There are certain personal goals we set for no purpose other than to challenge or enthrall ourselves, whether it be getting a promotion at work, learning a new language, or maybe even being the amateur Overwatch tank player in North America. Personally, I’m still working on that last one but with the 2019 Overwatch League season only weeks away I’m more motivated than ever to dive back into the ever-growing world of eSports.
It’s no secret that eSports has been on the rise, rather it’d be woefully ignorant at this point to suggest otherwise. However, while the conclusion is unanimous, the why behind the meteoric rise of a previously niche media platform is up for debate, with several prevailing theories dominating the conversation. By utilizing Blizzard’s newly founded Overwatch League as a model, we are afforded a more concrete understanding as to how this new age of competitive gaming came about, and what popularizes the current formula in today’s scramble for consumable entertainment. This phenomenon is equally attested to both the adoption of a more traditional sports model, with regard to league construction and presentation, as well as the accessibility of competitive gaming itself and societal appeal of competition as a whole.
Within the somewhat narrow confines of traditional sports lies an undeniably successful formula for success, both social and financial, and it is through partially emulating this that eSports has begun to garner a fraction of the success traditional sports have been capitalizing on for years. For the longest time competitive gaming has been a club sport, with everything from scouting to championships being done on an essentially amateur level both in practice and in scope. What opportunity there was for any professional career was shackled by the low amount of funding as well as the low accessibility these contests had for more casual players. This is where traditional sports structure comes into the Overwatch League (OWL), bringing with it a city-centered model focused on catering to geographic inclination rather than any arbitrary commitments to club teams. This in turn addresses the issue of funding, with cities chomping at the bit to put their name on a new franchise, paying tens of millions of dollars just to secure a spot in the inaugural season, and thousands more to secure high-ranking players, with the upper-echelon receiving six-figure pay per season in addition to the health benefits and retirement plans required by the league itself. This is not to say that venerable and respected club teams are going the way of the dodo, instead they, having been involved with the industry for quite some time, adapted alongside traditional media. As it stands currently, six of the twenty OWL teams are owned by professional eSports labels, including such legendary teams as OpTic Gaming and NRG Esports, showing that even older video game agencies recognize the benefits of a traditional model when planning for the future. The growing market has impressed many of those already involved with the traditional sports scene, with owners and investors from the NFL’s Patriots to the Premier League’s Arsenal are lining up to get a piece of the action while the league is still in its youth, and entrance fees remain in the cheap double digit millions.
The traditional city-based system also allows competitive gaming to take more of a center stage, with tournaments no longer regulated to the back-alley streaming sites all too familiar for long-time eSports fans. Instead, the OWL sits front and center, taking prime time slots on ESPN and creating around-the-clock content on Twitch for hundreds of thousands of viewers to tune into every night of the week. Cities want to thrust their new digital capital into the spotlight in any way they can, whether it be through merchandising, advertising, or simply publicizing the brand name: anything they can do in order to collect on their investment, and while this may be for financial reasons, the attention the league, and by extension the teams, receive only helps the fanbase grow and the quality of competitive gaming scene to increase. Additionally, by structuring its regular season and playoff schedule around a traditional model, the OWL avoids the weariness of constant play that both viewers and players alike dread no matter the medium. None of this is to say that the OWL and other gaming associations have perfected their practices with regard to structure and execution, as the NFL and NBA are still inspiring these budding eSports organizations to draw even more inspiration from them. For example, the 2019 Overwatch season will not only feature a shortened final stage prior to the playoffs to promote rest, but the playoffs themselves carry familiar trappings that we’ve seen in traditional sports, such as allowing more teams to promote viewership, extending the number of rounds prior to the finals, and including wildcard bids, a favorite of fans of less than stellar sports teams. Additionally, the OWL will no longer be hosting matches exclusively in LA, with teams now traveling, like their traditional counterparts, to rival cities in order to face off. These cities include Atlanta and Dallas with the Seoul Dynasty offering to hose the Guangzhou Charge for any scrimmages between the two.
