the teams enjoy a week break. That’s a lot of Overwatch for a game that is still in its infancy when compared to eSports’ biggest hitters, but it’s clear that Blizzard has a lot of faith in its FPS justifying the investment.

Blizzard has presented the Overwatch League to the game’s player base as a monumentally big deal. The game’s menu now features a separate Overwatch League tab, containing an overview of every team and their logo. 312 skins have been introduced to the game, the largest batch in its history, allowing players to wear the “jersey” of their favorite team. Blizzard is borrowing a page from the book of traditional sports, allowing players to represent their favorite team in their own games.

As a viewer, watching sports is all about loyalty. You have the team you support, the players you like, and the rivals you desperately want to see them beat. Blizzard has understood this and attempted to enforce this passion in the Overwatch League, and it’s working. With team names such as Los Angeles Valiant, Shanghai Dragons and London Spitfire, even those with zero knowledge of the players in each team can pick their favorites based on the cities they represent. During the incredible Seoul Dynasty and Dallas Fuel match, commentator Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykkles jokingly pointed out how the crowd was chanting “USA!” for a team that only has one American player.

But Blizzard’s push to publicize the Overwatch League would be futile if the matches themselves weren’t up to scratch. One of the biggest tasks that lay ahead of the production was to make the game’s chaotic action easy to follow across 12 players, and day one of the Overwatch League was evidence that this has been achieved.

A number of changes have been made to Overwatch’s visual presentation in order to make it easier to follow for the viewer. Teams are color-coded, with them not only wearing their respective skins while playing, but their HUDs also representing their team colors. Seoul Dynasty players appear as completely clad in gold, with their abilities mimicking this color in order to differentiate their attack from those of their opponents, along with their permanently visible health bars and player tags.

The camera changes are fast-paced but not difficult to follow. If a player is doing particularly well, or the commentary is focusing on them, the camera sticks on them until a major play takes place. Key events that may have been missed are replayed almost instantly, while each match is followed by a highlight reel and a deconstruction of each round’s key moments by the League’s presenters. It’s professional without being sterile — commentators MonteCristo and Erik “DoA” Lonnquist inject a ton of personality into proceedings, making it almost as enjoyable to listen to as it is to watch.

The Overwatch League is the closest that gaming has come to the presentation of a traditional sports event, and emulating the style of a cable sports show has paid off. Not only is the Overwatch League shaping up to be a compelling viewing experience for fans of the FPS, but it seems destined to attract a slew of newcomers to the game, too. Bravo, Blizzard.

Image Credit: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment