Overwatch Still Isn't Ready To Be A Top Esport

Over the weekend, Blizzard hosted the first round of qualifiers for Overwatch's Contenders series, AKA the minor league to the upcoming Overwatch League's majors. There was some solid action, a couple of surprising upsets, and a lot of Winston dancing. I don't think Overwatch is ready to be a top esport yet, though.

Don't get me wrong: Overwatch Contenders is not Overwatch League, and I don't think it should be judged as such. It does, however, represent a sort of canary in the coal mine before the big show. This is a chance for Blizzard to refine its production and turn Overwatch into something that's fun to watch and easy to digest.

On that front, what we've seen so far from Contenders is definitely a step in the right direction. It is, in my opinion, the best Overwatch esports production yet, sporting great casting crews (you can't beat Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist, and you especially can't beat Alex "Left Guy" Gill) and sharp camerawork that makes lower-level tournaments look clumsy by comparison.

So let's start with the good. While more polished events like the Korean APEX tournament have made use of techniques like instant replay, Contenders is going above and beyond with it, letting big team fights play out and then explaining them in more depth during precious seconds of downtime afterwards. That's super useful, because Overwatch team fights at the pro level — while fun to watch — are a rainbow sherbet tornado of sheer chaos. Unless you have an extremely keen eye for the action, it's hard to keep up. I play and watch a lot of Overwatch, and even I quickly lose track if I'm not utterly laser-like in my focus.

An example of the replay cam in action from a match between LG Evil and Faze Clan (source).

Contenders couples smart use of replay with almost gratuitous use of a free-floating isometric camera, something which has only been seen sporadically in other tournaments. Generally, Blizzard's crew breaks it out in fairly narrowly confined areas or capture points, giving viewers a better understanding of precisely where everybody is and how engagements are unfolding. The visual language of these moments is almost MOBA-like, with a focus on positioning and the layers of strategy underlying it.

That's key in a game where front lines and back lines are so important, and consistent work from supports and flankers matters just as much as a big ult or a slick multi-kill. Blizzard's crew also does a good job of employing a third-person over-the-shoulder view on select characters during bigger fights, making a compromise between individual focus and a wider perspective.

The free-floating cam during a teamfight between FNRGFE and Selfless (source).

But when shit hits the fan, it can still be a manic muddle. And because Overwatch is a much faster-moving game than, say, League of Legends or DOTA 2, and the stakes of each encounter aren't as clear as in CSGO, shit is basically hitting the fan constantly. Even when big teamfights aren't going down, teams are usually still skirmishing while they build their ults or wait for teammates to revive. When the camera pulls back to try and give you a look at the bigger picture, it can exacerbate the problem, overloading you with information while failing to highlight important particulars, like who's focusing on who, vs simply poking and prodding.

Then comes a big moment. With characters bouncing all over the place and commentators talking at a million kilometres per hour, instant replay moments in the aftermath are often essential. The problem is, that isn't a super fun way to watch a sport. Sure, every sport has its "what the heck just happened?" moments, but when those moments make up a significant portion of your viewing experience, it's hard to get into a groove or feel hyped. You're following along, rather than feeling the moment. I've seen complaints that there are too many replays, but I think the bigger problem is that so many are necessary.


Overwatch Contenders' production leaves much to be desired where smaller details are concerned, too. While Blizzard has said it's Working On It (TM), the way teams are colour-coded is still a big problem. One team having blue names and status bars while the other is red might seem simple enough, but it falls apart in two crucial ways. For one, when you, a regular person, play Overwatch, you and your team are always blue, and the opposing team, from your point of view, is always red. It's a subtle thing, but having that visual language subverted just makes an already chaotic game even more confusing to keep up with when you're watching it. Second, those colours sometimes swap between games. A pro team might be red one game and then blue the next — in the same match. So you've gotta re-train your brain again.

As our own Eric Van Allen pointed out, Overwatch could also benefit from other camera types — for example a head-down camera that can see through roofs and scenery, a la CSGO. Also, I think Blizzard's crew could do a better job of mixing camera views so that we could, say, get a pulled-out view of a big teamfight and then immediately go into the perspective of a particular player (or players) during the replay and subsequent analysis. Then we could see, for instance, exactly how that Genji backed the enemy Mercy into a corner and prevented her from rezzing her team, or what have you. That might also help train viewers to understand who they should be focusing on when future teamfights go down.

As I've said on multiple occasions, Overwatch has a lot of potential as an esport. It's thrilling to watch, has a ton of character, and leaves plenty of room for experimentation and zany strategies. It doesn't hurt that 30 million people across the world play it. For now, though, pro Overwatch is still something I would only recommend to the hardest of the hardcore. It can be fun to watch, but it's not for everyone. Not yet, anyway. Here's hoping Contenders gives Blizzard a chance to iron out the kinks once and for all.


    I don't really think it will ever actually be either. The skill ceiling for a lot of characters is too low and gameplay predictable; rush ults, team wipe, push to next objective. The game is to formulative for it to make good viewing to people that don't actively play the game.

