Before I begin, I want to preface this by saying that the lawsuit going on involving Blizzard Entertainment and the discrimination against its women employees needs more attention, and more actions must be taken moving forward.
For those unaware, Blizzard, according to the suit by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, discriminated against these employees “in terms and conditions of employment, including compensation, assignment, promotion, termination, constructive discharge, and retaliation.” Among the various complaints is that the women at Blizzard were subject to sexual harassment in what was called a “frat boy” culture.
This is all terrible, terrible stuff, and Blizzard needs to be held accountable.
I open with this because it is important to know what Blizzard is as the company behind the first-person shooter game “Overwatch,” which, as I am sure you have decoded, is the game at the center of the Overwatch League. And the Overwatch League has not just become my favorite esport, but one of my favorite sports to follow overall.
Overwatch League is the closest I have felt to watching what others would call real sports, and I think it can be a gateway for others looking to get interested in esports.
For starters, let me briefly explain Overwatch:
The game is a 6 vs. 6 matchup where you work as a team to win maps, which are done by either winning a point in the middle, moving a payload, capturing two objectives or a hybrid of capturing one objective and then moving a payload.
The six-man team consists of two tanks, two damage players and two supports.
Those six spots can be filled by 32 total heroes that each bring a variety of different abilities to the table.
That may not sound like the most original concept in the world, but it is the execution of the game that makes it likely my favorite video game of all-time. The character designs, the visual concepts and the sound design all come together to make a game that, mostly, feels seamless to play and is beautiful to watch.
Here are some stills from last week’s Overwatch League games, which I think can be seen as art even if you have no idea what you are looking at.
But onto the League, and to why this can be the common man’s esport in my eyes. There are 20 teams, each of which take on the typical professional sports team facade of having a location + name (example: Los Angeles Gladiators). Where it differs is that there are teams listed in countries like France, China and South Korea.
Because of COVID-19 which has, to this point, taken away the league’s former idea of having home teams for games spanning across the globe, there are 12 teams competing in the North American region and eight in the Asian-Pacific region. This is done because the servers for Overwatch, or any game, do not work well when trying to play cross-continent, so they have to regionalize the matchups.
Logistics aside, the 20 teams – and 20 mostly excellent logos and color schemes, I will add – allow you to easily pick a team to care about, which makes most sports that much more enjoyable.
For me, I picked the Houston Outlaws early on because of their logo, color scheme and prior connection to OpTic Gaming, which I had familiarity with. Doing so has made these last three seasons of suffering worth it now that they have become one of the better teams in North America.
Like my fellow co-worker and Substack newsletter freak Patrick Mayhorn did with G5 college football teams, I can offer assistance on which team to root for if anyone wanted to shoot me a DM on Twitter or leave a comment below. I can also answer any and all questions you may have on Overwatch League, because the end-of-season playoffs are coming soon so it is a great time to hop on board.
For me, though, it is watching the game itself that puts Overwatch League over the edge. More than any other esport I have watched, Overwatch truly, truly feels like a team sport, one where you need every single part of your six-man team to contribute if you want to have a chance. Because of this, there is so much coordination required to succeed, and you get to see some brilliant play calls that are either designed by coaches or done by the players on the fly.
Let me walk you through this one, something clearly drawn up prior to the start, for example. The Gladiators are on offense for this map against the London Spitfire. Five of Los Angeles’ six players leave the starting area and circle around the map to the far side, while the sixth player, Surefour, sits in spawn on a harmless character London wouldn’t think about (you can see what everyone is playing on your in-game player menu).
Surefour sits there and waits for London to get completely out of position before switching to Widowmaker, a long-distance sniper hero that can punish players from long distance. The Spitfire get caught flat-footed and have no chance, and the Gladiators get the first point.
And, for as team first as the game is, there is plenty of room for star power to shine through on each type of role. The damage dealers are like the skill position players in football: the most flashy, and often the easiest to recognize when they are good. Here is Philadelphia Fusion’s Eqo on the Genji, a hero with a powerful ability called the dragonblade that allows him to slash and dice through teams.
In this scenario, the Fusion and the Paris Eternal are in a tournament final that goes to a Best of 7. This video is on Map 7, and the Fusion need to push the payload to the checkpoint a few feet away to keep their hopes alive. But Paris starts the fight strong and seems like a lock to hold on and win, until Eqo, well, kills everyone. It might be hard to follow on the first time viewing, but they show a replay at the end to show how insane of a play this truly was.
Tanks and supports can dominate in different, but equal ways. Ana is a support hero that is one of the most entertaining to watch because of her sleep dart ability that can, as you guess, sleep players until those players get hit with any sort of damage. In this clip, former MVP JJonak of the New York Excelsior is the Ana, and he connects with Lip on the Shanghai Dragons.
Why this clip is so special is because Lip is on the character Sombra and is about to use his EMP, which shuts down the abilities of every New York player around it. The EMP is a devastating ability, and Lip can use the invisibility that Sombra possesses to get in the middle of the team and ruin the Excelsior’s plans.
But, Lip has to get out of invisibility for a split second to use that ability, and in that split second, JJonak has the reflexes to get the sleep dart out, stop the EMP, and save his team in the fight. Blink and you’ll miss it, but this is one of the most insane plays the league has had.
And finally, this clip here from Jjanggu on the Outlaws (my favorite team, if you can’t tell). This game against the San Francisco Shock is one of the best of the year. Houston went up 2-0, the Shock came back to tie it at 2, and it all came down to a final map on Havana, which is shown here. The Outlaws only pushed the cart to the yellow arrow that you can see at the top center of the screen, and the Shock basically have to win one more fight and the game is theirs.
Jjanggu realizes he has the opportunity to sneak behind the Shock and use Reinhardt’s earth shatter – an ability that knocks people onto the ground unless blocked. It works, and it wins Houston the game against the two-time defending champions.
Now, I have a feeling that some of you watch these clips and still get a little lost, which is extremely understandable. There is a lot going on in the middle of these fights, and it is easier to understand if you have played the game before. But, at its core, I think everyone could watch this and see the appeal of a team-centric game with gorgeous visuals and, in my opinion, some of the best commentators in any sport. Most of them are over the top just the right amount to get you amped up when a big play happens, but also have enough of an understanding of the game to explain things that may have not seemed obvious on an initial viewing.
For as much as I think the Overwatch League is great and should exist forever, there are certainly concerns about how long it may last. The league had lofty goals for its third season, which, as previously mentioned, was hoping for home games across the globe, but COVID has stifled that entirely. This new Blizzard lawsuit has also lost major sponsors for the league, which is lost money that I cannot imagine helps business in the long run.
And, even if I would love to completely separate the terrible things going on at Blizzard from the Overwatch League, which is run by its own separate people who are not involved in this, I do understand that it all goes back to the big company in some form or another. It is tough to fully love this esport I have adored for almost four seasons now considering the big guy at the top that is running it. I know that most things turn bad the higher you get, but that is not an excuse to look away and ignore it.
It is a terrible ending for me to say all these points about why you should watch Overwatch League just for me to flip at the last second, but I also completely understand why someone would not want to start watching something under the Blizzard umbrella at this time.
I do hope that the league can survive for the time being. There is also a potential bright star on the horizon in the form of Overwatch 2, which will look similar to the game now with some tweaks, both in design and in structure. But that game keeps getting pushed back, and it could be held out until 2023 or beyond.
In the end, I hope some of you do watch and find enjoyment in this thing I have loved. But I also fully understand if you don’t.
But, above all else, support the Blizzard workers speaking out and demand more from this company that created a beautiful thing, but has rotted from the inside and needs to change for the better.
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