The Watchability of Overwatch

David Kerner

Having ploughed through many hours of Overwatch during the beta and now at launch, I can confidently say it is an incredibly fun and exciting arena shooter. Blizzard managed to make each of the twenty-one heroes both unique and playable. I was worried it would be little more than a polished Team Fortress 2 and while the similarities are clear, there is certainly more depth. This article is not a review of its playability (buy the game), but of its watchability.

The explosive rise of eSports over the past few years, which is intrinsically linked to the concurrent evolution of streaming services such as Twitch, has become an increasingly important way for game developers to acquire new players and sustain interest. Additionally, the general (and continuing) shift of base gamer demographics away from primarily male consumers has expanded potential growth. Overwatch is designed as a casual first-person shooter that already has significant sales and active players. Having seen a few professional matches, I am unconvinced of its potential for competitive league play, or heavy viewership on streaming services.

A single thread ties together the top four most popular games on Twitch: legibility. A casual player or even a non-player of each game can generally understand what is going on at any given point. Though League of Legends and (to a lesser extent) Dota 2 are both MOBAs with massive character rosters and item combinations, the benefits of a top down playfield is immense. Viewers can for the most part see every major battle as it happens, and with skillful commentary appreciate tactical nuance. I have only played LoL a bit (Vel-Koz for life!) yet even my basic understanding lets me enjoy viewing tournament play greatly.

Hearthstone is a sweet collectible card game mostly stripped of complicated rules and interactions that can prevent prospective players from trying other card games such as Magic the Gathering. Every card basically does what it says, and the almost complete lack of interaction between players on their turns makes things easy to follow. You play a card, it resolves, you attack an opponent, it happens.

You will notice that none of the three prior games I mentioned are first-person shooters, which brings me to Counter Strike: Global Offensive. Why is CS:GO the top FPS in both viewership and player base, even against top tier franchises such as Halo and Call of Duty? There are of course plenty of reasons, but I will focus on the gulf of difference in viewing potential. Whereas watching competitive Halo or CoD feels like a hectic firefight with no strategy, CS:GO feels like chess. Permadeath between rounds, predictably of weapons, slow player movement, and map design coalesce for an eminently enjoyable viewer experience. Permadeath is key, as in tournament play the camera can add tension by focusing on an ever smaller cast of characters. With the excellent and continually improving caster/spectatemode, a viewer can quickly understand where players are and what they are doing. Slowness of movement and no sprinting or boost jumps means players’ movements can be more predictable. CS:GO map design favors distinct choke points that force teams to generally focus on certain areas. This allows set-piece strategies and traps which are lacking in Halo or CoD. All in all CS:GO is the gold standard of competitive FPS; can Overwatch compete?

Overwatch lacks every single component I mentioned above, and I fail to see what spectate mode Blizzard can craft which can display all the relevant information in a cohesive manner. I have no doubt a pro scene will develop, but the inability to show viewers events that are happening across wide open maps between constantly respawning heroes seems insurmountable. Many heroes can fly, jump huge distances, or literally blink around. Some heroes can spawn turrets, others have ultimates which wipe the whole enemy team. Dota 2 and LoL negate similar complications by being top down and are therefore far easier to follow. The pro matches I saw were confusing with near non-existent spectator tools. I hope against hope I am wrong in this conclusion, as the diversity Overwatch allows in playstyle and team composition will surely be fascinating at a professional level.