      I would argue that it makes it easier viewing for those that dont play the game, i mean an ult where someone takes out a bunch of enemies, then maybe a mercy reviving them all and turning the favour, back and forth capturing points seems a lot more entertaining than stuff like CSGO where its some plain boring shooting, and better for people that dont understand games like LOL, DOTA or Starcraft.

      But idk, i dont find any E-sports that entertaining, i'd prefer to just play the game myself, or if i want to watch someone then fail or win compilation videos are my go to

        Tournament views beg to differ. There are tonnes of people watching CSGO, some would argue that it only has two games to compete with when it comes to audiences (Lol & Dota). The problem with Overwatch is that nothing really happens until the ults start popping off, this is due to a lot of the champs having low skill ceilings. They aren't able to make game changing plays without abilities, sure they may kill some people, but its only through area denial specials or nukes that real progress is made.

        I do not believe that Overwatch is the kind of game that will become a fully fledged esport, like Hearthstone Blizzard will just keep throwing money at the wall hoping for it to stick and a really small contingent of hardcore players will claim that it is bigger than it seems.

          Not saying you are wrong (you make good points and i don't disagree) but its not like that couldn't be because CSGO has had 5 years (way longer if you count previous CS games) of spreading and becoming the game that anyone who has even slightly heard about PC gaming will know. Of course you could definitely argue overwatch is nearly as well known, but ask almost any gamer that has a PC, laptop, mac, any ranging from high end to piece of shit and they likely have played CS or seen a lot about it, its definitely no where near that for overwatch (yet).
          Also it's not like anything much more exciting happens in CSGO as compared to an overwatch match before people get ults, just a few people getting normal kills.

          Anyway, i will say i really dont know much at all about the esports scene as i myself dont care about it in the slightest, but i just feel if anyone but the hardcore fans of these online games were to watch an esport overwatch would be the most entertaining and very simple to understand

    Like pretty much everyone who visits kotaku, I have been a gamer a very long time. Most esports still confuse the shit out of me in terms of trying to keep up with the action and what happened during the 'big plays'.

    I find MOBAs awful in this regard. All I see in a big DOTA tournament like the international (Not a fan of the game so will only watch these big stakes matches) is a bunch of mess on screen and super rushed shouting from the commentary.

    Then once you start including the knowledge needed about the heroes, abilities, item shops etc ... it just is way too much. I have moba experience too, mainly heroes of newerth which is a total DOTA clone, and I still dont understand most of stuff about the talents and item builds!

    A more causal viewer would be completely lost and quickly change channels. That is going to really hurt esport expanding beyond a certain audience level.

    For me the best spectator experience esport is Hearthstone. The rules are simple, and the pace is slow allowing time for explanation and analysis. Starcraft 2 is pretty good too. Again reasonably simple rules and as long as commentary is more focused on the broader strategy rather then the micro the commentary is good.

    Just my 0.02

      I very much agree with you, though on that point i think that will mean overwatch would be way easier to become popular with the more casual viewers because it is simple, capture the point and use your cool powers, not too much to understand.

    it appears to be very 'light' on depth? or am i wrong.
    I know they want it to appeal to the masses but making it hard by introducing hard earned skills would make it more challenging and rewarding.
    Like when you finally learn to strafejump in Quake3 or get a 40%+ railgun hit rate.

      In terms of mechanical skill it varies massively depending on what character you choose to play. Many of the supports and tanks have relatively low skill ceilings (although not all) but lots of the damage-based characters have unique movement options and challenging to use weapons and abilities that mean they actually take quite a lot of work to master.

      It's definitely a more casual-friendly game than Quake 3 or CS:GO but in terms of mechanical skill it asks a hell of a lot more of the player than any MOBA.

      The real problem with it right now from the standpoint of being a competitive game (aside from the spectator issues mentioned in the article) is that the variety of viable strategies seems to be very small once you get to a high level of play. What would make the game really shine is if a huge number of different kinds of team compositions and playstyles were all viable. But making that a reality is a design problem Blizzard doesn't seem capable of solving.

    The problem (for me) is professional games are just so predictable and boring. You always know if its X map the defenders will stand in Y or maybe Z. You know their team will pretty much always have a Rein, Ana, Lucio, Zarya and DPS to taste. There is no variety.

    I have been watching a lot of SOON videos and as interesting and skilled as he is, the games are just so predictable.

    Then there is the fact that pro games are really hard to watch. They always change the side you are watching, sometimes mid fight. The colours seemingly change as well between rounds. they need to choose one team to follow and stay with them for the whole game. Maybe switch between their members. And when they go to the bird's eye view it looks too gamey and you loose intensity you have in first person.

    If they stuck with one team for a match then you'd only be getting half the story, thus an incomplete picture of how a match plays out.

    In real life sports the focus is almost always a ball of some sort and the narrative of the game follows the ball. Spectator attention follows the ball so that even people that don't understand the finer rules of whatever game it is (Cricket, Golf, Soccer, Rugby, Badminton, etc) can understand when a play is going particularly well - the ball has been caught, gone into the crowd, into the hole, into the net, over the line, etc.

    I think one of the bigger issues with almost all eSports is that they lack this focus. Sure, there's the ultimate goal - like the Nexus/Ancient/Core in the various MOBAs, etc - but during game play there is no single point of spectator focus - you have to keep jumping all over the place to follow the action.

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