Overwatch is struggling with a fracture born from community conflicts dating back to the game’s launch. On one hand, the developers want Overwatch—and the Overwatch League—to be the inclusive game and esport for everyone. On the other hand, the massive esports league and gamer player base is still stepped in traditional gaming culture, warts and all.
Overwatch, as a game, managed to bring in massive markets of fans from all backgrounds and ages. The Overwatch League is keen to capitalize on that, and take their hero shooter from a fun hobby into a lifestyle product appropriate for the entire family, from mom and dad to their youngest daughter.
When the Overwatch League works, it works. There are edge of your seat matches keeping players enthralled. The camera often picks up people from all backgrounds and ages. It’s clear that the foundation is there for Blizzard’s eventual goal to create a world spanning, demographic crossing League. The big problem is that the Overwatch League is continually running into roadblocks around player conduct, expectations and culture. The players and staff, one of the most crucial pieces of the complex puzzle, have the tendency to go off the rails, and no one’s really sure where the boundaries are or what they mean.
Back in January, there was an air of confidence around the League. The first Media Day, which took place after preseason and before the first season’s official start, was optimistic. The League managed to kick off despite the cloud of uncertainty that had surrounded its early announcements.
Throughout the day, reporters spoke with team staff, players, and managers. I had one topic on my mind: the demands of the Overwatch League environment and the potential effect on player health. As I spoke with teams, I brought the topic up, and everyone I spoke to was forthcoming; they spoke about practice plans or where players would live. In retrospect, it was obvious that no one mentioned issues that wound up dominating the headlines in the weeks to come: social media conduct, Twitch streaming and vocabulary.
It’s not as though the teams weren’t prepared for players to struggle. Multiple team owners or general managers told me that traditional organizations tapped esports staff trying to get ahead of the unique challenges of the field. Rob Moore, the majority owner of Phoenix1, the Los Angeles Gladiators’ parent organization, spoke at length about how the team would employ proper personnel to handle issues like mental health and safety.
Any esports league is, at its most fundamental level, a pressure cooker for players. Long days of practice, public scrutiny, the stress of a loss (or for some teams, a prolonged losing streak), sudden fame and access to money, and vocal fans or hecklers all contribute to a player’s stress levels. Add in the fact that the Overwatch League is trying to set new standards in player conduct, and things get complicated. To make matters worse, Blizzard still has yet to publicize the exact rules players need to follow; the rules of competition and code of conduct released on February 20th is vague and could cover nearly any infraction.
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Félix “xQc” Lengyel has become the case study for toxicity in the Overwatch League scene for obvious reasons, but the mistakes he made are not unique to him. It seems inevitable that on a long enough timeline, the same level of controversy (or worse), will happen again unless there are some changes to perception in the Overwatch League.
Lengyel commented on stream during a heated rant that he had a “huge breakthrough in enlightenment” over the phrase “drunk on the job” during the height of controversy. Lengyel insisted that streaming was not a job, he wasn’t a role model and this stream was “his zone.” Lengyel also said he was “raised by Twitch chat” and “I don’t know any better—it doesn’t come from a bad place.”
Lengyel is certainly an extreme example, but there’s a very serious concern raised by these statements. The Overwatch League wants to set a standard of conduct similar to that of any major sports league, something where every player could conceivably be a role model (or at least someone you’re comfortable with letting your kids watch.) Meanwhile, these players have been raised in a culture that often rewards extreme behavior and encourages shorthand that polite society might find offensive.
This all adds up fast. There are players who may struggle with code switching to suit the standards of their new professional obligations, in a highly stressful environment based around competing under public scrutiny, while also finding themselves on camera more often than not. Is it any surprise that this division between expectations and results has formed?
Links in a chain
The Overwatch League hasn’t been all controversy and hot takes. When I asked Vytis “Mineral” Lasaitis, coach for the Florida Mayhem, about the pressure placed upon teams, on Media Day back in January he gave a surprising answer.
“I think we’re fortunate to have a very mature roster.” he said, noting that other rosters can contend with the challenges of players who are still teenagers. “I think pretty much everyone on our roster has been a professional for one and a half to two years already, so they’ve kind of gone through that period of developing a fan base for themselves, a personal brand.”
According to Lasaitis, this is a major boon. “Everyone’s far along in that promise where they understand the space, they understand that when you’re under-performing you might get criticism. Some might be deserved, some might be not, and how to handle that stuff. So, yeah, I think we have a mature bunch of players who can handle all that stuff already.”
Lasaitis’s prediction paid off. The Mayhem limped through stage one, finding themselves down at the bottom of the standings along with the Shanghai Dragons. It wasn’t an easy situation to be in, and yet the team kept their heads high.
Teams who prepare for the worst seem to be pleasantly surprised. Having mature players who understand the expectations both in and out of game is essential, but the teams must then back those players with the correct infrastructure to keep everything together. The last few months of controversy are a strong case study in what could happen otherwise.
Sink or swim
The Overwatch League has proven that organizers, teams and players can put on an exciting show, create compelling storylines and host a collection of competitive and memorable brands. Now they have to heal the fracture in their fan base. It’s been fractured since day one, between the gaming culture that fuels a hero shooter esports league and the flood of fans who want to celebrate Overwatch for its characters, lore and community. The longer it’s ignored and unaddressed, the worse things will become.
The most obvious step that can be taken in the short term is to make the code of conduct crystal clear to everyone, including fans and observers. If not, it can lead to a frenzy. Every time a player says something offensive on stream, it can be broadcast by the media and placed under a microscope as fans wildly speculate (or hope, in some cases) that the incident will end in an official League punishment. Removing the guesswork from these incidents and providing clear expectations will be beneficial to everyone.
We also need to acknowledge that players are put under a great deal of pressure, and given tools that broadcast their days to the world. Teams are running video content that broadcasts the “behind-the-scenes” of their players’ daily life. These players, some of whom are quite young, are on camera and in the spotlight — and the world is watching. The League needs to provide the appropriate resources to ensure that this environment remains as healthy as possible.
Finally, players also lack an association or union that might be able to keep a proactive role in creating that healthy environment and protecting players. While there are steps in organizing such a thing, we’re not there yet.
Overwatch wants to establish itself as a lifestyle product. In order to do that, Blizzard needs to clear this hurdle. Can the company reconcile the two communities conflicting within its game? It won’t be easy, but evading the problem won’t work; the latest wave of controversy and player punishments proved that. If Blizzard truly want to expand the league, it will need to address these issues ... before the company blows up in the headlines and news cycle once again.