Overwatch has, since its launch, been weighed and measured as a potential eSports title. Even the initial announcement cinematic—depicting an epic battle between two small teams in a museum—ignited the imaginations of players. The game largely holds true to the cinematic trailers, delivering on the promise of small-scale battles between specialized classes. The fan base has eagerly accepted Blizzard’s Overwatch and the media machine has continued to pump out cinematics, merchandise, YouTube tie-ins, and publicity stunts.
While there’s no question Blizzard has created a fantastic casual title that has roped in a passionate fan base, the question is whether it will be successful as a competitive title. The eSports crowd can be a lot more fickle than casual players, with higher standards for gameplay and balance. The spectator experience must also be considered, which adds another layer of complexity. Blizzard is investing money into the eSports scene in an attempt to replicate the success of previous titles, including their own Starcraft. While there are still questions as to whether Blizzard will be able to succeed in the competitive circuit, one of the most recent major patches has helped define Overwatch’s competitive gameplay and create less of a binary between the pros and the casual players. Competitive mode isn’t a cure-all to Blizzard’s problems, but it is a serious help. Here’s why.
Competitive vs Casual
Overwatch is a 6v6 shooter with 21 individual classes (with more to come, one of which was recently teased with a sniper rifle schematic with commentary by existing characters Torbjörn and Mercy). A layman might struggle to understand why there’s such a large gap between competitive and casual play. There are a few answers:
Team comps tend to be far more focused, with certain characters falling completely out of favour. Mei and Zenyatta can dominate a casual group, but the characters are edged out of competitive quickly. Out of the two snipers, Widowmaker is a strong choice while Hanzo’s chokepoint control doesn’t measure up.
Characters’ strengths and weaknesses become far more pronounced at high levels of play. Your level 34 game might fall ruin to a well timed D.Va mech suicide bomb, but pros know exactly how to scatter to avoid the blast radius. Widowmaker’s nerf to bodyshot damage hurts a player who can’t line a shot up well, but a pro that consistently hits headshots isn’t bothered.
The stakes are higher. In casual play, who cares if you stack six Winstons and inform the enemy team that you’re about to go bananas? This is an obvious answer, but it matters.
Closing the Gap
Competitive play has shifted the play experience to create more of a, well, competitive environment that actually helps players adapt to watching a pro game and understand what’s going on. Casual play is still a great way to mess around, and while you’re still going to have games with unnecessary stacking of snipers, it’s a great way for people to just have fun.
Meanwhile, competitive players are stepping up their game. The two healer, two tank, defense, offense strategy would be completely unheard of in casual. Players are more adaptable, switching their picks. Players are focused on learning and improving. Granted, there are still some salty folk who are more interested in shouting into their headset and insisting that they would carry if not for this terrible team than actually playing the game. While competitive play introduces an element of hostility that was less obvious in casual play, it also brings people who are more focused on winning, improving, and climbing.
Why This Matters for Pro Play
The truth is, the people who are working on climbing the ranks aren’t planning on going pro. However, their presence in competitive play does make it more likely that they’ll be able to understand and enjoy a pro Overwatch match. If you’ve ever watched a game that you don’t really understand, it’s completely miserable. Why switch off Pharah to Tracer? Why is he playing Roadhog and not Reinhart? When these switches and dynamics are meaningless, so too is the game they play out in.
Consider that when you watch a game of League of Legends; the casters and analysts have put so much effort into making sure the game is accessible. Every line is jam packed with info, and they try to talk about the matchups in lanes, the champion counters, and the players. Overwatch doesn’t have this level of complexity, but it’s a young scene, and casters are still catching up. The more the players understand from their own experiences, the less they have to rely on the broadcast team to keep them in the loop.
Competitive play does not solve the problems that currently exist for the pro scene. Overwatch doesn’t have a spectator mode that’s easy to digest, and the quick swaps between 12 different perspectives can be overwhelming. The game is still very much a work in progress, and it’ll be interesting to see how Blizzard works to make the game accessible. This includes a bevy of potential changes: balance buffs and nerfs to underutilized characters like Zenyatta and D.Va and powerhouses like Zarya, spectator cameras and ways to absorb more of the action, broadcast teams that can keep everyone up to date on the action, and comprehensive post-game notes on damage, healing, and rankings are all ways that Blizzard can make Overwatch more accessible competitively.
The world loves Overwatch. That much is clear from the fan reaction to cinematics, character designs, and more. The hype train is no doubt going to continue running as the new character is teased and released and the lore behind the game’s world is expanded upon. However, if Blizzard wants this game to thrive as an eSport, they have a lot of work to do. Luckily, they seem ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. The competitive update is just the first step in this journey. I can’t wait to see what comes next.