Reaper’s shotguns have been swept away, the spawn rooms have been cleaned of every spray, and the last payloads have been pushed. Overwatch League’s inaugural season has nearly come to a close, with only the season playoffs remaining. With a bit of a break before that starts, this seems like the perfect time to dig into a post-mortem on Blizzard’s first run at the Overwatch League. What worked about Overwatch as an esport? What failed to land? Let’s go over the highlights — and worrying parts — of the Overwatch League’s first season.
Production and Broadcast: The Overwatch League still has room for improvement —whenever they show a Reinhardt POV, I immediately get lost, even though I’ve played the dang game for hundreds of hours — but the production value of matches and the skill of the broadcast team can’t be stressed enough. Every single member of the Overwatch League’s presentation consistently killed it, week in and week out.
Overwatch works as an esport: Before the Overwatch League preseason, a lot of viewers were waiting with baited breath to see if the game even worked as an esport. The League has done a lot to settle those doubts, and while there are still questions as to long-term success, there’s no denying that Overwatch is an entertaining esport that can be watched and enjoyed and regularly rustle up a respectable number of viewers. That seems like a really low bar, but clearing it was a very important test, and I’m genuinely impressed that Blizzard managed to do so with so little of that planning and preparation being obvious to the public before the preseason.
City-based teams: I was a massive skeptic of the city-based teams thing, especially because I have never really thought that your average, humble gamer has much civic pride. I was wrong on this one. Teams like Boston and events like the Battle for LA showed that you can absolutely appeal to your home crowd... although I bet teams are itching to get to their home stadiums.
New fans, new faces: The Overwatch League has brought a ton of women and LGBT+ fans into esports, and that’s awesome. I love watching the games and seeing families in the crowd, I love following young women on Twitter who are into Overwatch as their first esport, and I love that the tone and personality of this esport is so much different than other games. Blizzard really leaned into what makes Overwatch different, and the result is a different fanbase. That’s just neat, and I’m happy to see a diverse crowd of fans hanging out in the Arena.
What didn’t work?
Too many games: Oh my God, there were so many games. The Overwatch League is looking to expand and I don’t know how they can possibly add more games to the schedule. Right now, burnout is a serious problem for players and staff, but a lower form of burnout is affecting viewers. It’s nice to have a whole lot of games and to not have every single game be a massive high stakes affair, but there is so much Overwatch right now. The League takes up half of a week! I have no idea how lower tiers of professional Overwatch are meant to take off when the main stage is constantly full. I am begging everyone involved: please dial back on the amount of games we need to watch.
Not enough spectacle: There’s this weird disparity between the Overwatch game, which is so polished and based off spectacle, and the the Overwatch League. While the broadcast and production are great, and the multi-walled screen is very neat, I’d like to see more. The elaborate walk out carried out by the Valiant or the Spitfire’s royal wedding was fantastic, but it seems like just the start. Half-time shows, theme songs... there’s so much potential for how teams can make a mark and spice up the night.
Player welfare: When I attended the inaugural Overwatch League Media Day in January 2018, I asked every team for their plans about player welfare and protection. At the time, it wasn’t much of a topic, and the answers I got were very simple and mostly focused around housing and food. Those were more innocent days. Now, we’ve had a number of worrying incidents around players in the Overwatch League. Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez was removed from the Boston Uprising in April after allegations from underage fans. The Dallas Fuel had to refocus and invest on mental health care after a season marked with repeated scandal and struggle. The Shanghai Dragons spent season one practicing on a shocking twelve-hour a day training schedule.
The Overwatch League is giving young people a massive opportunity and it’s fantastic to watch a game in person, but there’s also the potential for things to go terribly wrong. Anyone who’s followed Hollywood can attest that giving young people extremely large amount of money and fame can go very badly. Presumably the infrastructure of the Overwatch League is meant to be the countermeasure protecting these players; if that’s the case, we need to see a great deal more transparency in the Overwatch League’s second season.