With hundreds of tournaments and dozens upon dozens of leagues globally, it seems as though esports are really hitting their strides in 2016. However, there are only a handful of games that actually make their way into the spotlight and are followed by a wide audience. Blizzard Entertainment has not only introduced many of these games, such as StarCraft 2 and Hearthstone, but helped cultivate the beginning of the esports phenomenon with their release of StarCraft: Brood War. Because of this, when Blizzard announced Overwatch as a team-based, competitive FPS, many eyes were trained on the game in hopes of it rising as a dominate esports presence.
Now that we’re a week into release and have several betas under our belts, its time to judge whether or not Overwatch can truly succeed as an official esport. To do this, it’s incredibly important to understand how a game turns into an esport. We’ve broken this down into four key factors: Accessibility, Balance, Funding, and Watchable. In order to become a competitive sensation, a game must encompass each of these qualities to a very high level. Let’s put Overwatch to the test and see how it ranks in each of these categories.
One of the most important components in sports, and esports especially, is ensuring your audience understands the rules and basic mechanics of the game. The best way to do this is to provide a means for the viewers to play the game themselves. The more people who play the game, the more potential viewers you have. This is a huge reason as to why free-to-play games, such as League of Legends and Hearthstone, have a large viewership for esports events. Even the biggest FPS esport, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, is available for the low price of $15.
Here is where Overwatch hits its first snag. The cost of Overwatch is that of a standard game, $60 for consoles and $40 for PC. Because of this higher cost, Overwatch might not be able to bring in as many players and, as we said, less players means less potential viewers. However, we did mention that Overwatch is available for both consoles and PCs, which is a large point in its favor. Being multiplatform means it may be able to draw in a crowd that it wouldn’t be able to if it was PC only, which most esports are.
Cost isn’t the only element in a game’s accessibility. The basic rules and mechanics for an esport must be easy to learn, yet hard to master. It’s important that players constantly build an interest in the game, because if they don’t they’ll fall off of it and thus lose interest in the esports for it. When a game is easy to learn, players won’t be intimidated in picking up the game and will be able to latch onto it quickly. When a game is hard to master, players will feel as though they’re being challenged to be better and will work towards improving themselves and their gameplay. Where do players go to learn high level techniques and strategies? You guessed it, from professionals playing on an esports level.
This is where Overwatch really shines. The standard mechanics of Overwatch are pretty simplistic and many of the characters are very straight forward to play. However, some of the characters can be very complicated and mastering any character can be extraordinarily difficult. Each map’s objectives are fairly plain to understand, but can require strong teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking in order to navigate your way through the enemy team to complete them.
Overwatch may be a monetary investment, but once you pick it up, you’ll be looking up strategies and trying to master characters in no time.
“Balanced” and “imbalanced” are two words that have been thrown around since the dawn of competitive gaming. Balance is the idea of a game ultimately being fair across all participants within a single competitive match, and while most games strive for it, they very rarely ever achieve it. This is because each game can have so many variables between different types of weapons, abilities, damage ratios, map designs, buffs, de-buffs, movement speed, obstacle traversal, you get the idea. But the games that manage to align these mechanics in the right way become popular in the competitive sense. They instill the important idea that victory is achievable if you can play better than and out-think the other team.
Even so, most esports games will have a certain level of imbalance, or the idea that the game is tilted in favor of a certain side. Counter Strike: Global Offensive, for instance, often has maps that are tilted in favor of one of the sides, either defense or offense. The way CS: GO gets around this problem is that both teams have the opportunity to play each of the sides. League of Legends has 131 champions at the time of writing with more being introduced regularly, all with different abilities, stats, and the means of purchasing equipment that all have their own stats. The likelihood of LoL balancing all of these variables are slim to none, but because there are so many champions in the game, the competitive scene is able to play around the imbalance by choosing from the list of champions that are the best or fair.
Overwatch is both lucky and unlucky with regards to balance. While the game is very heavy on counter picking, or choosing heroes that are statistically better than the opponent team’s heroes, which helps to keep the game equal, it also doesn’t allow a team to ban certain heroes and prevent them from being used in a match. Many esports games use bans as a way to prevent certain team compositions from being stacked on one side. Overwatch gets around this by removing limits on character selection and giving players the ability to switch characters in the middle of a match. A single team can have 3 Lucios and 2 Reapers and then immediately switch to 6 Tracers. Allowing this to be possible does help to bypass many problems that countering creates, but can also introduce an extraordinary number of other balancing issues. How do you balance the damage output of a team of 6 Genjis? How does a team adjust from fighting a normal team composition to immediately having to deal with 4 Pharahs and 2 Lucios?
