The Overwatch League (OWL) follows the model of traditional professional sports. Teams are based out of specific cities and backed by owners, including celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez, and Jennifer Lopez. The league has regular seasons and athletes receive a minimum salary, benefits, and even get a share of winnings and revenue depending on how well they perform. This is as professional as things get, especially in the Esports world.
What is it about Overwatch that makes it a cultural phenomenon? How is the OWL bringing together both hardcore video gamers and folks who have a casual interest in Overwatch? Since I don’t play the game, I can’t answer these questions myself. Thankfully, I have a few close friends who work or have worked in the gaming industry that know a great deal about Blizzard’s popular title. I asked them a series of questions to find out what it is about Overwatch and the OWL that makes it perfect for both hardcore and casual audiences. What I discovered was quite illuminating.
Gary A. Swaby is an independent gaming journalist who co-founded the website, The Koalition. Though he originally didn’t know much about Overwatch, he soon became a massive fan. To him, the game stands out because of its focus on teamwork.
“The biggest thing that draws me to it is that it’s different from common First Person Shooters that are frag focused,” says Gary. “In Overwatch, it’s all about which team can utilize their heroes the best. Kills matter to an extent, but it’s not the most important thing. You’re instead forced to think about team synergy, playing your role effectively and completing the objective. Unlike most shooters, no two heroes play in the same way. They each have unique movement and abilities.”
While Gary is a big fan of Overwatch, he wasn’t exactly an avid Esports viewer. Being a video game journalist, he had knowledge of Esports but never truly followed any of it. Despite that, he eventually began to check out some OWL streams and broadcasts from some of its individual players. However, his perception of Esports and the OWL changed dramatically when he had the chance to cover the Overwatch League Grand Finals at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month.
“When attending the Overwatch League Grand Finals, I got to experience first hand just how many casuals the league had converted. There were people attending to support their city, but what surprised me is how much technical knowledge of the game they had, despite only becoming fans of the game recently.”
The event not only changed his opinion on Esports but also gave him a better appreciation for the passion regular sports fans have.
“It made me realize just how big a phenomenon Esports can be. Just the thought that this game I fell in love with has the power to sell out the Barclays Center is crazy to me. Especially when it’s people paying to watch other people play. It also allowed me to see firsthand how teenage players can become stars, just by mastering a game. Even I’ve become a fan of some of the players, and I never thought I would be this invested in an Esport.
I was never a sports fan but by being so invested in OWL, I find myself being able to understand my brother’s obsession with soccer. I now know that feeling of wanting your favorite teams to win, and being disappointed when they get wrecked. It’s something I never understood until I fell in love with this game.”
At the event, Gary had the chance to meet with a great deal of Overwatch players. This includes athletes, attendees, journalists, and commentators. By talking with all of these different folks, Gary truly realized how gargantuan his beloved game is.
“I was able to meet other members of the media who report on the league. I also spoke with some casual fans around the venue. There was even an occasion a few days after the event was over when I was wearing a t-shirt and hat for one of the Overwatch teams. A stranger who had attended the event recognized the branded team gear and pointed it out and we had a conversation. I found out that they had also attended the event. Overwatch League is so huge that it’s bringing people together out of mutual love for the game and the league.”
Meeting and speaking with Overwatch fans has given Gary insight into what brings these disparate audiences together. No matter one’s level of proficiency or interest, it’s the sense of community and competitiveness that ultimately holds it all together.
“It’s enjoyable for casual audiences because of its inviting visuals and its likable characters. The memes from the game also get pretty popular, and this attracts more people to it. Hardcore audiences love it because of the competitive aspect. For me, there’s nothing as intense as a close Competitive Mode match that’s down to the wire and could go either way. It’s a feeling that not all games give me.”
Nothing in gaming is ever permanent. What’s hot one day is dull the next. Gary doesn’t believe this is the case with what Overwatch is doing for Esports. In fact, he believes it will only become bigger in the future.
“I think what Blizzard is doing will grow the Esports industry and it will benefit other games. There are major investors in these Overwatch teams, all over the world and with that, I believe this will become a billion dollar industry someday.”
Johnathan Gibbs is a content creator/performer, and host of the This QPOC Life podcast. Like Gary, Johnathan is an avid and passionate gamer. Though not as hardcore a fan as Gary is about Overwatch, he knew about it prior to the OWL Grand Finals.
