Overwatch League and the Trial of "Casual" Audiences

Published: January 30, 2018 1:00 PM /


Overwatch League Preseason

From a conceptual standpoint, the Overwatch League is a natural and presumably inevitable progression of Esports as it, like the general direction that gaming is heading in, represents the normalization of something that was once far more "exclusive." Thanks to some less than subtle tactics like slapping an Overwatch League section onto the game's main menu and handing out a free skin to represent a team of your choice, Blizzard more or less guaranteed that the game's 35 million person playerbase will be aware of the League even if they have absolutely no interest in watching it ,and to Blizzard's credit, this aggressive push is working out rather well.

Within a week, the Overwatch League's Twitch channel registered some 10 million total views, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 concurrent viewers per live match. Replays of full matches have a far greater variance in viewcounts, but a fair number of people tune in to watch them regardless. Considering that half of the League's matches take place on weekday nights (Wednesday and Thursday in the United States), this is a rather impressive feat for something that would've likely been considered a niche attraction several years ago. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the very nature of Overwatch makes it far more inviting than other prominent Esports games.


Regardless, one still has to question whether or not the Overwatch League will be able to retain its audience as the days go by, as overconfidence is but a flimsy shield. With the conclusion of the League's third week of matches, viewers more or less know what to expect from the 12 teams, and there are still five more months of matches to go before the playoffs. Five months of watching the same 12 teams, five months of watching people duke it out on more or less the same maps, five long months of seeing the usual plays involving dive compositions and compositions that may or may not counter dive depending on the map unless some drastic and unforeseen balancing change slows the game down considerably. There is an argument to be made about the League being used as a tutorial of sorts for ambitious players (and as a demonstration of how Overwatch's Hero balancing might need some fine tuning), but five months is still a very long time given how quickly people can move on to the next big thing.

overwatch league san francisco shock vs. london spitfire blizzard arena
If nothing else, the live audience always appear to be entertained

For die hard fans of Overwatch and the League, this isn't that big of a deal as no one is forcing anyone to watch every single match anyways, but for more casual viewers, it's possible that the whole ordeal might seem rather overwhelming. After all, why watch a bunch of people who you've never heard of representing a city that you likely have no connection with play Overwatch at a level that most people can't possibly hope to achieve when you can just play the game yourself by simply turning on your computer or console? Physical sports have (sometimes literal) barriers preventing people from playing whenever they like, thus it stands to reason that one can fulfill an itch to play a certain sport by watching a game of said sport, but Overwatch doesn't share this limitation. Plus there's not really any risk of some new sport coming along and stealing any existing sport's thunder. The League is fighting with thousands of other forms of entertainment for your attention, and it is not unique enough to be irreplaceable in this day and age.


It would be one thing if the length of the season was the only potential area of concern regarding the Overwatch League's viewership, but there are other factors at play that can sap away at Blizzard's grand experiment; the most notable of which is going to be the obvious skill gap between certain teams. The Shanghai Dragons for example have lost every single match so far, and while there has to be a worst of something in any competitive setting, it was rather painful to watch their first two weeks; not only were the Dragons losing horribly, but their players appeared to be exhausted, demoralized, and on at least one occasion, on the verge of tears. Blizzard obviously has little to no control over how good the teams are at this point, but if the average viewer cannot be convinced to stay glued to the screen because half the matches may as well be predetermined routs, then that may very well be the League's Achilles Heel.

Overwatch League Merch
On the bright side, it is now 100% easier to start a fight/beautiful friendship with random people based on your choice of clothing, just like a real sport!

Seeing as how Overwatch is a video game, it is also entirely possible for one balancing update to give rise to some relatively boring optimal team composition that is not entertaining to watch in any way whatsoever. You can see this theory creep into reality right now. Mercy is in almost every single match and there is an inescapable feeling of frustration every single time an impressive play is completely negated by a couple of impossible-to-prevent Resurrections, to say nothing of how little action she sees if played correctly. Junkrat creates a similarly eye rolling viewing experience thanks to his ability to stop an entire push with relative ease, and that's not going into how some people can barely tolerate playing against Junkrat on a normal basis. As much as people love to complain about watching every League match from a Genji, Tracer, or Widowmaker's point of view, the fact of the matter is that these Heroes are easily perceived as some of the most skill intensive, and thus most entertaining, Heroes to watch.


Fortunately enough, the Overwatch League has so far proven to be an enjoyable experience thus far. It may not be for everyone, but it has undoubtedly done its job of bringing Esports to the masses, so to speak. There have been a couple of rough days where there was nothing but one-sided stomps scheduled, but there have also been some amazing, action-filled, and exciting matches. Nothing in Overwatch history will likely ever compare to the tension of the first match between Seoul Dynasty and New York Excelsior where both teams traded map for map until Excelsior finally and decisively crushed Dynasty on Lijiang Tower, or the so called Battle of Los Angeles where the Valiant and Gladiators brawled it out to the end, neither side clearly wanting to be seen as the inferior team from L.A. There have even been a couple of reverse sweeps and surprise victories by underdog teams, proving that every single team in the League is going to put up a fight even if the odds are stacked against them. The Overwatch League has great potential, that much is unquestionable, and it could be the vanguard of an interesting cultural shift, but there is still a long ways to go before it can wrestle complete attention away from an unending legion of other gaming-related entertainment options.

What are your thoughts on the Overwatch League so far?

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May 24, 2016 (Calendar)
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