It's not often Sydney gets a taste of international esports, and it's even rarer that esports makes its way to the CBD. But the harbourside city got a taste of both over the weekend when Blizzard brought the Overwatch World Cup to town.
After a few surprises, scraps and a finish involving several overtimes, Australia and Sweden booked their tickets to the finals in Blizzcon later this year. But the tournament was also revealing on several other fronts, both for what it said about Overwatch and where the professional scene sits right now. Here's five things we learned from Blizzard's grand tournament.
1. Australian crowds are some of the best, anywhere
One of the surprising elements for the casters, players and those watching on the stream - anyone who wasn't Australian, really - was just how enthusiastic the crowd was for everyone. There was a lot more at stake for the Aussies than at IEM Sydney - all of the local teams were substantial underdogs at best - but that didn't stop the crowd from cheering both teams equally, save for intermittent breaks of "OI OI OI".
"[Aussies] make a point of going the extra mile to show their support - even look at the Australia vs Portugal game, not only were they getting racuous when Australia won, even when Portugal were doing well or when they won a round on a control map, the crowd was still getting around them. Generally the people in Australia are fun to have at events, I'd like to think that tournament organisers will see that reaction and see what that adds as an atmosphere to their games," Mitch "Uber" Leslie, one of the shoutcasters for the event and an Aussie himself, said.
That convivial attitude cropped up wherever you went - even The Star's security seemed thrilled to be watching some so, well, different. And it's not likely to be the last event The Star holds, either. The casino recently opened a "Cyberpunk Studio" with Xbox consoles, VR headsets and space for up to 25 people, and the success of gaming events at Crown in Melbourne means Sydneysiders will probably see more events before too long.
2. Overwatch's meta might be the most advanced it's ever been, but it's stagnating
If you were hoping for a weekend filled with highlights of Mei, Orisa, Zarya, or Roadhog, bad luck. Keen for some choice High Noon plays? There weren't much of those either. The Overwatch meta right now is all about diving right in, and that meant a lot of the following: Winston, Soldier 76, Tracer, Lucio, D.Va and her defence matrix, a bit of Genji, and not a whole lot else.
The lack of selections didn't make for stale matches, though. The weekend was punctuated with upset after upset: Japan established themselves as standout performers from the first day, and in a lot of ways their performance warranted a place at Blizzcon. Australia was outstanding in the first couple of days, and it took two days of humiliations before Sweden got their act together to crawl out of the group stages. That was better than Finland, however, who struggled for cohesion throughout and were ultimately knocked out in groups despite being favourites to qualify for Blizzcon.
But while the matches are exciting, it needs a refresh too. Andrew "rqt" Haws, one of Australia's two dedicated support players, says it's stagant. "You never really get surprised; there's the occasional Widowmaker or McCree, but otherwise it's very standard Soldier/Genji/Tracer/Winston/D.Va. It's a bit boring, but in the same token it's the most advanced the meta has ever been ... the game's progressed so well."
That's the problem Blizzard created for themselves though: a small roster of heroes that are more fleshed out as individual characters means it takes longer to introduce new faces. On the flipside, the existing favoured compositions require enough variety and decisions to be made on the fly that it doesn't hurt the spectator experience.
3. Overwatch's infrastructure needs filling out
"We're like the third longest running team in Overwatch [that hasn't made a roster change]," rqt told me. I asked if that was out of the teams in the Overwatch World Cup, but it wasn't - it was out of all Overwatch teams around the world, according to analysis from one of the scene's more prominent analysts and casters.
The biggest reason why that's notable is because, right now, Australia doesn't really have an Overwatch scene to speak of. The Australians, who played as Blank Esports, made their name through the Overwatch Pacific Championship in Taiwan. That door was only made possible thanks to connections made by the team's coach Jason "SereNity" Wang, who effectively is a one-man support service outside of the game.
