Five Things We Learned From The Overwatch World Cup

Image: Kotaku

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

Image: Kotaku

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

Image: Kotaku

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

Image: Kotaku

"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

Image: Kotaku

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.


    I'd also toss in that theres still a lot to be learned for the broadcasters.

    I'm not ragging on Seven at all for their telecast, but there was plenty of room for improvement. For starters, cutting off the FTA broadcast right when the showcase matchup of Aus v Swe was hitting a highpoint really hurt. The following 30 minutes was filled with Billy the Exterminator, surely it would have been better to finish the broadcast!

    Secondly, too many adverts. I understand that they were taking advantage of those small gaps between maps to get the sponsor dollars flowing, but it killed any chance of analysis and interaction with the presenters. It also encouraged me to channel surf.

    Thirdly, when I did try to get online to watch the end of the broadcast, I had issues. Was sitting on the lounge, decided to connect to via my PS4, and walked into a nightmare of recurring adverts for Intel. 3 seconds of broadcast, 10-15 seconds of advert.

    Net result, unwatchable online as well.

    Just comments moving forward, that's all. It was nice to see it on free to air, and I really hope they do more of it in the future. Just cater to it better is all. It just felt rushed and amateur thanks to the rapid fire adverts, and cutting the show to a time point rather than a result.

      I think that's a given though. Stuff like that you learn a lot through consistency, and broadcasters have had so few cracks at televising games in any form that a lot of learned knowledge just isn't there.

      Someone told me that cable TV in New Zealand tends to work a bit better, in that the time windows are flexible. So if a match goes into OT and the broadcast is hitting it's slot, there's another 30 minutes they can use so viewers get to see the end of the game. Not sure if FOX had the same flexibility here when they were showing CSGO.

        I am half/half on it. The main part that makes me want to argue against that is that Seven was the one driving it, and they aren't amateurs. So the things that annoyed me are a result of that thought.

        Only justification I can think of is that because it went through Screenplay, and that being a new show, they may have had an inexperienced producer thinking they were doing a good thing cutting to adverts while there was no action.

        The channel as a whole though works through nine AFL games a week, which cut to adverts on the fly every time theres a goal. They have that experience at televising something with the same issues, which is why I'm a touch less forgiving.

        Billy the Exterminator is a different thing, and bluntly, as its essentially a space filler, should have been readily in favour of completing the matchup. I'm not sure there was much excuse to cut to it as they did, they do overtime with live events all the time.

        Neither are unfixable though, just something to take on board for next time. And I DO hope theres a next time.

    I went in not expecting to enjoy it, because I find comp games the most uninspiring to watch and hard to follow, in the end I had a great weekend. While yes, the comp games are thoroughly uninspiring and uncreative in terms of team picks but I got adjusted to watching.

    (question: why the hell is the team you are following always red and not blue like when you play? its such a small thing but instantly puts a viewing audience on the back foot. it would be much better having a team always the same colour, who ever you are viewing as stays blue, who they are shooting at always remain red.)

    I find the overly bombastic American style commentators rather deary and stupid. That is too say what they do is stupid, the host themselves were fantastic and funny.

    I wasnt expecting how exciting the games can be, those final games were as electric as any footy game I have seen, but there is no where the same level of physical (or mental) brilliance involved, no matter how important the host try to make it.

    PS whoever designed the event should be forced to go back to event design school and take an ergonomics class, after three full days, my body was thoroughly hating me.

    All up I had much fun, it works better as a esport than I was expecting, but while the players choose like the same 10 characters ALL THE TIME, its just feels too 'safe' and repetitive

    Hahaha, I had not followed the overwatch scene at all, and here is Rqt, who raided with us in Suit Up in WoW, leading the Overwatch team. Small world.

    Something I noticed watching a few of the games was the difference in casting styles. I've watched Monte and Doa for years when they were with Riot for LoL and enjoy their general in depth play analysis but if you don't know the game then there is little to be gained by watching them. By contrast, the Australian casters were doing an amazing job at balancing analysis with more face value points about game mechanics. Things like drawing attention to the UI elements that show visually what they are describing or saying "Genji's dragonblade" then taking a brief moment to say in layman's terms what the ability does without sounding patronising.

      This. I was extremely impressed by the Aussie bloke Uber and his ability to explain what was going on screen to potential newcomers without myself (400+ hours logged on Overwatch) cringing. It's necessary to do given esports are in a relatively nascent stage so Uber stood out - he was excellent.

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