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How Blizzard is making Overwatch a successful esport, and where it needs to improve

The path to success is certainly there

BlizzCon Blizzard
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Blizzard has been prepping Overwatch to be an esport since its release.

The question, now that the game has been out for six months, seems to be whether Overwatch can be a successful esport. The first Overwatch World Cup at Blizzcon 2016 was watched by more than 100,000 people, 3.1 million votes were cast for the players and the game has more than 20 million players in total.

While the Overwatch World Cup was not Overwatch’s first esports rodeo, it has been its most public and most successful. While there is still work to be done in order to perfect Overwatch as a spectator sport, Blizzard’s announcement of an Overwatch League during Blizzcon’s opening ceremony is an exciting step forward.

But for a game to be a successful esport, there has to be more than just entertainment. So why does Overwatch work in a highly competitive space when so many other games do not?

Easy to learn, understand and watch

This is what Overwatch does best, and what makes it so much fun to play and watch. It’s why Overwatch has succeeded in a first-person market that has been dominated by twitch-based games like Call of Duty for years while avoiding many of the traps of League of Legends.

Overwatch has brought a massive amount of new players into the first-person shooter genre from other spaces such as MOBAs and MMOs, due to its understandable mechanics that grow in strategic depth the longer that a player commits to the game. Overwatch also allows for a more packaged loadout system than other first-person shooters, allowing for more clarity to both new players and a potential esports audience.

Overwatch - a promo shot from 2016 showing the full cast
Overwatch’s characters can be thought of as loadouts
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

When I say “packaged loadout system,” I am talking about Overwatch’s character roster and the inability to change their weapons or abilities. The characters are all essentially developer-designed loadouts. They have the same abilities and weapons no matter how often you play them.

This makes learning simple, if not easy. I can jump into a few games of Overwatch with the express purpose of learning Tracer and it won’t take long before I understand what the character can do, at least at a very basic level. If go and play Genji for the next 20 matches and then come back to Tracer, she has not changed in the slightest. She still has the same tools, which makes it more about the player wielding those tools than anything else.

Where loadouts in other first-person shooters rely on visual cues expressed mostly through the weapon being held, Overwatch’s characters are all recognizable at a glance. They each have strengths, and they all have weaknesses. And none of these are visually subtle.

There is also the fact that the team itself can be thought of as a sort of meta-loadout. If things aren’t going well during a match or even a single firefight, your team can change its composition entirely and try to hit the enemy with something that they are not prepared for.

League of Legends focuses on team construction during the beginning of each round, but team construction never ends in Overwatch. It’s a fluid, ongoing process that allows you to react to each situation in multiple ways. Do they have a Zarya that is sure to catch your entire team in a Graviton Surge? Well then we should pick a Lucio so that he can give the entire team shields with his Sound Barrier ability.

The ability to change characters mid-match was criticized by some before Overwatch was released, with people assuming that this would make building team compositions less strategically deep. The reality has been, arguably, the opposite.

That doesn’t mean that Blizzard isn’t willing to learn. Teams could have duplicates of the same heroes when competitive Overwatch began. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to have two Zaryas and two Lucios each. Seeing that double heroes was making the competitive game stale, and less fun to watch, Blizzard pivoted, and now allows only one of each hero to be played per team in both competitive and ranked queues.

Blizzard created a game that is simple to learn while allowing for deep strategic growth. So whether you are playing Overwatch on your couch or watching the game on the stage at BlizzCon, it’s easy to follow visually while picking up on the basic rhythm of play.

The game modes exploit the tension inherent in their design

Overwatch offers three game modes to its player base and to its competitive scene. Game modes are map specific, meaning that only certain game modes will be played on certain maps. They’re all well-designed for spectated play.

Look at Escort or Hybrid maps, which both include something called the payload. The payload is essentially just a big truck that rolls through the map if it is being escorted by attacking players. If the payload reaches the end of the map, the attackers win.

Watchpoint Gibraltar

In professional play, the winning team is determined by how far they push the payload in comparison to the other team. If both teams push it to the end, they start over, with each team being given their remaining time from the previous match to push the payload as far as they can.

This boils down a series of complex interactions to one easily understood and visible goal: If you push this thing a greater distance than the other team, you win. You can see when the payload is moving, and you can see when it has stopped. Both states require a response from the opposing team.

Payload is a great objective that forces attacking players to be within a certain area to proceed forward, leaving them mostly exposed to the defending team’s attacks. This allows the defenders to spread out and come from all directions or come at the attackers head on. It allows the defensive team, who basically just have to stall for the entire match time, more strategic depth to their role, while shoehorning the attackers. It forces conflict, while changing the state of battle.

A gunfight in one section of the map is going to be very different from a gunfight once the payload has moved to the other side of the map. The tension is easily understood at all times during each matches.

This kind of isometric gameplay provides an interesting play experience and an interesting spectator experience. When teams switch sides, their strategies can be compared. The stakes of every battle are easy to understand.

Assault maps require attacking players to advance on a point that is being defended by their opponents. When the attackers take the point, the defending team falls back and to the second point. In professional play, players are awarded points for each point that they capture in a given map. If both teams capture the same number of points, the match restarts and the players are given their remaining time limit from the last match to see how many points they can capture.

