Team shooter Overwatch was designed first and foremost to be fun. But its real potential can be found in what came next: A meticulous pursuit by the company behind StarCraft, Diablo, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty to use the massively popular title to redefine sports and esports for an international audience.
"First we were focused on building a great competitive game," says Blizzard president and co-founder Mike Morhaime. "I mean the team was 100 percent focused on that and once we felt confident that we had a really compelling, awesome, competitive game, then we kind of transitioned a little bit and felt like, 'OK, we need to really think about what sports look like for this game, so that we're ready out the gate to be able to support it."
That strategy involved carefully rolling out the game in steps – first a closed beta, then open beta, then full release, then a competitive mode and finally a league – and it served Blizzard, Overwatch and its fans well. Today, the Overwatch League is probably the closest thing esports has to a direct corollary to major physical sports leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB.
Building a better sport
Imagine inventing football and also literally owning the sport. That's the position in which Blizzard and a few other developers like League of Legends' Riot, finds itself. The company’s ability to not only reinvent the very core of the game on a whim but also to permanently ban players puts Blizzard in a powerful position that could just as easily destroy its game as improve it.
“I think it gives us a lot of responsibility,” says Kim Phan, Blizzard’s esports director. “We have a responsibility to make sure the game is well balanced. It's a high integrity game that can display skill and competition. Our philosophy with video games is to always iterate. I think we're always iterating and taking feedback from the community, from the players and evolving it. I love that we're able to do that with Overwatch League, as well. The fact that we are running that league gives us the ability to change rules if we need to or adjust it.”
It also gives Blizzard the ability to access data about the game and players on a level someone outside of the development team could never do.
“We have access to data that allows us to detect those who are cheating or those who are engaging in inappropriate behavior, whether it's tossing games when training, playing under another name with a hack,” Phan says. “We have systems in place to detect that. And that goes back to our responsibility to make sure that we have a game that takes action on those trying to abuse it..”
That also allows Blizzard to track abusive players and harassers in-game and discipline them. “We've done that, as well,” she says. “There's rules on how we handle each of those things, from whether you just suspend a player or ban them completely.”
To even better control the esport, Blizzard decided to launch its own league for esports Overwatch players. The company announced the league in late 2016. The Overwatch League or OWL was formed by selling team franchises, with the idea that each franchise would then hire its gamers, paying them salaries and providing them benefits. In turn, the team owners would make their money through standard revenue streams like advertising and merchandise. The teams were sold by December to an array of owners, each tied to specific geographic areas. The Overwatch League’s first season kicked off at the beginning of this year.
Overwatch didn’t start out as an esports game, but it essentially launched with that in mind. Phan says the idea of Overwatch as a potential esport came up before the game launched, shortly after internal playtesting showed just how much fun it was.
“It was very early on that Jeff Kaplan had even reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you know, we want to learn about what you've learned about with esports. Like, what has worked well, what hasn't worked well. We think that Overwatch has the potential to be great.’ And so, they all started to ask us to brainstorm ideas and to think about what was working well with each of our esports titles, what was something different that we hadn't tried. And so, those conversations started really early on, and I think kept continuing as the game was under development.”
Morhaime says that Blizzard saw an opportunity with Overwatch as an esports game that it didn’t have with previous titles.
“It was a brand new game,” he says. “We didn't have an existing community. There was no esports ecosystem that had already sort of formed and we felt like we had an opportunity to kind of get ahead of all that and to find professionally what esports looked like.”
The entire esports ecosystem for Overwatch was also shaped by the company’s years of experience with esports in games like StarCraft and Hearthstone.
“We also wanted to look at what made some of the things that make traditional sports so successful and apply that to our new league,” Morhaime says. “I have to say, Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard CEO, was incredibly supportive in really pushing us to be sort of always think bigger and trying to make this something special that could really kind of help esports get to the next level.