In addition to familiar and accessible structure, video games alone are a public draw in their splendor and token disregard for convention or reality that’s simultaneously appealing on a mass scale. Where else on Earth could you find an astronaut who talks to plants fighting a tiger that’s also on fire? That example took two seconds to think of and it’s in Super Smash Bros., another iconic eSports franchise renowned for the mark its titles have left on the fighting game scene. During my research I had the incredible opportunity to talk to multiple players in the Overwatch League, as well as its minor league counterpart the Contenders League, and I came across something I was not expecting. In order to explain I must familiarize you with an NFL player named J.J. Watt, famous not only for being quite good but also for making headlines for his 100-million-dollar contract in 2014. Watt also made headlines because when asked how he would spend the money, he responded that he had to Google what rich people buy because he had been raised in a simple household and didn’t know what to do. People like players like that, players that remind them that these icons up on the jumbotron are people like you and me who are following their dreams. However, there’s still such a gap between Mr. Watt and myself, as you could never find us on the same list anywhere. Miraculously, this is not the case in Overwatch, as there is no elite exclusive roster full of star players. All professional players play on the same servers with the same ranking as you or me, and as such you can find me and legendary LA Gladiators Reinhardt player Chan-hyung “Fissure” Baek on the same ranking list, but only if you scroll down really far to find me. Taylor writes, “Because the border between amateurs and new rising pro talent is not as clear as in traditional sports, many regular players can also find themselves playing against emerging pros” (Taylor 189), and never before has this been more true than with Overwatch. With the addition of the Contenders league serving as a scouting mechanism for the pro scene, skilled competitive players can find themselves being picked up and drafted alongside pros after making a name for themselves online, furthering the positively enthralling notion that truly anyone can be a pro. Currently Atlanta Academy, the Contenders variant of pro team Atlanta Reign, boasts the youngest player in Overwatch, Kamden “Sugarfree” Hijada, who only recently celebrated his 14th birthday. Make no mistake, Sugarfree is a powerhouse and I’m super comfortable being a fan of someone 7 years younger than me.
Talking to pros like Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman and Alex “Ajax” Jackson helped me realize that even people at the top of the scene in competitive gaming were once just like me, excited kids crowded around a screen getting lost in a digital world, and that conversely anyone can become just like them. This is due to the fact that “pro-players co-construct their professional identity, their vocation, alongside their leisure identity as gamer” (Taylor 106), resulting in a more authentic connection between players and spectators, often times with genuine interactions between fans and pros. Anyone can throw a football in their backyard and relate to J.J. Watt, but few can say they play on the same field as him like I did with Overwatch pros. In an attempt to de-stress from finals I played some Overwatch with Dogman around a week and a half ago. Rest assured he is understandably stupid good, and I can confirm he is just a really friendly guy, and this opportunity convinced me to further that one of the biggest draws of the OWL is the accessibility both as an available medium, and the amount to which even a casual player can relate to a professional. A North American favorite and former pro Brandon “Seagull” Larned is another example of the everyman, as before all the fame and recognition he was a computer science student at Washington State, and, though he’s retired from the pro scene, to this day he remains a household name in Overwatch. If you’ve watched one game or seen one YouTube video, you know who Seagull is, and he still remains the same gamer that he was when he first started because, like Taylor writes, his successes in gaming came from casual roots and therefore his attitude is still casual, even in the competitive scene. Seagull once won a game in just over one and a half minutes, the fastest win on record for quite a while, and he did it while laughing and joking, barely breaking a sweat so to speak.
The rise of eSports is not a prediction or promise, rather it’s history, with a new era of competitive gaming having already arrived on the scene. Personally, I’m ecstatic for the growing popularization and normalization of competitive gaming and look forward to the commensurate industry growth as well. It may be strange to acclimatize to this new entertainment medium, but I trust that its mass appeal will allow appropriate interest to take root. I’m confident in the competitive gaming scene’s ability to interest even those casually invested in gaming, and that the competition and impressive skill displays by upper-echelon players will inspire others to partake even more rigorously than they otherwise would. Perhaps over time we could even develop a more eSports centric society, similar to that of South Korea, wherein players are rock stars and Starcraft is Monday Night Football. One can only hope. The Overwatch League 2019 season kicks off Thursday February 14th with a championship rematch between the Philadelphia Fusion and the defending champions the London Spitfire, with Atlanta facing off against Florida on the 15th in a battle for the Southeast. I could not be more excited. #LetItReign
Pasted below is a super dorky hype reel created by NBA team the Dallas Mavericks using themes and effects from Overwatch, a game all the players featured claim to play often. I would highly encourage watching.
- Hill, Nathan. “The Overwatch Videogame League Aims to Become the New NFL.” Wired, Conde Nast, 23 Jan. 2018, wired.com/story/overwatch-videogame-league-aims-to-become-new-nfl/.
- Taylor, T. L. Raising the Stakes: e-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming. MIT Press, 2015.
- Beacham, Greg. “The Future of esports Arrives with Overwatch League Launch.” Fox Business, Fox Business, 11 Jan. 2018, foxbusiness.com/markets/the-future-of-esports-arrives-with-overwatch-league-launch .
- Webster, Andrew. “Blizzard’s Overwatch League Will Have Its First Home Games in Atlanta, Dallas, and LA next Year.” The Verge, The Verge, 12 Dec. 2018, theverge.com/2018/12/12/18136606/blizzard-overwatch-league-owl-home-matches