The Overwatch League (OWL) is the newest in a wave of franchised esports leagues created to provide a platform for this rapidly expanding sector and facilitate more growth and stability. It opened in January to hundreds of thousands of concurrent viewers which it sustained across its twelve roughly two hour matches per week.
The game played is Blizzard’s ‘Overwatch’ which is categorised as a hero-based shooter which is either a perfectly adequate description or completely nonsensical depending on your background. The game is designed around an offense and defence of an objective with each team having six members each of whom can select one of an ever-growing choice of ‘heroes’ — characters with unique equipment and visuals — to attack or defend.
I came into the Overwatch League with a player’s perspective, as an avid fan of the game I have hundreds of hours invested in the game and having reached ranks such as ‘Top 500’ on the competitive ladder (admittedly on console but I like to leave that part out). This meant I could hop into the streams, easily found on both the Overwatch League website and Twitch, and follow along as the match progressed, supporting my two home teams: the Boston Uprising and the London Spitfire in their striking blues with highlights of yellow and orange respectively.
The league got off to a brilliant start this season with a maintained concurrent viewership of 100,000 or higher on only the English stream which despite sounding small compared to events like the Superbowl that draws millions of viewers, still stuns me as it did this across its twelve roughly two hour matches per week. One of the keys to this was fan engagement, to which a lot of the credit must go to the teams themselves, I cannot name a single team which didn’t host multiple fan events and have active social media presence. This was compounded by the interaction level with fans that the players had which is never attained in conventional sports, a specific example which comes to mind is in a fan chat (Discord) server of the Houston Outlaws, there was a channel specifically allocated to player Q & A which varied from favourite shampoo brand queries in the case of Rawkus to in game advice from any team member. This led to a far greater connection with fans and a more personal attachment to teams. Despite not being my team, I am a big fan of the Philadelphia Fusion’s media team and their sense of humour both self-deprecating in the case of the #pdomjnate and good-humoured mick taking of their fellow teams.
The opening season wasn’t all smiles however, with several highly controversial moments, the one coming to mind fastest being the ‘DreamKazper’ scandal where a player aged 21 was accused of having inappropriate relations (online but still overly graphic) with a 14-year-old fan. This was completely unacceptable and fortunately the league treated it as such and the player had the contract terminated with the situation being handed off to the police. There were also several incidents of racist or homophobic behaviour among the players which were punished appropriately with fines or bans depending on the offense.
I would be remiss in discussing the inaugural season were I not to mention the on screen talent who were in my mind a large part of the success which the league had. The three core casting duos were brilliant, with each having their own style (my personal favourites have to be Uber and MrX who killed it every time they casted) from the more hype intense fast firing commentary of Uber, to the smooth professionalism of Montechristo the casters added another dimension to a relatively difficult to follow game. As for the presenters, the on screen talents of: Malik, Soe, Puckett and Goldenboy shone through engaging both the digital and physical audience. Meanwhile as analysts on the desk, breaking down the action was Bren, Sideshow, Crumbz and Reinforce. As a brit I was automatically partial to Sideshow and Bren, with Crumbz making an excellent transition into Overwatch, picking up the intricacies of the game very fast. Reinforce is an ex pro player which offers him an extra insight into the way the teams play, although I do miss watching him play, the semi-finals of the Atlantic Showdown where Rogue defeated team Envyus who had been on a 57-series win streak is still a match I recommend anyone watches if they enjoy competitive overwatch.
For me, the Overwatch League became a staple of my week, catching any match I could, even the ill-fated matches of the Shanghai Dragons and their infamous 40 game loss streak (much as it saddened Bren). I now look forward to the future and will follow along as the league expands, more teams are added and the quality of play and production rises. It is a sport which despite requiring a little effort to get to understand, has a lot of depth and attraction for all types of viewers which I would heavily recommend anyone tries to watch at least a couple games of before writing it off simply because it comes under the category of esports or it is too hard to follow.