“We noticed there were a lot of endemic issues with the way organic esports would form that really didn't provide very much opportunity for team owners to really build a business around their teams. So we kind of want to address all of that and get ahead of the curve and do it right out of the gate with Overwatch.”
Rumors of the high cost of an Overwatch League team swirled among potential team owners, esports players and managers in other games for months before the first sale happened. The relatively high price was a divisive issue among the old-school of esports organizations. But ultimately, it seemed to help create the sort of league for which Blizzard was aiming.
“One of the key things is this idea of having city-based teams,” Phan says. “If you think about it, there really aren't any global city-based leagues that I can think of, where London plays Seoul in the regular season. That sort of doesn't happen. But in esports, there is no reason it couldn't happen with a game that has a global popularity. And by doing that and building to a place where each of these teams has a home venue, and the teams are flying around, playing home and away games, that allows the teams to build a local fanbase and do all the things that traditional sports team can do in a local venue.”
Morhaime adds that team ownership allows the company to create an environment that can incentivize and encourage partners to help the company build out the game and its league.
“If it's only us, Blizzard, Overwatch League, that are trying to promote the league, promote the players, tell the stories, and do all that stuff, I think it's incredibly difficult,” he says. “But if you enlist broadcast partners and team owners and this whole community of folks that are invested in the success of the league, each in their own way, trying to build up parts of this, then I think the league has a much better chance of succeeding.”
So first, the company set about building out a ladder system for its competitive mode. The idea was to allow anyone, no matter how good they are at Overwatch, to jump in and play and then see where their level of skill is compared to other players. The result is a game meant to be easy to play, but hard to master.
“You don't want it to be intimidating for a new player to get in and out of fun, or a casual player to get in and enjoy the game,” Morhaime says. “I'm a casual player. I'm never going to aspire to be anything but that, but I still want to have a good time playing the game.”
The idea is that if someone is good enough they will naturally go up the game rankings system and will eventually get noticed, perhaps first by an amateur team and then eventually a pro one. Blizzard made sure to weave an array of ways for players to move up the ladder, from going pro to playing in online open division competitions, to competing in regionals. “That’s really where I think the Overwatch League will look,” Phan says.
Blizzard is also working to try and look after the players, not just help to spot the best ones.
“With Overwatch League, we’re trying to build in a lot of rules that protect the players and make this a viable career for folks,” Morhaime says.
Major League Gaming
The success or failure of the Overwatch League could have a lasting impact on more than just this one game. Overwatch League is part of Major League Gaming, an organization that was started in 2002 and then purchased by Activision Blizzard in 2016. MLG not only runs the Overwatch League, but also runs a slew of other events including the MLG Pro Circuit - which features a variety of games - and the Call of Duty World League.
Morhaime says there is a lot of communication across the league and the many games of Activision Blizzard when it comes to esports. Phan adds that Call of Duty’s long history both as a game and an esport puts it in a different sort of position than Overwatch. “Call of Duty has been around for a very long time,” she says. “There's already an established community. There's already sports happening, and so you always have to be careful when you're introducing a new esports program to not at the same time disrupt what people are already used to.”
It’s possible that the work at Activision Blizzard in the world of esports could also have an impact on how the International Olympic Committee views the competitions.
While a prominent esports tournament was held in the official lead-up to the Olympic Winter Games this month, the International Olympic Committee has said it has concerns about introducing esports into the Olympics officially. Those concerns include a lack of any clear organization to represent esports as a whole.
Morhaime says Blizzard’s desire is for esports to be “more accepted as a legitimate form of competition in the world. And I think moving in that direction is inevitable.”
Phan adds that there’s still a lot that leagues don’t know regarding for what the Olympics may be looking.
“But the short answer is, I would love to see [Overwatch] in the Olympics,” she says. “But I think I would just love to see country and nation-based competition. And I think that's why we create our own programs that are nation-based because there is something really compelling about it, but I don't think we know enough to know if it makes sense to be in the Olympics.”