Can Overwatch Compete as an eSport?

Overwatch has captivated the gaming world. Its open beta was one of the largest in gaming history, and in the week since launch it has had over 7 million players log an insane 119 million hours. With this much popularity and momentum, Overwatch seems destined to follow in the footsteps of other Blizzard titles such as Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and find success as an esport. Right? Well, maybe.

No one can deny the popularity of Overwatch, but in these matters popularity is only one aspect of what translates a game into a competitive context. Blizzard chose not to develop Overwatch specifically as an esport, game director Jeff Kaplan stating in an interview with PC Gamer April 2015 that “it’s dangerous to be overly committed to esport early in the lifespan of the game”. He added, however, that “Overwatch undoubtedly is going to attract a competitive crowd”, and that he and his team were including features with the competitive player in mind.
Accessibility and enjoyment were chief then in the developers’ minds, but let’s not forget that Blizzard purchased MLG for $46 million in January. Blizzard would not have done this if they weren’t planning on producing and promoting esports, and Overwatch is almost certainly an important part of this campaign.

Following the release of Overwatch, there are a number of indicators that suggest Kaplan’s vision could come true. Dan Szymborkski writing for ESPN stated that with a playstyle and design entirely different from the likes of COD or CS:GO and a healthy variety of maps and characters, Overwatch is poised to be the next big esport. Speaking to ESPN, principal designer Scott Mercer said that they “want to release heroes at a pace that keeps our games fresh and exciting”, Blizzard undoubtedly wanting to maintain and update Overwatch for the foreseeable future. Big names such as Cloud 9 and Team Liquid have already signed their own Overwatch teams, the most successful team during the beta, IDDQD, signing with Team EnVyUs. There have been some early tournaments with small prizes, but the important thing is that the interest is there. Bryant France writing for Gamasutra has rightfully pointed out that speed and short match times make Overwatch an enjoyable viewing experience, strengthening its chances at securing a dedicated audience.

This last point is important because esports by their very nature have to be viewed in order to be sponsored, and Overwatch is definitely fun to watch and easy to understand. The game is an exceptional balancing act, the abilities of each vibrant and charismatic character interacting with each other in ways you simply would not expect. In my short time playing I’ve seen Genji deflect a hail of gunfire from an opposing Bastion into the other team, watched as Pharah jumped off the edge of a platform only to reemerge with a grateful Mercy in tow. These combinations are incredibly important in a game that does not rely on twitch gaming and the clearly defined role of each character gives structure to what you are watching. The abilities are easy to jump into, but most (but not all) are difficult to master and have high skill ceilings, a challenge to those who want to play competitively .

All of this viewing is undermined, however, by a poor spectator client, which, while recently updated to be a bit more effective, still isn’t up to esport standards. Who has changed their hero? Who is on cooldown? This information is currently withheld from the spectator, and could discourage a dedicated viewership. Another issue is the game modes. Speaking to PC Gamer at launch, expert Seb ‘numlocked’ Barton praised the King of the Hill for being exciting and fast-paced, but criticised the payload maps for being too slow and further harmed by Stopwatch mode, a mechanic that many players feel cheapens the experience. Michael ‘michr’ Rosen added to this by stating that control point maps are currently prone to the snowball effect, whereby winning the first point not only gives a team momentum but “also the ultimate advantage for the second and final capture point”.

Perhaps the most pressing threat to Overwatch’s status as an esport is the low tick rate. For the uninitiated, tick rate simply dictates how close what you are seeing and doing in the game resembles what Overwatch registers on its servers. The server is receiving constant input from you and other players, and all of it is delayed – if just for a moment. The tick rate measures how often the server updates per second. Overwatch’s tick rate is by default roughly 20hz, whereas games like CS:GO operate closer to 60hz. This difference might not mean much to the casual player, but in competitive environments that hinge on split-second reflexes, a delay of just a few milliseconds can make a huge difference.

Players have complained that for this reason, they are getting shot even when behind cover, and it is impossible for them to land shots. Blizzard has addressed these complaints by explaining that they use predictive simulation methods on their servers that are correct “an overwhelming majority of the time”. Unfortunately, these predictions tend to favour the shooter over the target, and really it does little to fix the prevailing problem. Until recently, there was no response to these complaints, but Blizzard has since stated that until people play more custom games – where you can manually set Overwatch to 60hz – they do not yet have the data to sufficiently test a higher tick rate client-side throughout the entire game. Hopefully, this will be sorted before the competitive mode launches later this month.

Overwatch is an incredibly well-designed and polished game, with a loyal fanbase and seemingly endless in-game potential. If Blizzard can iron out the kinks and improve the tick rate, there is no reason why Overwatch shouldn’t succeed as an esport and perhaps even draw a larger and more diverse audience than Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty ever did.

  • halfcentaur

    I don’t believe for even a moment that this game wasn’t specifically designed with spectator sports in mind. The laundry list of boring and frustrating mechanics is way too long to list, but they’re there and obvious if you’ve played the game even a few times. Blizzard has been desperately trying to break into the esports world on the level of dota 2 or league but they fall short miserably every time. Hearthstone was a complete mistake that it gained so much esport popularity, and they essentially admit it. But in Overwatch’s and Heroes of the Storm’s cases, they’re cheap dashes to attempt to catch up with other developers in the field (since hearthstone is rapidly becoming a joke as far as the real competitiveness of it).