Following the massive success of Blizzard's new first-person shooter Overwatch, one writer ponders whether this success will translate to the eSport world.
It's been a month since Overwatch was released, and by all quantifiable measures, Blizzard's first new IP in 17 years has been an unequivocal success. From hooking in over 7 million players within its first week to toppling Riot Games' League of Legends from the number one spot on the South Korean weekly gaming charts, it's probably safe to say that few people predicted this level of success – including Blizzard. Now that the game has passed through its first month with flying colors, it will be interesting to see how it holds onto its massive audience, and this is where the intriguing part of Overwatch's life-cycle begins.
While it is highly unlikely at this point for Overwatch to suddenly lose its audience, much like its fellow online multiplayer first-person shooter Battleborn, the notion of where Overwatch goes from here is a thought that deserves some attention. In the immediate short-term, the launch of Overwatch's competitive play mode will add an extra level of (mostly) healthy competition to the proceedings, and the hunt for each of the 21 characters' golden weapons will undoubtedly keep players occupied for the planned two-month duration of Overwatch's competitive play seasons.
But as for how Overwatch will leave an impact on the scene in the long-term, I think it could be the game that will push a steadily growing aspect of video gaming to new heights: eSports.
In the many hours I've happily sunk into Overwatch in the past month, it wasn't the gameplay, the lore, or the characters that stood out most for me. Rather, the most intriguing thing that I unexpectedly discovered about Overwatch was how well the game works as a spectator spectacle. Just recently, I had a non-gamer friend over, and being the great host that I am, I decided to play Overwatch the entire time. But interestingly, my friend – who has no clue about Overwatch or video games in general – found herself completely hooked as an Overwatch spectator. As I worked my way through most of the game's 21 quirky heroes while explaining each of their backstories to my friend, she clung onto every word and quickly warmed to a number of them (especially Tracer), and whenever a payload match hit overtime or a capture-the-point match went right down to the wire, she was on the edge of her seat – like one would at a sporting match.
Seeing a non-gamer fall in love with Overwatch despite not knowing anything about the game was absolutely fascinating, but as I was ready to label that situation as a one-off, my housemate brought his girlfriend over one night, and before I knew it, the exact same thing happened again. My housemate's girlfriend also knew nothing about Overwatch, but that quickly didn't really matter because in her words, "I have no idea what this is, but it is really interesting to watch." Having two non-gaming people go from knowing absolutely nothing about Overwatch to becoming captivated spectators was fascinating to witness, and I couldn't help but wonder if Overwatch had finally cracked the code in pushing eSports to new levels of popularity.
One comparison that's always come up when talking about Overwatch is its similarities to another fellow online multiplayer first-person shooter: Team Fortress 2. This is a fair thing to discuss, as Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 are broadly similar in terms of gameplay mechanics, and if Team Fortress 2 couldn't push eSports to the mainstream, then it stands to reason that Overwatch would also have a similarly tough time. But to me, Overwatch does a few things just a bit better than Team Fortress 2, and that might be enough for it to achieve the eSports success that people expected Team Fortress 2 to achieve.
Much like Blizzard wisely kept Overwatch's story and its gameplay as two separate entities, meaning that new spectators can watch an Overwatch match without knowing the game's lore and still understand what is going on. As for the characters, this is in the eye of the beholder, but I think Overwatch's roster of heroes are far more interesting and endearing than what Team Fortress 2 has had to offer. Great characters are important for hooking in new spectators and while Team Fortress 2 may have its share of quirky characters, I doubt any of them were memorable enough to provoke a reaction comparable to Overwatch's recent Tracer butt pose controversy.
Overwatch's hero design is probably among the best I've seen in a multiplayer shooter, as it generally mitigates the issue of under or unused classes – something that Team Fortress 2 has struggled with. Team Fortress 2 was designed during an era when character balance wasn't really considered by developers, which in turn forced players to do some makeshift balancing, and this resulted in a degree of alienation between skilled players and casual players.
By contrast, not only did Overwatch serve up a level playing field for all players right out of the box, Blizzard deliberately designed every one of Overwatch's heroes to be versatile and with 6v6 gameplay in mind, which means that any hero who is rubbish by themselves can still be a very useful part of a team. Of course, there will always be balance issues – such as the recent nerfing of McCree and Widowmaker – but this is something that Blizzard is aware of, and the communication between the developer and the gamers about what's been going on behind the scenes has been nothing short of great.
For all the effort Blizzard has put into making every character balanced, probably the biggest selling point for Overwatch as the next big eSport is its emphasis on eye-catching teamwork while still ensuring that the game easy enough for newcomers to follow. By keeping the game's objectives simple, Blizzard has removed the need for new Overwatch audiences to understand anything more than "they need to get from Point A to Point B," and this in turn has allowed emphasis to be placed on the performance of each opposing team. There's something about teamwork that captures an audience's imagination, whether it's in sports or eSports, and Overwatch has struck the perfect balance between offering spectators those worthy "play of the match" moments while still keeping emphasis on the importance of team synergy.
While Blizzard has done its part in making Overwatch as fun and accessible to the widest possible audience without sacrificing quality gameplay, it remains to be seen whether audiences will take to the game like I think they will. As it stands, eSports is still a growing niche, and there remains a stigma that eSports is not a "real sport." For all I know, Overwatch could ultimately end up doing nothing for the eSport world, but as it stands in relation to its competition and its potential audience, Blizzard's latest offering may have the best chance of going bigger than any other game before it.
Overwatch is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.