Many esports have come and gone and those who have lived through the experience will be able to name a period in each game’s lifespan where its competitive experience peaked. With significantly higher frequency the strongest players of that era become legends, plays become iconic and moments become larger than life. An interplay of game state, infrastructural setup, personalities, timing and tone take hold of the zeitgeist, elevating the golden age past other periods, yet rarely are we cognizant of it while it is happening.
The current constellation of massive improvements across the board in terms of the product of the Overwatch League, its expectations and also its eventual boundaries suggests that we could be entering such an era. Are we about to dive into the golden era of Overwatch as an esport?
Personalities glowing, but not light polluting
Across social media and during games, we have seen a comfort in players and broadcast talent alike to express themselves and let some of their genuine emotion slip into their craft. Embracing their inner rascal, teams and players have incorporated more and more trash talk into the conversation and the broadcast and league itself seems to have welcomed and encouraged it. While there is a mild concern that it might become to feel administered and lubberly forced down our throats like medicine on a sick child, much of it so far feels natural and revitalizing.
In a recent interview with esportsheaven, former Overwatch League desk analyst Crumbz pointed out that he felt limited in the range of opinion he was allowed to share due to the restrictions the broadcasting team had been under, saying that the felt he had to “sugarcoat” statements.
The negativity-avoiding tone of the broadcast last season had made for a sterilized experience that failed to capture and correctly point out shortcomings of teams, players or plays. Instead of showing us the shadows and calling them dark to contrast the outstanding performances of a Jjonak or Profit from the pits of Shanghai, the Overwatch League had brought more stage lights and suddenly everyone had been amazing, great, top 5 in their role. Light pollution made it hard to see the stars and not even the black hole that was the Shanghai Dragons could pull the excess radiance into its all-consuming singularity.
Admittedly one issue of Overwatch had always been that praise and criticism had been very easy to misattribute given the hectic and complex nature of Overwatch and allegedly some teams took to calling out casters and analysts, enforcing only the most bland value statements. With statistics being made available to on-air talent and production, the team has begun to be more truthful towards team performances and have started calling a spade a spade.
As a result, playful push and pull between fan bases, talent and teams emerges. Looking into the future as that approach matures with time, it seems likely that the broadcast team will be able to use this newfound freedom to create more captivating and truthful experiences we will collectively remember, especially because the contrast is so severe. The difference might not be directly noticeable but may subliminally enhance the broadcast.
The state of the game
Let’s take a hint from the broadcast team and be truthful. The current meta in GOATS has not been a pleasure to watch for most fans and neither has it been for many players who have been vocal about that fact for a while. While pundits are relatively smitten with the strategic and tactical depth of the dominant meta archetype, the community at large doesn’t share this view.
The composition as well as the general experience of playing Overwatch ranked has been hanging heavily over the mood of streamers and pro players alike. Outside the Overwatch League, stream numbers for the game are tanking and big time streamers like Seagull and xQc are looking elsewhere. Something’s gotta give.
Lately Jeff Kaplan has been talking about the possibility of an enforced two tank, two dps, two healer rule for the game. Even if this change doesn’t make it to live servers, it shows a willingness to question core design features as Blizzard acknowledges the downwards trend.
Team 4’s recent changes to the game seem to want to get rid of the composition slowly but surely and it seems increasingly likely that at least the non-playoff teams in the Overwatch League will at least try to find new solutions with their extra downtime. It’s becoming increasingly likely that were are at the crack of dawn of a meta shift.
Overwatch won’t intrinsically have to become the most enjoyable it’s ever been, it just has to be better than it currently is. The writing for changes that will pass that bar are on the wall. We can expect a perceptual shift of what it is like to play Overwatch soon.
Parity and quality of play
While the quality of play in Overwatch League is only slowly clearly surpassing Contenders play, we still have to fairly assess that the vast majority of deserving talent has made it to the league. If we assume this to be true, it’s only a matter of time until the potential of the assembled rosters delivers upon its promise.
Already we are seeing a great parity in the midfield and we can really only say with confidence who the best and who the worst teams are. This state of affairs makes for high upset potential in teams which won’t feel like flukes but power surges in team performances with deserving winners. Most of the teams have found at least one player that has shown star or even superstar-level performances.
That level of confidence in rosters may inspire a narrative of excellence, where we don’t have to second guess much longer who the best teams in the world really are. Last season, teams like the old RunAway (now Vancouver Titans) had looked extremely strong in Contenders Korea and we had to wonder just how they would match up against the strongest teams in OWL. Doubts like these will hold significantly less merit this season, especially if GOATS was to die in season 2. OWL teams have been build for meta adaptation and once that quality can be applied towards new archetypes, we will see that the trajectory of OWL teams will quickly surpass those of the remaining talent in contenders. Difference in level of play of OWL and contenders may reach an all time high by the middle of stage 2 and might only widen by season playoffs, silencing all doubt. Soon you won’t feel the faintest emotion that you could do what is shown by super stars on screen.
Credible proving grounds
This year saw some important improvements to the stage and season playoffs. For stage playoffs, the top 8 teams will be invited and will play out the stage championship over a weekend. This sets up three distinct high points in the season and is very much reminiscent of weekend tournaments that we can find in other esports. Last season, the importance had been diminished by having stage playoffs at times directly after the regular season games, and semifinals and finals back to back.
The qualification methods for the season playoffs have also been changed, qualifying the top 6 teams directly while allowing more teams to compete in a play-in tournament that will decide who gets the last two spots. This allows teams which have peaked during the end of the season to qualify, a desirable feature of the system as those teams will likely be competitive during the stage playoffs given the likelihood of the season playoffs running a similar patch as stage 4.
These changes will allow for much more rigorous and exciting playoff scenarios than last season and will make the eventual champions appear much more deserving and memorable, adding further to the perfect mixture of a golden era.
The likely end to the era – Overwatch 2020
The unfortunate reality of the human mind is that full appreciation only comes after the experience has already passed. With the announcement of the Overwatch League that teams will have 14 home games next season, a lot of changes will work directly against the aforementioned points and may kill the golden era dead.
With many travel days and jetlagged players it will be inevitable that the level of practice of Overwatch League teams will plummet in season 3. At the same time, Contenders teams in Europe and Asia will likely gain access to Overwatch League team to scrim and play ranked against, inevitably increasingly their own level of play and once again blurring the lines between the quality of an OWL team and a Contenders team.
The broadcast itself will face challenges with casters likely not travelling to every event but at least some of them setting up shop in a region and casting only it, while the desk may remain in Los Angeles. This doesn’t bode well for a quality production and we’ll have to expect a lot of technical as well as production related issues for a while. It is also likely that timezone differences will make a for a lot less unifying experience and a disconnect between regions is as likely to happen as it already does between contenders regions.
While these are admittedly just a lot of educated guesses, I can’t conceive of a reality in which at least the first couple of years under those conditions won’t pale in comparison to what we are about to witness in season 2.
Featured image courtesy of Sean Costello for Blizzard Entertainment