The Crazy Overwatch League Finals Made Me a Believer in Our E-Sports Future
In the fall of 2016, Blizzard Entertainment CEO Bobby Kotick announced his plans to form an Overwatch e-sports league. The team shooter had debuted only six months prior, but it had already been praised at least several times over as potentially the greatest video game of all time. The news, coming out of the BlizzCon convention in Southern California, felt like the logical next step in Overwatch's ascension to a legitimate, lucrative gaming paradigm.
OWL would be the first e-sports league in existence to follow an American sports franchise model. Instead of ranked teams promoted by division, the system of choice in most other e-sport leagues, OWL promised teams in major urban markets, more like the NFL or NBA. Kotick described his vision of teams attached to cities around the world -- the Florida Mayhem, the Shanghai Dragons -- each offering salaries and benefits to players. Now, all he had to do to make it happen was scrounge up a dozen or so team owners with a spare $20 million in cash and a belief in the future of large-scale pro gaming.
Beating this level took over a year, somehow much longer than anyone expected. The result was the first-ever Overwatch League season, which began this past January, with 12 franchised teams in 11 urban markets backed by a mix of gaming interests and regular sports investment firms. (Most notably, the Kraft Group owns the OWL Boston Uprising team along with the New England Patriots.) The inaugural season came to a close with the two-day Overwatch League Grand Finals -- the e-sports answer to the NBA finals -- held this July at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Over 11,000 fans were in attendance. The theme of the match was CAPTURE HISTORY.
My interest in the covering the finals was twofold. First, the event was entirely sold out, and I needed free tickets to give to my friend Hank, a self-described gamer and soon-to-be lawyer who was leaving for law school the following week. Even in light of my freeloader motives, I have to admit, I’d been further drawn in by the grandiose marketing claims of the night. CAPTURE HISTORY -- how often does an après-garde poseur like me get a chance to feel the cutting edge before it dulls? I’d missed the boat on EDM and dubstep, let the second Golden Age of TV slip away; in terms of long-term cultural investments, the finals were my shot at buying low and selling high.
My credentials as a video games journalist were limited, if not non-existent. Not only had I never seen or played Overwatch, but the three major gaming phases of my life -- Spyro (Hannukah ‘98), Snake (Nokia Cellphone era), and Tetris (Sony Erickson years) -- offered little in the way of applicable knowledge. Furthermore, my exposure to sports (e-, or otherwise) was limited to driveway games of knockout, fifth-grade readings of "Casey at the Bat," and the tentative and fearful disbursement of sports idioms. In other words, I was out of my league. Hank was my only hope of understanding.
"This is my moment to shine," he said, in a tone that seemed partly distrustful of my motives. When is the modern man ever asked to consensually explain video games to a woman? (A few weeks later, he'd go so far as to ask that I protect his identity with the pseudonym "Hank.") On the walk from the bus to Barclays Center, he delivered a basic explanation of the game:
Overwatch takes place in your standard dystopian near-future: hostile robots, corporate lords, a team of noble and specially-skilled heroes fighting to save a semi-fictional earth. "Overwatch" refers to the name of this taskforce -- think of it as a renaissance man's Interpol, made up of gifted civilians around the world. There are 28 members of Overwatch in total. Compared to other videos games, their backstories and profiles are almost comically diverse.
"Ana, for example, is a sniper-slash-healer," said Hank. "She’s like, a mom. It's not a demographic you see very often." Other members of Overwatch include Doomfist (a Nigerian prosthetics-technology heir), Symmetra (a progressive Indian architect), and Tracer (a disabled, time-traveling lesbian, arguably the protagonist of the game).
"Who’s the hottest one?" I asked.
"Well," Hank explained, "a lot of them are really hot, but the one that's most fetishized, and you see most in porn or whatever, is D.Va., who is this 19-year-old Korean e-sport champion, which is sort of--"
"Wait, there’s an e-sports champion in the game?"
"Yeah," he said. "The company that makes the game -- Blizzard -- exists in the game."
Setting this aside, Overwatch is pretty simple. It’s basically a gamified version of FedEx: Two teams of six compete to guide a truck as it moves along a road to its final destination. In official OWL competitions, one team of six defends the truck, while another fights to take possession. This can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes; then the teams switch roles, for fairness. To understand why this is fun, or interesting enough to deserve its own league, you have to understand a concept called the meta and how it relates to the Overwatch game. In this case, actual sports knowledge helps:
When basketball was first invented, the only way to move the ball was by passing to another player down the court. Then, sometime around 1897, a genius on the Yale University team figured that he could just pass to the ball to himself, and so the idea of dribbling was born. This was the first shift in the meta, or overall strategy, of basketball. Over the course of the next hundred years, the meta of basketball would change at least two more times as players got better: once with the discovery of one-handed shooting, and then with the triumphant arrival of the dunk.
