Banking on 'Overwatch'

Banking on 'Overwatch'

Esports pros hope that Blizzard can single-handedly resurrect the competitive arena shooter Blizzard

Esports pros hope that Blizzard can single-handedly resurrect the competitive arena shooter

Esports pros hope that Blizzard can single-handedly resurrect the competitive arena shooter

The 27 year-old veteran of the Team EnVyUs Overwatch squad, Ronnie "Talespin" DuPree, isn't really an Overwatch player so much as he is a pro-shooter player. He's made an esports career out of being able to put shots on-target in whatever new game is being promoted, wherever it's being played. Like a session musician with a checkered history of bands, his resume is packed with almost-was and never-were competitive FPS games: Firefall. Nosgoth. Even, God help him, Shootmania, a well-intended debacle of a high-skill shooter that deconstructed the genre so effectively that there was nothing left but ashes by the time it launched.

"I just wanted to play competitive FPS games," is how DuPree sums up his career.

"After Tribes: Ascend started dying down, I just really wanted to keep playing competitively, and keep going to tournaments. ShootMania started popping up, so I went to that, played in a couple big, $100k tournaments, and then that game also started dying. Then Firefall came around, so I was basically just trying to stay afloat in the competitive FPS scene."

Dupree's career isn't unusual among people who play competitive first-person shooters that aren't named Counter-Strike. Since the days of minimalist masterpiece Quake 3 and its rival Unreal Tournament, there hasn't really been an arena-style shooter that has united a community behind it. So pros went from game to game, searching for prize money at publisher-sponsored tournaments, and hoping that this one will be the one that catches on.

With Blizzard's Overwatch off to a monstrous start in terms of sales, they're hoping their ship has finally come in.

A lot of the major teams that occupy the shooter space have similar hopes. While most competitive games fizzle out, there's always the hope that you can get in on the ground floor of the next League of Legends, Hearthstone, or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Those were all games that a lot of established esports teams were slow or half-hearted about getting into, which left the door open for younger organizations to carve out little empires for themselves.

One reason that so many established teams are lining-up to get into Overwatch is because Blizzard's made such a determined effort to support the competitive community in every one of their new games.

"Anytime Blizzard launches a game, then you have to consider whether or not they're going to create new vocations in esports, because they've typically done a pretty good job of supporting games that are competitive," explains EnVyUs manager Mike "Hastr0" Rufail, himself a veteran of pro Call of Duty. "When you look at StarCraft, you look at Heroes of the Storm, even back to World of Warcraft where there's a little bit of a competitive aspect to it... Blizzard likes to support their games competitively."

That's one of the ways that Overwatch was able to develop a reputation as the successor to Valve's Team Fortress 2, another massively popular class-based shooter whose aesthetic and game design seem to have been fairly influential on Overwatch. Team Fortress 2 had a huge audience for ages, but Valve never really developed it as a competitive game, and the rulesets that pros preferred never caught on with casual fans. It was arguably a big missed opportunity for Valve, but also a cautionary tale about what happens to good games when they don't have developer and publisher support. It's little wonder that so many people in the nascent Overwatch scene have their background in Team Fortress.

On the other hand, a lot of shooter veterans are quick to point out that Overwatch doesn't really approach the classic arena-style FPS games of the late Nineties and early 2000s in terms of purity. It's been too effectively cross-bred with MOBA-style games like League of Legends. As TF2 veteran Carl "Enigma" Yangsheng pointed out in one email, "There's overlap with TF2 for sure, but at its core, TF2 is a deathmatch shooter with heavy emphasis on aim and movement, whereas Overwatch just isn't."

DuPree finds that while Overwatch has definitely made a lot of compromises to find a broader audience, there are a lot of characters who carry the DNA of older, highly demanding FPS games. As a former Tribes player, he finds Pharah's jetpack aerobatics require some old skills. Likewise, the game's unofficial mascot, the teleporting Tracer, hearkens to the fast-paced run-and-gun of classic deathmatch shooters. The difference is that these more challenging play-styles aren't the only options on the menu as they were in earlier FPS games.

If that has helped the game develop a bigger audience, as its early sales figures suggest, then that's probably enough to overcome any reservations on the part of the pro community.

"Eventually, if they don't have the players, the money is going to run out," DuPree says. "If the game has a player-base, the company has more incentive to keep running tournaments and stuff like that. When you start playing a game, [and] you notice it's just pros playing, you know something is going to fall apart soon."

Overwatch esports is still very much in an "if you build it, they will come" mode. The game is there, and the players are there. What everyone is still waiting to see is how Blizzard is going to develop the competitive landscape. Because right now, with no major events or tournaments announced, the pro Overwatch community is largely one of FPS prospectors, hoping that they have at last found a claim worth staking.