MJJM let us know what’s up.
By Michael Jack O’Brien
Tensions were high on the OWL stage, the series had gone to a fifth tiebreaker map and the reigning juggernauts, Soul Dynasty, were looking shaky, as the young guns of NY Excelsior looked to prove that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. On the last map, Dong-gyu “Mano” Kim of NYXL carried his team with masterclass tank play, securing the victory, and proving that nobody in the OWL was invincible; it was electric.
Yes, we are fully aware as to how unorthodox it is to see sports news in the paper, even if those sports involve video games. However, the action and excitement in these first three weeks presented some of the most compelling evidence that Blizzard Games, the creators of Overwatch, have cracked the code on turning their multimillion-dollar shooter franchise into a serious e-sports contender. The OWL introduces a novel concept into e-sports that by its very nature generates excitement as a spectator event. Instead of naming teams based on their parent organization, teams are named for cities and regions. From the aforementioned “New York Excelsior” previously known as the Korean team “LW Blue” to the ”Houston Outlaws”, fans will finally have a way to root for the home team as they do in traditional sports. The city-based teams of OWL, along with color coordinated in-game skins which fans can buy, add flavor to the viewing experience in a way that has previously eluded competitive Overwatch.
One of the main barriers to watching competitive Overwatch is the pace at which team fights and engagements play out. Overwatch tends to turn into a brightly colored chaotic mess of different heroes’ abilities, ultimates, and projectiles culminating into a visual experience akin to a shed of fireworks burning down. While for the teams the fights are a highly coordinated set of engagements and strategic executions, this point was oftentimes lost on the spectators. Blizzard recognized this problem, and starting with the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, introduced a brand new spectator API (Application Program Interface) which switches all abilities, ultimates, and projectiles to a single team color. For example, if the London Spitfire (blue and orange) are playing the Miami Mayhem (yellow and red), all of London’s abilities and actions will be colored blue. In addition, the OWL introduces the concept of home and away teams to e-sports. As a result, the “away” teams abilities will always be colored white. This new spectator API improves the viewer experience dramatically, painting a more coherent picture of the events during the match.
Despite these vast improvements to the viewer experience, the OWL is not without flaws, and one of the key issues for professional Overwatch is one that’s largely outside of Blizzard’s control: the players. Because the OWL is a “professional organization”, meaning that the players are paid salaries for their participation in the league, players are expected to represent the league in a professional and respectable manner. While this might not seem like a tall order, we must recognize the fact that a large majority of the professional Overwatch scene is comprised of extremely young players, with most competitors being in their early 20s. As a result, players will oftentimes find themselves in hot water for behavior that the league has deemed unbecoming of a professional. For example, Dallas Fuel player Félix “xQc” Lengyel was fined $2,000 and suspended for the remainder of OWL stage 1 for making homophobic remarks about an opponent on his livestream. XQc is known for his high octane personality and has often been accused of toxic behavior in the past. While at one point these actions would have been met with collective shrugs, Blizzard has made it clear with these high-profile suspensions that being “young and reckless” is not an excuse for poor behavior.
In the first three weeks of the OWL we have seen some of the best Overwatch play in the game’s history, and despite some teething problems, the future looks bright for this league. The beginning of feeder leagues (competitive leagues in which new players can prove themselves) like the Overwatch Open Division and Overwatch Contenders, assures that there will be a steady stream of new talent for the league. This competition is still very young, but one thing remains certain, the OWL is the new standard for professional Overwatch. With mainstream appeal, exciting teams, and even more exciting matches, we can be sure that the OWL is just getting started.