Overwatch Starts a League of Its Own

Global crises bring people together, even in the digital space. From Counterstrike to Call of Duty to Starcraft, conflicts between terrorists, nations and species have driven millions of players to mash buttons together. But few games have had the rabid appeal of Overwatch, which has developed a strong enough competitive culture to spawn a professional league.

Overwatch takes the traditional formula for a team-based first-person shooter and gives it the signature charm gamers have come to associate with Blizzard Entertainment, who've cultivated massive communities around games like Starcraft and World of Warcraft. Even for a company known for creating worldwide phenomena, Overwatch was a runaway success — its first game to reach 30 million active users while still maintaining the same values and depth as its other titles, such as Starcraft 2.


“We have a game design mantra at Blizzard that games should be easy to learn but difficult to master. You can pick up and play it easily, but it takes countless hours to master at a pro level,” says Nate Nanzer, Overwatch League Commissioner and SXSW Gaming 2018 featured speaker.

Players choose from 26 characters and square off in teams of six. Unlike traditional deathmatch-style shooters, like Call of Duty, characters have unique personalities and backstories, ranging from a super intelligent gorilla (Winston) to a cyborg ninja (Genji). Although they're all unique, they fit into archetypes that amplify each other's effectiveness.

"Just like everybody knows when football season rolls around, we want to bring that same kind of consistency to Overwatch and esports."

“You've got players in traditional sports that play all kinds of roles. From quarterbacks to receivers, point guards to forwards. In Overwatch, you also have multiple positions and it goes deeper. Who's your in-game leader, who's the captain of the team calling the shots, who's keeping everyone organized,” says Ryan Musselman, one of the owners of the Houston Outlaws team.

To those slow to the esport trend, a computer game league with franchises across the globe and players earning serious salaries might seem like a gamer’s pipe dream, but players in the coming inaugural Overwatch League season will reportedly earn an average of $100,000 per year.

“We want to make sure that our players are treated like the professional athletes that they are. That's why we have things like a minimum salary, health benefits, and guaranteed contracts,” says Nanzer.

One of the Outlaws’ most elite players is Matt “Clockwork” Diaz. His first gaming love was Super Smash Bros. He went on to play Team Fortress 2 at competitive levels, eventually switching to Overwatch. He plays an aggressive “aim-centric” style primarily using the characters Tracer (a time traveler), McCree (an outlaw gunslinger), and the masked vigilante Soldier 76. For him, one of the greatest challenges to mastering the game is juggling awareness of the entire enemy team and avoiding small but costly mistakes. So basically, this means being omniscient and flawless.

Part of the draw of Overwatch for Diaz is the ability to build a career. As with traditional athletes, pro gamers realize that it's still possible to continue on a career path within the industry once they retire from play. Lucrative advertising dollars via YouTube diversify players' income streams while building a brand that can be leveraged after their aim fades.

“It seems like with such a growing culture, there're many more options within the industry aside from actually playing,” says Diaz. “I absolutely see esports as a career path, and I plan to continue with the industry after I'm done competing. Video games have been instrumental in shaping me as a person. I can't see myself doing anything else with my life.”

Although Diaz doesn't claim to have a strict practice regimen, competing at professional levels requires relentless training, which makes the community skeptical of overnight successes. One example is the 16-year-old female South Korean phenom Kim “Geguri” Se-hyeo, whose perfect aim in a tournament in Seoul combined with a graphical glitch led the community to accuse her of cheating. Her age and gender certainly played a role, which isn't a surprise given the chauvinist viciousness bred by online anonymity. A lengthy ESPN The Magazine story, one of their first on esports, chronicled her path to vindication and attempt to crack the top tier leagues. In August 2017, she signed to South Korea's ROX Orcas team, becoming the first female professional player.

All the talk of six-figure salaries and franchise players can be intimidating, but one of the secrets to Overwatch's success is accessibility. A T rating means that anyone over the age of 13 can buy it without a parent, and the cartoonish graphics appeal to gamers as young as seven or eight.

“I think the atmosphere the game creates with its art style, character design and general gameplay is interesting and palatable for almost everyone. There's a place within the game for both casual and competitive players,” says Diaz.

Musselman concurs, observing that he thinks video games have finally reached a point where they are no longer a niche hobby, but rather a way to understand one's place in the world.

“I look at Overwatch's massive appeal, so many people are finding their identity through gaming. It has had such an impact on the world, I ask, who isn't a gamer today?”

Gaming’s ubiquity is a boon, but also a challenge, in that its grassroots growth makes it difficult to reach the same level of professionalism and legitimacy as traditional sports.

“For us, it's really about building more consistency and stability for players, teams and fans,” says Nanzer. “Esports developed so organically, it's fragmented and hard to follow. You have to work to be an e-sports fan. Just like everybody knows when football season rolls around, we want to bring that same kind of consistency to Overwatch and esports.”

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