Combine this with the fact that there are a number of different maps with different objectives, all of which favor specific characters, and you have quite a few obstacles to hop over when equalizing the playing field. There are so many numbers at play that balancing the game properly will be hard and while it’s certainly possible, Blizzard might need to introduce some mechanical limits in order to balance out Overwatch.
Some of the most fun things about a game can be the ridiculousness that can come from imbalance, but those are the same things that can hurt a game’s chances of being an esport. It may be fun to watch, but the players are there to win. What fun is playing a game that feels stacked against you? At the same time, much of what makes Overwatch imbalanced, also tends to balance it. It has a very odd relationship with its mechanics, but still, a few more limitations would do the game some good.
As unfortunate as it is, it takes money to make money and esports events aren’t exactly cheap. In order for a game to become a popular esport, it needs to have financial backing to enable events, leagues, and tournaments. A company needs to pay for a venue, video and sound techs, casters, advertising, and any additional staffing needs it has. That is a lot of money to throw down and a lot of people that need to get paid for hard work. But it doesn’t just stop there, players need to be monetarily enticed to play the game on a professional level, which means big prize pools. This money doesn’t just appear out of thin air.
Overwatch is probably in the best case scenario here, because as we’ve mentioned, Blizzard is pretty synonymous with esports. Not only does the huge company have the financial means to back it themselves, but the popularity of Overwatch, in a competitive sense, is boosted by the sole fact that it is a Blizzard game. Large esports companies like ESL have already hosted competitive tournaments for Overwatch. With backing from strong companies like these, Overwatch will have no problems acquiring funding for large-scale events. Along a similar vein, large prize pools will certainly draw in skilled players which will surely boost viewer counts.
Overwatch clearly has its funding on lock down which will definitely increase popularity for it in the long run. It’s just a matter of whether this popularity will boost it just enough to be a viable esport or as a top contender for games like League of Legends or DOTA 2.
This category seems like a no-brainer, eh? Of course a sport needs to be watchable, and nowadays almost every game is able to be watched on Twitch. But it does get a bit more complicated than you may think. When we refer to a game’s watchability, we don’t just mean whether or not it can be streamed, but whether or not it is entertaining as well. Esports are an experience just like any other sport. You tune in to see your favorite teams or players perform feats you’d think unimaginable with some of the highest level of play possible. And this isn’t just a factor for viewers as well. Having a game that is watchable is incredibly important for the game’s casters. Casters are the backbone of the esports viewing experience. So much happens in a game that we rely on their insight and ability to explain the players’ actions to get the full understanding of what’s going through the players’ heads.
Overwatch may be a game of controlled chaos, but it’s chaotic nonetheless. Much of what happens isn’t viewable from a single FPS perspective and often big individual plays can be missed. Blizzard knew this, hence their reasoning for introducing the Play of the Game at the end of each match. An important thing that drives players to watch these events is to see these remarkable moments and it can be very discouraging to miss out on them. And yes, casters will be there to inform you of what happened, but it still won’t have the same impact as seeing it yourself. Replays can definitely help out, but Overwatch is a game of constant action, so introducing replays may generate the problem of needing another replay. Regardless, the more time casters spend telling the viewers what’s happening, the less time they’ll spend explaining why it’s happening. It’s a fine line that Overwatch will undoubtedly have an issue with.
If the community can see past these issues or find a way around them, Overwatch’s fast-paced action will be a tremendous asset. There are so many amazing things Overwatch characters are capable of and having them in the hands of the best players around the world will undeniably have some fantastic results. The big moments are what create the strongest experiences and Overwatch has the power to build some of the best.
It isn’t fair to outright deny Overwatch’s chances of becoming a gigantic esports success, but at the same time there are many things holding it back. While it easily has the proper funding and mass appeal, many of the game’s mechanics may shy both players and viewers away. Viewers need a reason to watch it over just playing it themselves and players need to feel as though the time they spend learning and mastering the game is worthwhile. These things can definitely happen, but the introduction of some limits within the gameplay and a new, specialized take on presenting events for the game will make large strides in really cementing its place within the sea of esports games.
Overwatch will be an esports game, but the question is more of how big it’ll grow to be. If the community is dedicated to make it happen and Blizzard is willing to mold the game’s structure in a helpful way, Overwatch has unbridled potential. Blizzard did announce the addition of Overwatch’s ranked mode in late June, so there’s a possibility of some real fine-tuning coming to the competitive aspects game. If your an esports enthusiast then keep your eye on Overwatch, because something tells us there’s some great things in its future.
Do you think Overwatch will be the next big esport? Leave a comment and let us know!