First Impressions: Overwatch League

Esports is still something I’m trying to come to grips with. I want it to be a “thing” because I like video games, and I’d love a spectator sport that I can identity with. However, to date, esports tournaments have been uncomfortably geeky, and lacking in their own identity. But with Overwatch League (OWL), it looks like things may be changing.

Let’s start with what it is that I DON’T like about esports – at least with tournaments I tried watching prior to OWL. Firstly, presentation – this is key to all things. Just look at the supreme quality of this very website and you’ll understand the power of presentation. Of course, I’m just one dude, and while I can type words, I’m no good at designing… well, anything. But I know what I like, and I feel I have a good eye for what would and wouldn’t work (I just don’t care enough to apply it to my own site). For the most part, many tournaments try very hard to be edgy, cool, or (for want of a better term) hardcore. They use overly stylised graphics and iconography, poorly timed and utilised heavy metal music, and an extremely cluttered field of view that really only makes sense to fans. If you know what you’re looking at, you can follow along.

This primary point bleeds into many other aspects of esports to date – unless you have played the game or have an idea as to what the objective is, you’re likely to be lost.

Probably a great bunch of blokes – but what’s with the folded arms and stern faces?? Note: this is not an OWL team.

Another thing that makes me cringe is the team photography. I have no idea who had the idea to try to make the teams look as aggressive or tough as possible, but it was the wrong approach. Primarily, these players are young – they look about as confronting as a convenience store clerk. This isn’t meant to be a dig at them, it’s just the reality – let them relax and be themselves. They don’t need to scowl and cross their arms and look… hilariously non-confronting.

But the thing that annoyed me most to date in regards to esports? Commentary. Up until very recently, every shoutcaster (as they are called in the esports industry, for whatever reason) just tries their darnedest to sound like their favourite American sportscaster. This isn’t American Football. Nor is it Baseball. It’s a very different kettle of fish, and in many cases the commentary is the reason I just haven’t enjoyed watching esports.

But when I first watched OWL last week, it became apparent that maybe I wasn’t the only person that felt this way. The immediate thing I noticed was that the commentary was much more subdued. There was less use of “gamer” terminology, the language used was clear and concise, and – best of all – the tone of voice was natural, and varied across cultures. Yeah, it was still a little cringey from time-to-time, particularly when the ‘casters decided to make hilarious jokes, but it was mostly tolerable.

One thing did annoy me, though – prior to a match starting, commentators discussed the teams and their performance to date, including jibes at both good and bad performances for specific players, and all of this was in front of both the audience and the teams themselves. I’m not sure if the teams could hear, but the audience clearly could, and the room was small enough to assume that everyone could hear what they were saying. I just wonder if some of the comments they were making were enough to have an effect on player morale. If the players could hear the pre-match commentary, I don’t think that’s a good thing.

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The second thing that hit me in the face was the presentation. Clearly Blizzard put some time, thought, and real effort into standardising and cleaning up presentation on all fronts. When it comes to stage design, it’s second-to-none. Most of the walls are covered in large LED screens, as is the shielding in front of the teams, and this can show anything from team colours to in-game footage, but it’s all crisp and sharp. Did I mention teams not only have names and logos, but that they also have their own colours and uniforms? Because they do – not only in real life, but also in game, with new skins created for every hero in the game (every character essentially has a team uniform for every team in OWL). This was a huge design choice that makes a solid statement, and really differentiates within the game itself.

Further, while teams have their own in-game uniform, they are also highlighted by a colour specific to their team, and all actions with an associated effect (wind, shield, fire, etc.) also utilise this colour, meaning that everything that a team does within a game can be easily distinguished. Should two teams have a Winston on their side, and should they both drop a shield at the same time, you can INSTANTLY understand which is which. Clarity is a wonderful thing.

 

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There are also several spectator modes that have been added specifically for OWL – the most useful of which being an overhead mode that shows a section of the map from… overhead… and uses icons to represent heroes and actions, so that plays can be more clearly understood. It would have been nice if the commentators had the capability to mark up this view, but perhaps this is coming in future iterations.

All of this combined into something that was actually quite watchable – but still something primarily aimed at those already familiar with the product. It’s a tricky thing, really – why would you want to target people not familiar with your product? It’s not a traditional sport, so perhaps it has room to be niche? Personally, I feel that the aim SHOULD be to appeal to everyone – not necessarily non-gamers, but the goal should be that anyone who watches could potentially become interested and either want to invest in the game themselves OR pick a team and become a follower.

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We aren’t quite there yet. For one thing, there’s a lot of downtime between matches, which is currently being underutilised. It’s generally being used to show upcoming schedules, past results, or team compositions. However, I feel it could be better used by including a basic introduction to Overwatch – who are the heroes and what are the roles that these heroes play? What are the objectives being played out on the maps? How exactly does a team win? Just simple stuff aimed at helping people to try to understand what it is that they are watching.

Of course, this is is not television – perhaps what is possible via Twitch and what is possible via the medium of television are two different things. I don’t know enough about either to comment, although I doubt that would be the case. Still, some small changes to make everything even more accessible would go a long way. As it stands today, it’s a pretty good start and definitely welcoming for fans of Overwatch, or anyone potentially interested at getting into esports. Hopefully some of the ideas on play here can be put in use for other tournaments – we might end up with more than one product that feels marketable to a wider audience.

Oh – we still seem to have that issue with the players themselves being uncomfortable in front of the camera. I guess this is understandable – I wouldn’t know what the hell to do either, to be honest. Still, a little guidance beyond “try and look tough” would be nice. How about “just relax and smile at the camera”?

Note: I’m yet to choose a team, but I’m casually interested in Boston Uprising, Florida Mayhem, and Shanghai Dragons, for what it’s worth.

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