If you follow the competitive gaming scene at all, and maybe even if you don't, you've probably heard about the Overwatch League: developer Blizzard's ambitious attempt to bring esports out into the mainstream. Now that the inaugural season (or at least inaugural regular season) is officially over as of last week, we can say it was a success. As a bright, character-focused, and fast-paced team first person shooter, the two-year-old Overwatch is a perfect fit for building an esports empire. With a beautiful new arena, technologically impressive new spectating tools, and fierce competition between the teams, it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the excitement.
Sometimes it still feels like esports is a novelty thing, but it's been around longer than you might think. Premiering in 1982, the gameshow Starcade featured arcade game competitions. In 1997, the Quake tournament hit E3 and became what is widely considered the first esports event ever. There were a few small whispers of mainstream competitive gaming here and there, but the craze really took over in 2011 with the introduction of Twitch. The League of Legends world championship had 1.7 million viewers in 2011. That jumped to 8.2 million in 2012, and skyrocketed to 32 million in 2013. The esports industry still doesn't make quite as much money as the major sports leagues like MLB or the NFL, but it is expected to double its revenue by 2020 (statistics via theScore eSports). Esports is emerging as a serious market to contend with, and it's becoming harder and harder for the mainstream to write it off.
The Overwatch League was quite a divergence from what we've traditionally seen from esports. Usually, esports organizations own teams that compete in various games including League of Legends, Rocket League, Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Fortnite, and more. These organizations run smoothly, but they don't give fans a ton to latch onto, and tournaments and matches were erratic at best. Only the die-hard followers really knew what was going on with these teams at all times. The Overwatch League changed that.
The basic idea is that they streamlined the system and formed a league that can be likened to traditional sports leagues such as the NFL or NBA. The teams were playing every week on a regular schedule, they had city-based teams, jersey numbers, a halftime show—the whole nine yards. It was a real step up in professionalism as well with the league holding the players to a new standard. A combination of all of these characteristics drew an audience, and a big one at that.
On the opening night, Blizzard boasted an average of 408,000 viewers per minute (that was more than the NFL game streamed online that night managed, by the way), plus a staggering 10 million viewers in total throughout its opening week (via Rolling Stone). The Fiesta Bowl, an annual college football game played at the University of Phoenix Stadium, even teamed up with the League to host the Overwatch collegiate national championship. These are huge organizations and events in the mainstream, and the fact that Blizzard is holding their own outside of the gaming community is something to be proud of.
So why has the Overwatch League been so successful? I think it has a lot to do with those factors I mentioned before. It felt like something more serious and professional, and something that wouldn't be laughed at by news anchors around the world. Having teams based in cities instead of being organized independently was a genius move. There's a reason why every other sports league does it; even if someone doesn't follow the players or is a casual viewer, it gives them something to root for. I went in knowing only one player out of the entire league, but I ended up with a diehard allegiance to the Houston Outlaws.
The game is also just fun to watch, even for casual viewers who haven't yet gotten a grasp of the rules. It's colorful, fast-moving, and the commentators do a great job communicating what is going on and breaking down the teams' surprisingly complex strategies, some of which I didn't even pick up on as a longtime player. The new spectating tools are like nothing we had seen before in esports, and the heroes got in-game jerseys so viewers could get a clearer picture of who was who. In yet another stroke of genius, Blizzard made those jerseys available for players to unlock in-game so that they could wear the skin for their favorite team (although let's be honest, everyone just got Seoul Dynasty's skins because they have the best colors).
Also, the memes have been absolutely unreal.
Blizzard has always been known for incredible quality and polish in everything that they put out, and the Overwatch League was no exception. With esports being a rapidly growing industry, the League has made great strides to continue to improve upon a formula that is already working. There were some really great plays and moments that came out of the first year, and now we can't wait to see how it continues to grow from here. After all, the world could always use more heroes.
Images: Overwatch League, Blizzard