Overwatch or Don’t-watch?

Overwatch was hyped to excess and this time Blizzard delivered. The game plays fun and addictive. But one major flaw could be its downfall in the long run.

A while back ago, I analyzed the freshly released Rocket League about its esport-capability’s and while doing so I made a mistake. I looked at a game that was easy to enter and with simple rules. I made the argument that the high skill-ceiling, the team-based gameplay and non-violence would support the game on the way to the next big esport title. Hell, it even implements the good old Blizzard-Rule “easy to learn, hard to master” quite well.

But Rocket League never really took off as an esport. We haven’t gotten any offline leagues; regular Twitch-viewers are lower than Warcraft III and while the subreddit thrives with activity, it is mostly busy with highlighting fancy plays from community members. Rocket League failed in esport for the same reason games like Hearthstone are as dominant: the viewability.

What do I mean whit this neologistic term? I mean the ability to successfully implement a game in a broadcast environment and, as a viewer, to be able to tell what is happening on screen and to be able to get excited about it. This is, in my opinion the most important key factor to being a viral esport title.

Now Overwatch has been released and being a Blizzard title, the esport scene per usual glances at it with fear and anticipation. There was never a doubt that esport companies and outlets wouldn’t jump onto the opportunity to be “the first” in a promising esport title, creating a variety of tournaments.

Given the footage of those tournaments, I will now try to compare Overwatch as an esport to two esport giants, League and CS:GO. Bear in mind that this is not a review of the game itself nor the “competitivity” of the title. I think Overwatch is a great game and is played best competitively. That being said, let’s check out if it’s also a great esport.

First off, let’s take CS:GO as a comparison. As Valve launched the game in 2010 they terribly missed the opportunity to instantly push CS as the esport title. It took 2 years until they realized the potential and they started to improve the observer-mode drastically.

A typical CS:GO observer screen.

As of today, observing in CS is mostly done via the first-person camera, which has the big advantage that the viewer feels “ingame” and is able to reconstruct not only the player’s perspective but also the player’s skill through the exact reconstruction of the aim and decision making.

But the observer mode in CS is also aware that the viewer at a given point in time will only see a very limited part of the match and that it is necessary to provide additional information on screen to help the viewer understand the game.

For example, it is indispensable to have a working mini-map, that shows the current position of every player, map objective (in CS it’s the Bomb, in OW it’s even more important) and the basic layout of the map. The mini-map is a key-component for new players to wrap their head around a map, it shows flanks from Tracer and makes clear how much distance the payload has still to move. At least it could.

The beta observer mode.

Looking at a screenshot of the recent Overwatch Atlantic Invitational, we can’t find a mini-map. One could now argue that due to OW much more rapid gameplay and the simpler map layouts, that are focusing around one key-objective rather than two bomb-sides, a permanent mini-map isn’t needed and I would agree. But even then, an optional mini-map for the casters to occasional pop in and highlight certain areas (like in CS via the CTRL-key) would be useful.

An early version of the CS:GO observer map.

Another aspect that is important to understand the progress of a CS match is the economy. How much equipment and of what quality a team can buy, is directly influencing their success within a round.

While in OW we don’t have to care about such things, we can compare the CS presentation of the bought items with the OW presentation of the chosen heroes, both equally drastically influencing the gameplay of the players and the outcome of a match.

Here, the observer mode of OW actually does a decent job. The hero-icons of any hero are shown at any given moment, making it easy to understand the team-composition and the hero switches, a core gameplay aspect in OW due to the Rock-Paper-Scissors principle.

The observer mode of the live-version

What it doesn’t take into regard is, that all broadcasts these days use the 16:9 screen format and that in a shooter the action is likely to be partly vertical. I believe that OW observer mode would greatly benefit from a screen layout like that CS currently has with the teams displayed on the left and on the right side of the screen, creating a visual representation of the antagonistic situation.

Many OW casters, the one that already adapted early to the current situation, are switching over to the free camera that can provide a Birds-Eye-View. We are now looking from a somewhat isometric-like perspective on the match, where different heroes, 6 blue ones and 6 red counterparts, try to fulfill an objective. Does that remind you of anything?

This second and very different perspective is actually very close to the way MOBA-games are being broadcasted. The caster is able to analyze the positioning, the use of the abilities and the general state of the game. In a second move, let’s compare Overwatch and League of Legends and see, where both games and genres can learn from each other.

One criticism that League had and has to face is the readability of a big fighting scene; the color-outburst was so distracting, it actually resulted in a complete rework of the map. It is a problem also known in OW, where in team fights sometimes the overview may suffer.

The best way to solve that is color separation and OW does actually a decent job. The different abilities like the shields of Winston and Reinhardt are colored and every hero has a colored outline and player name to them.

The devil here is in the details. Why is Widowmakers ultimate still showing the enemy players as read silhouettes, despite Widow being a member of the red team? Why is her scope red while being on the blue team? Why is Hanzo’s still dragon blue, if he is on the red team?

Widowmakers scope-in.

Little particulars like these would, all combined, really improve the viewability of OW. Disable unnecessary distraction like Luicio’s shoe particle-effects or the Reinhardt swing “lightning” and focus on the important, the game-changing stuff.

Finally, I want to talk about the issues that are probably “broken by design”, meaning solving them would create a different game than OW. It appears to be a similar situation to the earlier mentioned Rocket League which seems to have the same problems.

In my opinion, little ingame-breaks, like between rounds in CS or after a big fight in League, are a substantial part of being a viewable game.

Players of the team “Experiment” at TakerOver #1, the first offline Overwatch event.

Those natural interruptions can be used for camera shots of the players, replays or caster analysis, which are vital to a good experience for the viewer. Seeing the facial reaction of a player or the crowd acts like a link between ingame scenes and the reality. In Overwatch, there are no breaks, the respawn timer are quick and the action rapid. The only replay given is mostly a badly chosen “Play of the Game” after the Match ended.

The ingame observing is more sophisticated than in other games, as the observer can’t miss a beat of the action, otherwise the viewer would be scratching its head about what just happened. Right timing of when to switch out to free camera and when to highlight a single player performance is really hard in OW and also casting a game so fast-paced is really hard as the casters have barely time to establish tension and are mostly restricted to play-by-play commentary.

In conclusion I see Overwatch as a problematic new entry in the world of esport. I see it as a game that is made for being greatly competitive and having a ton of fun while playing it. Observing it, though, is not a pleasant experience for the viewer.

Maybe Blizzard decides that that OW will be their new esport title after Heroes and StarCraft, maybe they put an effort into improving the observer mode and start the “Overwatch World Championship” with the run-off-the-mill final at BlizzCon, but I doubt it.

The World Championsships of BlizzCon 2014.

Overwatch was made to make fun, to deliver quick and exiting gameplay, experienced by the player. Being a Blizzard-game, though, it will be tested by the esport-community. Let’s see how it plays out.