Assault provides a more open playing field for both teams. While the defenders must be prepared to watch the point, they are free to spread out across the map and position in various places. The attacking teams have the freedom to come from any direction to attack the point as well.

While this game mode is similar to payload, it provides a chance for teams to stretch a bit and gives them an excuse to play different characters. The movement from one point to another also forces players to reconsider their composition before attacking or defending the next point. Maybe the attackers needed a Genji to attack the first point, but the next point capture could benefit more from a Pharah.

Finally, control maps provide Overwatch’s only neutral objectives. Teams must capture and hold a point until it charges to 100 percent. In professional play, teams are awarded one point per zone that they capture. The first team to three points wins.

Control is by far Overwatch’s most diverse game mode. The neutral gameplay provides both teams with an opportunity to vie for the same objective. This forces more direct communication and may provide the best test of actual skill in the game.

Throwing bodies at a point doesn’t work half as well as coordinated moves. This type of objective is oftentimes more confusing to spectators, but does provide a very clear window for amazing plays to happen.

The spectating needs work

This is where we start getting to the criticisms. The World Cup proved we are moving in the right direction in terms of Overwatch’s spectating presentation, especially compared to how poor the observers, those who control the spectator perspective behind the scenes, were closer to launch. But it can get better.

Overwatch currently suffers from the problem of discerning which team’s eyes the viewers are currently spectating through.

This becomes a much larger problem when both teams are using the same hero at the same time. The team colors are blue and red, so a quick glance to the player name in the corner of the screen can give you the answers you need. But the game moves so quickly that the observers could switch from the perspective of a blue team Genji to a red team Genji within seconds, which can be very disorienting when the view changes, but the weapons and abilities do not.

While viewers will get familiar with an esport eventually, it does take time. However, the time currently required to get used to the UI and learn teams as well as all of the characters may be scary for casual esports viewers and casual Overwatch players, arguably the most crucial audience that a young esport needs to grow.

The Overwatch competitive UI
Blizzard via Polygon

All of this color-based confusion is made worse by the health bar situation. Each enemy in Overwatch has a white health bar above their heads, so you know how close they are to death. This would be fine if the health bar didn’t start to turn red the closer a character got to dying. Considering that one of the teams is in fact the red team, this can be a little jarring.

There is a very simple fix. Games like League of Legends have solved this problem by leaving the health bars to be the color of the respective team colors. If Overwatch were to have blue team health bars be blue and red team health bars be red, this wouldn’t be a problem at all, and would allow for better clarity mid-match .

In bigger skirmishes, only having the viewpoint of one player can be limiting. Overwatch has a “eye in the sky” third-person camera, but it still needs work.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, another first-person shooter esport, has an amazing camera that can fly through the map and utilize all kinds of tools from seeing outlines of all players through walls and effects to projecting a laser out of the players’ guns that shows where the bullets fired will hit. These features provide information to the viewer in a very fluid stream.

When you jump out of the first-person perspective in a first-person game, you sacrifice a certain immediate quality in watching a player move so directly. That sacrifice has to come with an information gain, and in comparison to Counter-Strike, Overwatch’s third-person camera provides very little.

Counter-Strike has been around for a long time and the people in charge of spectating are very good at their jobs. Once the Overwatch observers are given more time to practice with their third person camera (and hopefully add some additional tools), it should make a huge difference.

In terms of clarity, Blizzard could also opt for team specific character skins for spectators. If the blue team Reinhardt was always blue and the red team Reinhardt was always red, things would probably be a little easier to jump in and immediately grasp.

The World Could Always Use More Esports

Overwatch finds a great deal of success in its characters’ design and the impact they have on each individual game. The characters are unique, they are fun to look at and listen to, and people become attached to them.

Part of what makes games like League of Legends and Dota 2 infinitely watchable is that viewers identify with the characters being played. In Overwatch, we see the same thing occur. Viewers latch onto pro-players and pro-teams that use characters and strategies that they themselves enjoy. Every Genji player you know who follows the competitive scene likely loves ShaDowBurn.

While the characters are so important to Overwatch’s success, the game remains fun to watch as an esport because of the big plays and the tense, dramatic moments that it provides. Watching two teams vie for a control point is tense. It is not uncommon to watch one team come in with a big play to make all of the difference. The timing of a character’s ultimate and basic abilities with their teammates is crucial. When a team pulls off an insane push or capture, it is exhilarating. When a team flubs an opportunity, it is heartbreaking. You may think it’s all over, only to watch Mercy resurrect close to an entire team and turn it around.

Esports take time to develop and grow, and Overwatch only came out six months ago. What an esport really needs to grow is a large, dedicated community and a developer that is willing to mix things up and fix potential problems from time to time. Overwatch has both of those things, and the fans and Blizzard seem committed to seeing this game blossom into a world class esport.

Ryan Gilliam is a staff writer for The Rift Herald. While he spends most of his time playing and watching League of Legends, Ryan has been known to spend some of his free time obsessively replaying the Mass Effect series and trying to climb out of Gold in Overwatch.

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