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Spectating Overwatch is a challenge — but one with solutions

The new Command Center opens up a new world

Blizzard Entertainment

One of the more common criticisms of competitive Overwatch is that it’s hard to watch: six-on-six matches move fast, different heroes and roles are challenging to follow, there’s a huge amount of visual effects on-screen. Though Overwatch’s objective is clear—capture a point on the map or move a payload—it’s not particularly easy, especially for casual viewers, to grasp the complexity of any given scenario.

But like any new esports game, Overwatch and the way we watch it continues to change. Thanks to Overwatch League’s new Command Center, which debuted on Feb. 14 with the Overwatch League’s 2019 season opener, we’re at peak information. (At least, ‘we’ being those who pay the $15 to buy the feature through Twitch.) The feature gives us near total control over the broadcast, as if we were in a production booth behind Blizzard Arena’s brightly-lit stage. Casters shout over whatever feed you choose: a first-person perspective for any of the 12 players on stage, an overhead view that contextualizes positioning, or the main stream chooses for you. Another option pulls all these options into one, the three frames flanked by at-a-glance statistics for all players.

Each production puts Overwatch in a different frame — one a physical stadium, the others virtual. Throughout it all, we’re guided by casters who act as tour guides through maps set in Italy, Korea, or China. Behind the scenes, observers pick and choose angles and perspectives. We hear the crowd from Blizzard Arena Los Angeles cheer off-screen. Your friends gasp. It’s all important in untangling the knots of competitive Overwatch.

Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

But it wasn’t always like this. Before the Overwatch League Command Center, before team colors and overhead maps, we had only red and blue. Overwatch was released in May 2016; months later, in August, the game had its first event, the Overwatch Open. Spectating at the event didn’t go much past what was publicly available for spectating custom games — but the worst part was the colors. Red and blue.

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with the two colors. But what made watching hard was that neither team in any given match was designated as one of the two hues; after each map, teams swapped colors. If FaZe Clan was red in their last match, they were now blue. Color swapping became confusing; the team you spent 60 minutes associating with red was no longer visualized on screen that way. Red and blue, too, have in-game context already attributed to them for viewers that also play Overwatch. When playing Overwatch, you’re always blue and your enemy is red. Even if it’s not something you’ve noticed, it’s something that’s made divots in your brain—the colors are constructed as a visual indicator of friendly vs. enemy, and it was hard for viewers of early Overwatch to drop that association when watching tournaments.

(Overwatch’s spectator mode also launched without third-person health bars for spectators, too—which made it hard to really tell how a fight was unfolding while in the action. Blizzard added these in January 2017, a tiny change that paid off in dividends for casters. Again, the more information, the better.)

Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

In October 2017, Blizzard took a huge step forward in its spectating efforts by addressing the color issue. Ahead of the Overwatch World Cup that year, the developer introduced a whole slew of spectator tools, including in-game team uniforms. Each of the countries participating in the global event were assigned team colors that were applied to each of the game’s heroes. The user interface for the spectator mode was adjusted to reflect teams’ colors, too — ensuring that viewers could always tell who’s perspective we were watching from.

That’s when the top-down camera became a reality, too, alongside the third-person “smart camera” that determined the most action and followed it. Observers also got access to short instant replays that could be captured and replayed on-stream. But the big one was a tournament client specifically for esports players in Overwatch’s big events, something that adds a bit of stability beyond the client that us everyday players use.

“We think it’s extremely cool technology,” Kaplan said in a YouTube video released in October 2018 before the Overwatch World Cup. “We’ve had our observers and casters out here to work with it and they say it makes their job a lot easier to relay information to you guys and make for a better broadcast.”

The features debuted Nov. 3 and 4 at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California—a preview of what fans could expect heading into the Overwatch League kick-off a few months later. Of course, for the Overwatch League, teams are not branded by country, and instead have their own team colors. With the teams, Blizzard built out unique branding and colors—home and away skins for each team — with Overwatch’s visual cues tinted a team’s respective colors. Visually, it’s a lot to take in, but that’s just what we’ve come to expect with Overwatch.

The next major update came a year later, again with the Overwatch World Cup. Blizzard introduced the Overwatch World Cup viewer shortly before the November 2018 event with a short beta period and the promise of it being implemented as a permanent feature. The Overwatch World Cup Viewer differs from the Twitch All-Access Pass in that it’s built into the Blizzard Client—meaning that you have access to spectator tools and not just a feed of a stream. It’s a feature that has implications beyond just making life easier for us, the viewers. Having the ability to manipulate perspective in real-time ensures that a viewer gets the exact experience they want—and the replay functionality means that games can be further analyzed.

Bad news is … it was only available for the duration of the Overwatch World Cup. (The tape captured there was available for a month afterward, however.) Blizzard has said its a feature that it’d like to expand to the Overwatch League. And potentially, it could be a useful tool for players uninterested in esports, too. Overwatch players want replays; right now, we can take clips, but we aren’t able to capture games to watch back. We can’t see what our enemy is doing, can’t really track positioning—it’s all information that we can benefit and learn from, and having those perspectives can radically change how we learn to play Overwatch.

Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

There’s no word on when the Overwatch World Cup Viewer will turn into the Overwatch League viewer or anything else. Details need to be worked out, and it brings up obvious questions about Twitch and ESPN viewership. Will the feature pull players away from Twitch? ESPN? (Twitch, a company that reportedly paid $90 million for broadcast rights, certainly wouldn’t be happy with that.) But for the Overwatch League, the obvious draw is reaching the viewers who won’t tune in unless it is in the client. The player who, somehow, might not even know what the Overwatch League is. To watch the Overwatch League is a way that’s so familiar might be the key in expanding the league’s reach.

When it does get there, the Overwatch League experience will be changed. Overwatch League’s Command Center on Twitch is good—great, even. The new overhead map is an essential part of contextualizing the game. General consensus in Overwatch is that the more information available, the better. In the moments where there’s too much visual chaos, we can look to statistics, an overhead map, a kill feed, an ultimate counter, to stabilize. The added information, too, helps casters ease us along as they string together a narrative from the variety of tools available.

But an in-game spectating viewer makes the experience of watching Overwatch League active, something like a game in itself. Esports, already, isn’t exactly passive — it, especially Overwatch, requires us to pay attention. To sit at the edge of our seats, mouths open. To track numbers, watch percentages increase. A spectator client expands on that idea, a natural progression of how we already interact with esports and games. It puts us into the matches, the familiar spaces we’ve already spent so much time.