Image credit: Blizzard.
With its colourful cast and proclivity for wild plays that are equal parts tactical and mechanical, Overwatch is brimming with esports potential. Problem is, it can be a mess of exploding mechs, screen-engulfing ghost dragons, and middle-aged men in Scream Halloween costumes — too much of a mess, sometimes, to actually sit down and watch.
After the expected (but still exciting) conclusion to the weekend's Overwatch World Cup, I spoke to BlizzCon attendees in the audience about how easy it was to understand what was going on in the game.
For the most part, they said, the new spectator tools — which include team-specific character skins and attack effects, snazzy instant replays, a better third-person camera, and a top-down map for broadcasters — were a life-saver. Team colours, especially, stole the show.
"I think it's been massively improved in terms of team colours and how you view things," said an attendee named Natalie who'd watched a fair amount of pro Overwatch previously. Before this weekend, characters just wore their normal skins, and the only way to differentiate between them was red and blue outlines and UIs, which would sometimes switch over the course of matches, only adding to the confusion.
"It's much, much easier," Natalie said.
Image credit: Blizzard.
Another attendee named Cat Whitney, who plays Overwatch a lot but hadn't really watched any prior to this, agreed that the team colours were "amazing."
"This seemed really easy to follow," she said. "There were only a couple times where things jumped around really quickly, and I couldn't quite understand the action. The team colours were amazing."
Fans did note that the specific colour choices aren't perfect yet, though. "Sometimes there was, like, a light-blue team versus a white team, and it got a little hard to see," said an attendee named Matthew.
There is, however, still a 181kg gorilla from the moon in the room: how do you involve viewers who aren't diehard Overwatch fans dedicated enough to travel to an arena in Anaheim?
"I feel like somebody who doesn't play Overwatch is still gonna have a hard time, because it's really fast-paced," said Matthew. After the show, I spoke with Gloria, an attendee who went into the Overwatch World Cup with very little knowledge of the game, and she said she was mostly able to figure it out, though it took some time.
"At first I was completely lost," she confessed in an email, "but the UI helped me figure out the system eventually." She went on to give a succinct but accurate description of Overwatch's rules. "It took me around four or five matches to figure it all out on my own," she said.
Once she sorted that out, the main sticking point for her was, again, a few team colours, especially those that involved a heavy component of white. She added that if Overwatch wants to use a home-versus-away colour setup, it needs to take more cues from traditional sports.
"It's true that other sports like football use home and away jerseys," she said, "but their team colours and logos are very prominent on both types of jerseys so it's super easy to know what team it is."
There's also the problem of Overwatch's pace, something even a more polished set of spectator tools might not be able to entirely alleviate. Taylor Adams, an attendee who actually works for an esports organisation called Tempo Storm, explained that he would frequently lose track of the game if his eyes stopped following it for a second.
"A Genji can flick his wrist to the right and kill three people," Adams said. "If you happen to be looking down at your phone because somebody tweeted at you, you're gonna miss it. You're gonna be like 'What the fuck?'"
Picture-in-picture replays, especially the newly added slow-mo variety that allow casters to break down complicated plays, help, Adams said. But Overwatch still doesn't provide enough information for people to casually follow along. You've gotta stay dialed in.
Image credit: Blizzard.
One way to get around that, suggested Whitney, might be a second display. "I wish they'd kept the pop-up of the map in the corner that showed all the icons" of players' positions, she said.
"They didn't do that too often, but when they did, it was really helpful. I'd have liked to have had that as a picture-in-picture or on a secondary monitor so we could see that all the time."
Despite concerns, however, everybody I spoke to said they enjoyed themselves, and they all added that they're now planning to watch Blizzard's soon-to-kick-off Overwatch League — some more casually than others.
Cat Whitney, the Overwatch player who hadn't spectated many matches until now, says she might start watching the league. "I wasn't planning on it until I came here and watched this. Now I'm hooked. It's really addictive!"