Competition between national teams might seem like an odd choice for esports, which was born in cyberspace and has (in the West at least) cultivated communities of players who share servers, and not necessarily borders. But the allure of patriotism is hard to pass up, and for years tournament organizers have attempted to create Olympic-style competitions that would pit nations against each other. Most of these failed miserably – see, for example, the spectacular failure(s) of the World Cyber Games. Loyalty, such as it is in esports, has much more to do with brands and players than the country of origin. Still, Activision Blizzard, the world’s largest game publisher, is giving the format new live with Overwatch World Cup, the group stages of which begin this weekend.
The 2017 iteration of the Overwatch World Cup gathers thirty two teams from five continents – no African teams were invited – and separates them into eight groups of four. In a somewhat unconventional move, Blizzard is spreading the group stages of the World Cup across multiple weekends in multiple cities. This weekend, eight national teams (China, Romania, Hong Kong, Norway, France, Thailand, Denmark, and Argentina) have gathered in Shanghai for the first phase of the group stage. Next weekend, at new set of eight team will head to Sydney, then Katowice, and finally, an as-of-yet to be announced location in the United States.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Blizzard is emphasizing competition between national teams when its upcoming megaproject, Overwatch League, something I recently called the "biggest bet in the history of esports," will live or die based on the ability for it to create regional and geographic fandoms. Last year’s Overwatch World Cup, still the largest Overwatch tournament to date, took place mostly online. But by turning the Overwatch World Cup into a travelling circus, Blizzard’s underscores its desire to turn Overwatch into a truly global esport.
Despite its massive fan base, it’s no secret that Overwatch has struggled to cultivate a sustainable fanbase for its competitive scene. A lot of that is the relative lack of personalities, which are the driving force in many other esports. Right now, it’s hard to tell you what (if any) players will actually become superstars in Overwatch League. Likewise, outside of raw numbers – countries with larger player bases like South Korea and China are likely to field better teams, simply because there are more possibles – it’s hard to say much about countries have proven themselves particularly adept at Overwatch. Still, one nice thing about competition amongst nations is that geopolitics provides its own subtext for matches; already, China has crushed Hong Kong’s poor team, opening up new spaces for an old rivalry to smolder, if only symbolically.
It is worth tuning in simply because this is esports history in the making, no matter what fate befalls competitive Overwatch in the coming years. No one knows whether or not Overwatch League will be the runaway success that Blizzard (and Robert Kraft and so many other well-heeled investors) hopes it will be. But Overwatch World Cup is an early test in giving life to an old dream, pulling esports out of cyberspace and back down to earth.
How to Watch
Because this stage of the Overwatch World Cup is taking place in China, the late night times aren’t exactly friendly for North American audiences. But intrepid viewers can watch the competition live on Overwatch’s official Twitch channel. Tonight, matches will begin at 11p.m. PDT, and on Saturday, they’ll start at at 9 p.m. PDT. Otherwise, videos of matches are quickly uploaded to Overwatch’s YouTube channel. Brackets and additional information may be found at the Overwatch World Cup website.