Does Overwatch have what it takes to succeed as an esport?

It might have taken them seventeen years, but Blizzard has cast aside Azeroth, Sanctuary and the Koprulu Sector for a new game. An accessible, role-based shooter, Overwatch is also Blizzard’s latest opportunity to build a successful esport. With StarCraft and StarCraft II, Blizzard was the king of competitive gaming, pulling in numbers nobody had ever seen before. Since that time, however, League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have stolen the studio’s crown. Does Overwatch have a shot at putting Blizzard back on top?

What’s different about Overwatch?

During open beta, Overwatch attracted 9.7 million players. To say their beta was successful is like saying that Breaking Bad was a pretty good show, Stephen Hawking is kinda smart and Reddit could ease up a little on the salt. With 81 million hours played during 37 million matches, the community has shown that they’re more than excited about Overwatch. Excitement isn’t enough, however. An esport needs more than numbers. For the answer to that question I turned to esports veteran Paul ‘ReDeYe’ Chaloner.

“A lot of different things go into whether a great game makes a great esport” Chaloner says “but I think the key things are that the game is easy to get into, but hard to master—and Overwatch certainly has that.” He draws attention to a revamped ranked system and better spectator tools as features that the game needs, in the short term, to succeed as an esport.

The game modes are a little hit and miss.

Seb ‘numlocked’ Barton

 “The view looks good when you consider that Blizzard have been one of the biggest longstanding supporters of esports” Chaloner continues “and we already have some big names playing in the closed beta, which helps develop the fans. I think if it has a large player base—which looks entirely possible—and Blizzard can support it not only financially but in terms of gameplay changes and spectator tools, it certainly has the best chance of anything around right now.” 

True mastery is the highest art

If Overwatch wants to succeed as an esport, it needs to be attractive to the greatest number of competitive gamers. These are the players who won’t settle for being pretty good, who won’t stop until they’re the very best in the world, who will ultimately make playing this game a job. Even in the beta stage of Overwatch, professional teams have been formed and tournaments have been played, giving us an opportunity to find flaws in the Overwatch formula before the game even comes out. I asked former TF2 legend Seb ‘numlocked’ Barton from Creation Esports and ex-Day of Defeat champion Michael ‘michr’ Rosen of OWKings for their experiences with Overwatch—both have now switched to the game full time.

“The game modes are a little hit and miss” Barton says. “King of the hill is super exciting and fast paced but then you have the payload maps, which are just a snoozefest for everyone involved. Stopwatch mode isn’t the answer either because that ruins the experience even more but right now it’s the best of a bad bunch.”

“The biggest concern I have are with the game modes and the map designs” Rosen agrees. “I actually believe from the game modes in place currently, control point maps could, with a bit of tweaking, be the way forward. I can't think of any hero that isn't viable on control point maps, but the issue with control point maps currently is that they are just too prone to the snowball effect. The moment the attacking team captures the first control point they don’t just have the momentum, but also the ultimate advantage for the second and final capture point.”

No one can hide from my sight

An esport is a spectator sport by necessity. Without people watching the games, there’s no reason for sponsors to keep paying for tournaments, making it impossible for the pro scene to stay alive. The closed beta tournaments we’ve seen so far have drawn plenty of viewers and with the ridiculous amount of people playing in the open beta, it’s likely that those numbers will only go up. Overwatch is a ton of fun to play and while it’s a pleasure to watch, the viewer experience needs to be on point and tournament organisers need to get excited about throwing big LAN tournaments if Blizzard wants this game to be one of the greats.

LANs are already organised, well in advance of the game’s release, and the prize pools will only get bigger.

Seb ‘numlocked’ Barton

 “[Overwatch] needs a much better spectator system” says Paul Chaloner. “Right now, it’s incredibly difficult for commentators and viewers to see the skills of the players: who used their ultimates and how did they interact? Who is on cooldown and who has changed hero? The most recent updates to the spectator mode did help a lot, but it still needs more work.”

Seb Barton, however, is positive that all of these needed changes—and more—are in the works. “I think Blizzard are already heading in the right direction” he says “and I’m sure they have plans for Overwatch to be tied into Blizzcon, so it’s already on its way to success. A lot of time between now and then will also come down to third party event organisers’ involvement within the game, but as we’ve seen already that’s being done to an increasing amount of success. LANs are already organised, well in advance of the game’s release, and the prize pools will only get bigger.”

Survival of the fittest

Overwatch has a lot going for it. Millions of people are eagerly awaiting the launch of the game, and big esports organisations are jumping on any opportunity they get to sign a team. In all of the years I’ve followed Blizzard games, I’ve never seen them market a game this aggressively before launch. It hurt to watch StarCraft II slowly lose viewership, and when Hearthstone came around it never felt like esports were Blizzard’s priority.

With Overwatch, however, it’s different. The game is fast, competitive as can be and it’s got a learning curve the size of Mount Kilimanjaro. The community is in love with the characters, pros from all walks of life are coming together to settle their scores and even tournament organizers can’t keep their eyes off of the game. Blizzard has a lot of work to do if they want this game to succeed as an esport, but it’s clear that Overwatch could be their golden ticket back to the top of the pile—if they get it right.