'Overwatch' Esports Is Ready for Its Close Up

Blizzard's newest game is just four months old, but is already making its mark on the pro gaming scene

Overwatch, from World of Warcraft studio Blizzard, is on the verge of esports success Credit: Blizzard

A few short months ago, the notion that Blizzard's Overwatch would succeed as an esport was anything but a sure thing. It's the first all-new property that the studio that spawned WarCraft has introduced since 1998, and the world wasn't exactly asking for a new team-based first-person shooter. But today, 15 million active players later, it’s the most promising esport of 2016. Tonight, the grand finals of the Overwatch Open will be shown on TBS. The winning team will take home $100,000.

Greg "Grego" McAllen has been trying to be a pro gamer for most of his adult life. For years he banged his head against the insular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive scene, but despite making contacts and friends, he couldn't woo his way into a tryout. So he dug in, orbited the outskirts, and played for a number of minor teams. At 23, he was in danger of aging out of esports, but his fortunes started to shift when he got a beta key for Overwatch.

"I didn't think I was even going to like the game before I played it," says Grego. "I ended up liking it a lot, and I decided to put all my eggs in the Overwatch basket. A friend of mine was trying out in a team called Google Me and they needed a fill-in so he suggested me. That was my second time scrimming the game, so I guess I put in a good impression."

Grego joined Google Me full-time, and in March, American esports giant Cloud9 swooped in and bought the team. That changed everything – suddenly he was in a fully-sponsored squad, with replica uniforms available for $60 on the digital storefront. At long last, Grego could finally call himself a pro gamer.

If you're familiar with Halo and Call of Duty, you already know Overwatch's competitive structure. There's an escort mode, a king of the hill mode, and an attack-and-defend mode. But Overwatch also emphasizes teamwork in a way that most other multiplayer shooters don't. Instead of picking up firearms off the ground or choosing from barely-distinguishable loadouts, every player takes the guise of a specific, unique character. Reinhardt is a burly 61-year old German with the ability to throw up a giant forcefield to protect his allies. Bastion is a robot that can morph into a devastating turret at any time. Mercy is a Swiss angel who can bring teammates back from the dead. Overwatch is won or lost by synergizing all of these unique abilities at once. It’s still a twitchy shooter, but it adds the more strategic elements you might find in computer games like Dota or League of Legends.

With a built-in audience and a ton of homegrown competitive buzz, Overwatch esports should happen naturally. And to a certain point, it has. Blizzard broke ground on the Overwatch World Cup, an international exhibition that serves as the first major investment into their own game. The South Korean television company OGN recently announced that they'll be broadcasting a 28-team tournament in October, complete with a $177,000 prize pool. Turner Broadcasting is about to wrap up the Overwatch Open tournament on their ELeague esports program. That's a whole lot of goodwill, but we are still in the early days, and the early days can be volatile. Grego gets paid by his team and supplements his income by streaming on Twitch (the platform cuts broadcasters in on ad revenue) but he's only made a scant $8,600 from Overwatch tournaments thus far. That number will need to increase if this pro scene is going to be sustainable.

So far this year the game has already handed out three prize pools in the million dollar range.

"I know some people are concerned, people who have real-life jobs have a hard time putting their full-time into Overwatch," says Grego. "But I've always tried to play games professionally, and I follow a lot of games, and when I look at the progress Overwatch is making… I think it'll go far. I mean, it hasn't been a year and it's already doing ELeague. How long did it take it Counter-Strike to do ELeague?"

Counter-Strike launched in 2012, and so far this year the game has already handed out three prize pools in the million dollar range. It's easy to feel optimistic when Overwatch is rubbing shoulders with a property that valuable. That question is currently facing 24-year old Montrealer Nick "Exi" Dudek. Overwatch is the first game he's ever played competitively. "I was working on a degree in Computer Science at the time, and these guys asked me to be on their team, I said yes and it kinda just took off from there."

Exi had occasionally watched some pro StarCraft in the past, but had never followed esports closely. He figured his time with high-level Overwatch would be a temporary adventure, grist for some crazy stories before returning to Earth and embracing traditional employment. His outlook has changed now that he's had a taste.

"Before the whole esports thing started happening I was planning on doing a master's, but once we got sponsored I deferred my degrees for a little while. That was my plan; do this and go back to school at some point. But after doing ELeague, I'm not sure," says Exi. "I just got back and I wanna see what happens in the next little while."

Even by esports standards, the rise of competitive Overwatch has been fast. League of Legends, the biggest esport of all, was originally released in 2009, long before the industry was a twinkle in a would-be sponsor's eye outside of South Korea. Overwatch has officially been out for four months, and it's already on TV. Part of that has to do with the popularity of the product, but you can't discount how eager investors are to dump money into the industry. Just this week, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Team Dignitas, a UK-based esports org. That's all positive momentum, but it can lead to some growing pains. Evi says one of the issues with Overwatch is that it's a hard game to for a layperson to follow as a broadcast. That's not a problem when you're streaming on Twitch to a highly concentrated – and game-educated – audience, but it becomes a bigger deal when it's front-and-center on primetime TBS.

"I think it's been improving, but from talking to people who aren't into games like my family and friends – their biggest complaint is that it's hard to know what's going on," says Exi. "But I think given time Blizzard and other organizers will figure out a way to present it in a way that's more approachable and easier to understand."

Jeff Kaplan, game director of Overwatch at Blizzard, understands the challenge of making the game relevant to the untrained eye, but says that there’s “a natural excitement that is easy to follow for experienced players and new viewers alike.”

“In our earliest internal tournaments, we began to attract spectators from around the company because they would hear us cheering – they immediately became wrapped up in the scene. It was cool to be a part of,” says Kaplan. “Ultimately, our technology for broadcasting is constantly being improved, the quality of the casting talent is getting better by the day and the broadcasters are mastering how to show Overwatch in the best light. "

He's right. Those annoyances are fixable. At the end of the day, Overwatch is facing the same hopes and fears as every other game in esports. But the train has left the station. Right now these players have plenty of tournaments to win and sponsorships to earn. The future is bright, but far from assured for any individual competitor. Grego has been steadfast in his pursuit of this dream, and no matter what, says he's not going anywhere.

"Esports just made sense to me," he says. "I've always loved playing video games, I've got that competitive spirit, I just want to win. I wouldn't be happy doing anything else in my life."

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