It’s finally here. After $240 million in team franchise fees, a reported $90 million for two years of Twitch exclusive third-party streaming outside of China, logistical issues with players, and at least a ton of rotten eggs thrown at it from naysayers, Overwatch League’s inaugural season is underway. Yesterday, the Blizzard Arena in Burbank opened its doors to a sold out crowd, and once the action concluded for the day, the Los Angeles Valiant, Los Angeles Gladiators, and Seoul Dynasty each secured their first victories of the season. And it all went really well.
Overwatch League is a colossal undertaking—and brings a lot of new ideas to esports—so despite a few lingering problems, its remarkable that day one went as smoothly as it did. Here's what we liked about the debut, what still needs to be addressed, and what stories we can expect from players as they navigate this new era of massive team budgets and traditional sports seasons.
Improvements since preseason
As we already saw in the preseason, the Blizzard Arena is a gorgeous place to watch esports. I went down to the floor to watch some of the match between Dallas and Seoul, and you can truly feel the energy inside that place. The crowd was alive, the backdrop was vibrant and colorful, and the sounds from the game were deep. When Bastion was in sentry, it felt like the double-bass drum at a metal concert. Everything about the production in the arena gets a solid A+.
The analyst desk has been beefed up substantially since the preseason with the additions of Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson and Jonathan “Reinforce” Larsson. One of the problems Overwatch has dealt with is that the action is difficult to understand. Sideshow, present for opening day, dissected crucial plays so that viewers could better appreciate what the players were trying to accomplish, lending to the legitimacy that Overwatch League will need as it continues to expand.
When it comes to viewership, Overwatch League had a strong debut. Twitch viewership hovered around 350,000 early on, peaked at over 400,000, and it was still at 300,000 when the last match of the night started. There was a group of brand new Overwatch fans sitting behind me who were being coached along by a knowledgeable friend. I also overheard people in the shop buying merchandise for someone starting to follow esports now that Overwatch League is live. Things are looking healthy with room to grow.
Problems to address
Mercy is unfortunately still a thing in the pro meta. I’ve said it a million times already, but Resurrection does not belong in a game like Overwatch. Every play is so important, and every kill should put the receiving team in a worse situation than they were in before. Res, and the current Valkyrie ultimate in particular, make it so that you don’t get punished for losing players.
Johan “Cwoosh” Klingestedt, main tank for the Florida Mayhem, agrees. “I don’t see anything wrong with Mercy as a character,” he says. “She is easy to use so that people who are perhaps not so mechanically skilled can still feel like they are helping. But res in an FPS is not so good. I liked the change from the old ultimate to Valkyrie, but I think the ultimate should revolve around something other than res.”
The spectating could use work, too. Following DPS makes sense on paper, but there were many times where we saw the tanks or healers dealing with issues in the distance while the POV was on a Genji who wasn’t doing a whole lot. If anything, the free-roaming camera should be utilized more. For more complete narratives about these players to form, we need to see how they deal with complex scenarios as they occur.
The near total lack of women in Overwatch League is another point of criticism. Of all the commentators and analysts, Soe Gschwind-Penski is the only woman on staff, and none of the players are women. Overwatch is a game that celebrates diversity, yet the league doesn't fully show that.
Lastly, there was still way too little going on between matches, which was an issue in the preseason—player Q&A’s would have been nice, as an example. There was some improvement toward the very end of the presentation, at least. Before the match between Dallas and Seoul, there was a nice feature on the history of their old rosters, Lunatic-Hai and Team Envy. Blizzard also put together a montage of clips in memory of Dennis “Internethulk” Hawelka, a community veteran who passed away late last year.
A new scene for players
Overwatch League introduces local teams to esports, a major change in how we think about players and their teams. The first match of the season between the Los Angeles Valiant and San Francisco Shock gave us a little taste of what’s to come, with many LA fans showing up to support their team. Will home crowds have an impact on teams’ performances like can in traditional sports?
“I was nervous when we were walking in at the beginning, but it went away for me, anyway,” said David “Nomy” Ramirez, tank player for the San Francisco Shock in a post-game conference. “I didn’t even notice the crowd, to be honest. Once you’re in the game, you’re just concentrating on the game and your team.”
“Hearing the crowd cheer empowers me a little more,” said Los Angeles Valiant DPS player, Ted “Silkthread” Wang. “It keeps me more focused since my morale is never dropping.”
Competition with expanded rosters against the best international talent has players and coaches from all twelve teams very excited, if a little apprehensive.
“I do miss playing as my old team [Lunatic-Hai], but we have even more talent now and the resources to be the best in the world," said Je-hong “Ryujehong” Ryu, arguably the best player in the world and flex support for the Seoul Dynasty. When it comes to which player he’s excited and nervous to play against, he mentioned star DPS player Jake Lyon from the Houston Outlaws. We’ll be sure to see new rivalries spark up as the season progresses.
Players in Overwatch League will also have to deal with the unique physical and mental stresses of being a part of a big-money sports league. Matt “Flame” Rodriguez, GM of the Houston Outlaws, said that many players don’t know how difficult it is to hold down a job while pursuing their dreams, so they don’t fully understand how fortunate they are. A challenge of many Overwatch League teams will be providing a nurturing, structured system for their players as they mature throughout the season.
Overwatch League is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s a major leap in the evolution of esports. How it fares going forward will influence the whole of esports—and anything can happen—but it's off to a great start.
Correction: In the first paragraph, the phrase "Twitch streaming exclusivity" was removed and updated to reflect the specifics of the deal.