Overwatch League might finally be the thing that turns me on to esports

Blizzard's made some smart choices in debuting its first pro season.

Despite having spent a significant amount of my life playing video games and following professional sports, I’ve never cared about esports. But Blizzard thinks its official Overwatch League can change my mind.

The Overwatch League started its first season last week, and Blizzard’s main selling points for the league are the elements of traditional sports leagues that they have incorporated. These elements include city-specific teams, like the Seoul Dynasty, and creating a structure with a regular season that leads into playoffs. Blizzard is hoping that by removing the specific structural differences between esports and traditional sports that the Overwatch League can attract all Overwatch fans, regardless of their interest level.

For me, esports have never really appealed because the games I like most have never built up significant esports scene -- or the coverage for it has never been enough to build up my interest in a player or team. I understand that it’s not always necessary to play a game to enjoy watching an esports competition based on it, but I’ve always found this to be a barrier for me when viewing events like the International: I don’t play Dota 2, so the finer points of what I’m seeing are lost on me. Likewise, whenever I try to follow a tournament or watch a match, I find that the majority of coverage fails at that essential narrative-building that traditional sports commentating does so well, to create exciting rivalries and player stories, or contextualize the importance of a particular match.

In theory, Overwatch League addresses these two main issues. I have been playing Overwatch regularly since the game launched, so I’m already invested, and the structural decisions of the league with aspects like playoffs and teams playing for specific cities can easily create exciting underdog stories and rivalries. For these reasons, I decided that I would watch all three of the Overwatch League’s first day matches and see if this was finally the esports league for me.

Shock v Valiant, Dragons v Gladiators, Fuel v Dynasty

Overwatch League’s first match of the season was between the San Francisco Shock and the Los Angeles Valiant. From what I had read and what the commentators were saying, the Valiant seemed like heavy favorites, but the Shock were not expected to go down quickly. The way the match played out seemed to fall in line with these predictions, as even though the Valiant won all four games, the Shock managed to keep each of them close.

I will say that overall I felt a little disappointed by this match. Most likely this was because while the overall scores were close, each round lacked tension.

The next match pitted the Shanghai Dragons against the Los Angeles Gladiators. This match seemed like it was going to be much more lopsided: the commentators talked about how the Dragons had been very disappointing in the preseason, while the Gladiators looked like the fourth or fifth best team in the league. Similar to the first match-up, the games played out as predicted, with the Gladiators looking quite dominant on defense.

Theoretically, this should have been a less exciting match compared to the first as it was not as competitive, but the competence of the Gladiators and in particular Shaz as Zenyatta managed to carry the match.

The final match of the day was between the Dallas Fuel and the Seoul Dynasty, and it quickly became apparent that this was the most significant match-up of the day. Before the match, the commentators discussed a rivalry between the two teams that predated the Overwatch League. The Fuel and Dynasty had been two of the best teams in Korea’s Overwatch APEX league under different names. Since joining the league, both sides had also brought in new players to make up for some of their previous weaknesses.

Luckily, the match did not disappoint. The Fuel snagged an exciting win the first game, the first time that day that the underdog managed to take a victory. The Dynasty would go on to win the next three games, but the second and fourth games of the match were by far the most exciting of the entire day. They were incredibly close and both teams’ players put on impressive displays of skill. FLETA for the Dynasty’s play as Widowmaker was by far the most impressive of the day.

Looking Ahead

In general, I think that the first day of the Overwatch League was a successful one, especially in terms of the commentators and the overall production quality. The commentators were particularly adept at providing comments that helped to provide context to playstyles, match-ups, and why individual strategies were or were not working. The overall production was also fantastic, from the mid-match replays that highlighted exciting moments to the graphics that would display individual stats. These replays and stats would flow very well not only with what the commentators were saying but also with the pace of the matches as well.

My biggest complaint about the matches I watched, however, has to be that they often felt too long. This issue was particularly apparent during the fourth games of the first two matches: the winning teams had already emerged by the third game, but the losing teams could still fight to a tie. Having a tiebreaker is essential in these situations, but I do feel like all tension was lost as a result. The league should think about switching to another format to keep match-ups to a tighter length, make every game meaningful, and allow them to use a more exciting stat for tiebreakers such as total points won over a season.

I think that it’s fair to say that the Overwatch League was more successful than others in engaging me in esports, but I’m not sure for how long. During every match, there was at least one moment where I thought about how I would prefer just to be playing Overwatch rather than watching it. In the League’s current state, without an exciting player to carry them along, matches just feel like they drag on for far too long. I will admit, though -- the Fuel and Dynasty match has me considering tuning in for more of the big match-ups of the season. Overwatch League’s debut may not have grabbed me in the way I was hoping it would, but the fact that I am willing to watch more has me hopeful.