Now, think about all the things you could do if you wanted to force the meta of basketball to change faster. Instead of waiting for players to improve, maybe you’d make the the hoop a bit wider, or add five more hoops, or put a player on stilts. In Overwatch, the terms of the game are always changing. Developers add new maps; characters become weaker or stronger. A good Overwatch team has skilled players, but more importantly, it has players that are good at adapting their skills to a game whose terms are always in flux. For Overwatch fans, Hank said, part of the fun of The Overwatch League is watching the meta evolve in response. Following the league is like following a sport, but it's also like reading Harry Potter or Knausgaard. Each new iteration of the game changes and deepens the nature of fandom.
One of the teams in the grand finals, the Philadelphia Fusion, is known for playing a unique meta. The other team, the London Spitfire, had a difficult midseason. Neither had been expected to come out on top, and so, Hank said, the last-minute upset was likely to add a nice tension to the night.
We entered Barclays Center through a back-door marked PRESS, next to a second door marked COSPLAY. The stadium concourse was already full of fans, milling around in their Overwatch League gear. Like marketing gurus and contemporary artists, the heads behind The Overwatch League are masterful at leveraging the trappings of sports culture. Despite the fact that players sit in ergonomic office chairs, an Overwatch League jersey has a number on the back. Gaming involves neither sun nor sweat, but fans wear branded "eye black" strips, and cheer on their teams with Overwatch League rally towels. Even though this merch is merely symbolic, it helped made the finals feel permanent and grand. Walking the halls of Barclays Center, I had no problem imagining a future in which pro-gaming leagues felt normal.
Off to the side near a hot dog stand, a league employee encouraged the crowd to come make team spirit signs with magic markers. Hank made a poster with a catchphrase from the game: The true struggle is for the superiority of ideas. He carried the sign to a merch booth down the way, where he purchased a sweatshirt for $75. After playing Overwatch for hours in his house, he said it felt surreal to engage with it in public on such a grand and well-developed scale. I found myself wondering which of my hobbies could ever be adapted to a stadium format -- hanging shelves on drywall? Talking about Proust? Scrolling through the grid of the Instagram explore tab? On some cosmic level, I felt jealous.
Inside the arena, 11,000 people were as difficult to process as 11,000 people always are. The room was set up in a concert arrangement, with all the seats facing in the same direction. The stage was arranged at half-court. A high-def screen hung above two long tables, each set with six high-end gaming computers. Players were called to the stage by their handles -- Fury, birdring, Profit, Gesture. Each emerged from the backstage tunnel with a wan and pleasant countenance that felt woefully mismatched to the size of the arena. If OWL had mastered the trappings of sport, then the players themselves had room to improve. No doubt their dire lack of stage presence had something to do with the fact that they were, for lack of a better term, adolescent nerds. The youngest players in The Overwatch League are 18, a minimum set for legal reasons. The oldest, as far as I can tell, is 29 -- a player called dhaK on the San Francisco Shock. Because of high-speed internet lag times, OWL teams live communally and game for about six hours each day over a hardwired LAN connection. The entire London team is Korean, but Philadelphia has players from Israel, England, Finland, Canada, Spain, France, Russia, Sweden, and Korea. This language barrier is substantial, but not insurmountable. As one player at the press event explained, you don’t need many words to play video games.
The first round of the finals took place in Dorado, a fictional version of a Mexican city. The HD screen lit up in three segments. The center showed the general action of the game, switching between a bird’s-eye view and the first-person views of individual players. On the left- and right-hand sides of the screen, graphics showed each player’s Overwatch character. I recognized D.Va, the league-favorite hottie, dressed in her custom Overwatch League skin. This was the final point in the night I could claim any grasp on the action of the game. Nominally, all 12 characters were either attacking or defending the truck. Beyond this fact, I’d lost the thread. With basketball, even a novice can watch and cheer when the ball goes through the hoop. For me, watching Overwatch was total opaque chaos: screens changing points of view for no reason, announcers saying things I did not understand, eleven thousand people cheering at random. The most I could do was watch the third frame -- a webcam view of each player’s face, reflecting the light of his own tiny screen. None of them seemed aware of the crowd.
In the end, London Spitfire won the championship. Rewatching the match online the next day, I thought about how strange it was for a new kind of sport to emerge fully formed. It took about a hundred years for basketball to grow from a simple peach-basket game in Springfield, Massachusetts, to a full, multi-platform entertainment behemoth, with franchises worth about a billion dollars. Even with OWL starting so far along, the question remained: How far could it go? That night, for the first time ever, an e-sport was broadcast, in primetime, on the flagship ESPN. Eight new teams were announced soon after: Paris, Toronto, Atlanta, Vancouver, Washington, Hangzhou, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.