“I had a basic working knowledge of Overwatch,” said Johnathan. “I had heard about it during its development. I purchased it on the day of its release, and I figured it would become an Esport just like many of the other games that had been getting attention as Esports continue to rise. I didn’t really have any preconceived notions prior to attending the Grand Finals. I had previously attended a League of Legends Grand Final and knew how Esports events felt, and so I didn’t really expect anything more than that.”
While the crowd size didn’t surprise him, Johnathan was impressed by the diversity of the audience. He enjoyed his interactions with attendees and looks forward to attending future OWL events.
“I really loved the Grand Finals and I hope it’s at the Barclays Center again next year. The fans were great. I think that as Esports develops further, we will see more people, but I think the crowd is already diverse. For example, on the first night of the GF I sat next to an older man. I figured he might be the parent of some kids, but I never saw him with kids. I think he was there on his own merit.
I didn’t really learn much aside from maybe the teams, but I hadn’t really followed the OWL up until that point. I wasn’t surprised to see so many people at the GF because having been to different cons since the release of Overwatch, I have seen tons of Overwatch cosplay. I have seen folks online who are hardcore Overwatch. I have seen memes and posts and have known that Overwatch is a popular game, and so I wasn’t at all surprised to see so many people.”
As Gary mentioned, the strong community aspect was evident to Johnathan. The event’s seating arrangement made it easy for everyone to mingle and discuss their favorite game.
“There was a really great sense of camaraderie at Barclays. Part of that, I feel, comes from the fact that it was general admission seating. There were no assigned seats. There’s really not a bad seat in the arena as there’s a huge screen with the game and stats. I was able to surround myself in crowds of people who really love this game and it inspired me. I may not get so into playing, but I’ll definitely be following the league for season two.”
It didn’t take long for Johnathan to go from a casual Overwatch player to someone with a favorite OWL team.
“The specific aspect of the OWL Grand Finals that hit me the most was the loyalty that people have for these teams, and I’m not so sure that it is in any part due to the city names but rather the players on the teams. It clicked for me when I became a London fan. Like… in just two days of attending and watching London Spitfire play, listening to the commentary and watching their performance, I came to discover a great level of respect for them and their players.
He also has a favorite player.
“I love Profit. He’s so cute.”
Like Gary, Johnathan believes things are only going to get bigger for the OWL. He doesn’t seem all that surprised Overwatch attained the heights of popularity it currently enjoys.
“Blizzard has always been an amazing company, and people love FPS games. That alone could explain why Overwatch has become so popular, but I really think that as Esports gains more recognition by the overall media (ESPN, etc.) and more and more games/events/semi/grand finals get aired on TV these games and events will grow even more.”
Tatjana Vejnovic is a gaming journalist who covers the Overwatch League for Overwatch Wire. She has attended league events all around the world. Because of her inside knowledge, I wanted to pick her brain about why Overwatch is such an Esports giant. To her, it’s all about presentation, accessibility, and inclusion.
“Overwatch is the most cinematic of all the esports,” said Tatjana. “If you look at Overwatch and compare it to League of Legends, or DOTA 2, it’s much easier to watch, and much easier for people new to the game to understand. The maps are diverse and really detailed; it’s not a boring game to watch, and things are always changing.”
She continues with: “I would also say it’s family friendly, in a sense. Sure, it’s players killing each other, but it’s not filled with blood and gore. The game currently has 28 heroes, both female and male, from places all around the world (Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil, etc.). Overwatch can be played casually or competitively, and the game does a decent job of setting you up with people of your same skill level. It’s much less intimidating than other competitive games.”
Though currently a massive fan of Overwatch, she’s actually a recent convert. It wasn’t until last year that she really got into the game. What drew her in was the reaction of the crowd and the color commentary from its presenters. Despite having little knowledge of Overwatch, she felt right at home.
“I actually didn’t like Overwatch until I watched it at BlizzCon last year. Watching the crowd get hyped and enjoying casting from commentators (Jetset Jamerson specifically), I didn’t feel left out because I didn’t know anything about the game. I went home after BlizzCon and started playing, and have been playing ever since.”
Conducting these interviews certainly gave me a better understanding of Overwatch and its importance to the Esports scene. It admittedly is not my type of game (I prefer story-driven, single-player experiences), but now, I at least get what all the fuss is about.
I think Johnathan Gibb’s final thoughts says it all.
“I hope that as time goes on and OWL grows, major media continue to cover the events. I don’t see why this shouldn’t happen. It’s just such an exciting time to be alive. Esports are finally here. We are living in the future! Now even I can follow a sport and talk stats/games with like-minded people.”
*All images in this article courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.
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