In a lot of ways, the Australian scene owes Blank a great deal of debt. "In December, I was in Taiwan and I found out about the Taiwanese tournament and I could get the team in, and we played there. And it was only after we got decent results in Asia that we got invited to the Korean scrimming Discord [channel], which allowed us to [scrim] Korean teams. From there, we started getting other Australian teams in there, otherwise there was no way we could have gotten into it without knowing anyone."
Without that initial discovery, there's no way that Blank would have been able to play in the OPC to begin with. And without the experience of the OPC, they wouldn't have had the practice or experience to book themselves a spot at Blizzcon.
It's a very typical Australian esports story in a lot of ways: we're talented, but geographically isolated. When given the opportunity, we often show our talent, but it takes a lot of experience to consistently nail it on the big stage. Sometimes teams have a breakout performance and the scene reaps a massive benefit as the country's international standing improves with it, as the Call of Duty scene has shown over the last few years. And then you get instances like the early Counter-Strike days, where Aussies lack the time and money to get a wealth of international practice under their belt, go overseas, get a crappy draw, and end up exiting tournaments early.
But it's a necessary evil for Blank, and any local Overwatch team that wants to be successful. Fortunately, they're competing in the second season of the OPC which kicks off next month, so they'll be plenty busy regardless of what happens with the Overwatch League. That said, they could be uprooted from Taiwan reasonably quickly: all of the players could be drafted into the Overwatch League thanks to the lack of region restrictions, and the amount of support staff and infrastructure major US teams have would hugely attractive to Blank, who have predominately looked after themselves.
That's just Blank, however. As for the rest of the Australian Overwatch scene, it's hard to see what happens to them from here on in. Oceania would be a reasonable expansion point for the Overwatch Contenders league, but that can't kick in until 2018 at the absolute earliest, and more third party leagues and tournaments would be required to keep teams active in the interim.
4. Casinos are Australia's best esports stadiums, for now
Let's face it: Sydney is not traditionally a good place for esports. Its largest venues are stuck out at Homebush, a location built for the Sydney Olympics well away from anything of interest. Is there any other venue in Australia where you have to go via Platform Zero?
So in that void, casinos have begun to fill the hole. Melbourne's Crown Casino has had a lot of success hosting Call of Duty and Counter-Strike invitationals over the last couple of years, and The Star put on a show for Overwatch that felt awfully similar to both of those. There's no issue with capacity, the location is central to the city's CBD (making travel infinitely easier) and if casinos do one thing right, it's making sure you're comfortable.
In the long term esports might not want to be so closely affiliated with casinos, gambling and their traditional streams of revenue. We had this pop up when David Warner inadvertently asked why CSGO AKs and AWPs were appearing on FOX Sports.
But for now, casinos offer the best spectator experience. It's not quite as comfortable for the organisers, mind you, but given how fast tickets and merchandise sold out, it's a problem they're happy to live with.
5. Overwatch could be a completely different game come Blizzcon
One of the most unusual elements of the Overwatch World Cup is the gap between the qualifying stages and the actual finals at Blizzcon later this year. Typically, events are a one-and-done kind of affair. Even something grander like Worlds or The International is an ongoing affair, one that undoubtedly costs an offensively exorbitant amount of money to arrange.
But the point is that whatever the state of the game is coming into the tournament, it doesn't change until the tournament is finished. You'll see teams deploy certain compositions, strategies and counters, but they won't be responding to a changing meta or patches released in between stages. (And when a developer does release a patch just before or in the middle of a tournament, teams are pissed.)
That won't happen with the Overwatch World Cup, however. With around four months between now and the finals at Blizzcon, there's already a number of things that could rapidly affect the game. For one, the effect of Doomfist hasn't been felt. There's always the chance he could make an appearance in the next set of groups, which is scheduled to kick off next week in Poland.
But the more likely possibility is that Blizzard tweaks the balance in between the group phase and Blizzcon, partially as a way of shaking up the meta. Some of the teams, like the Australians were when I spoke to them on the Saturday, were already vocal about the game's lack of variety. Doomfist currently offers that, but for him to be of any use Blizzard will probably have to do several tweaks to make him viable.