Blizzard Entertainment used to be on top of the world when it came to esports. Its iconic real-time strategy game, StarCraft, didn't dominate the esports scene so much as it was the esports scene: if you knew of any professional gamers, they were probably StarCraft players. From the original game's release in 1998 through a couple years past StarCraft II's 2010 release, the series had the biggest prize money as well as the most viewers. Consequently, Blizzard was sitting pretty. It was a different time.
These days, the mighty multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) is on top of the pile. League of Legends and Dota 2 have millions of players, and the pros play for millions of dollars. Blizzard's own ballyhooed attempt at a MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, has not performed as well as hoped. It doesn't often break into the top ten of most viewed games on Twitch.tv, and Blizzard has not disclosed the number of active players, which isn't a good sign. Blizzard, for its part, never said it was attempting to directly compete with the likes of LoL or Dota; they even called the game a "hero brawler" rather than a MOBA—a PR spin if there ever was one. But there was no subverting the obvious: developers like Riot and Valve seemed to leave Blizzard in the dust.
And then Overwatch happened. Rather than attempt to reinvent the strategy-game wheel once again, or take another stab at a MOBA, Blizzard opted to pitch its latest tent-pole game in the crowded world of first-person shooters. It's working. With seven million players and counting, there's a huge amount of fan interest, and a professional scene is already forming around the game, with multiple top esports organizations like Cloud9, Team EnvyUs, and Team Liquid creating teams.
But how big will it get? Traditionally, shooters perform moderately at the esports level, but the likes of Counter-Strike and Call of Duty don't come close to the MOBAs. Overwatch has the potential to take the first-person-shooter crown, but it also seems unlikely to be able to compete with League of Legends and Dota 2. However, Kyle "KyKy" Souder, captain of Cloud9's Overwatch team, disagrees.
"I absolutely believe it has the capacity to challenge League and Dota, and easily top Counter-Strike as the top FPS," Souder told VICE Sports. "I do not believe Overwatch is that far off from becoming a major esport."
Overwatch is a breath of fresh air within a very serious, often very repetitive genre. Simply put, it's fun, injecting bright colors and vibrant personalities into a game format that typically has featured neither. It's straight out of the MOBA playbook, as is the wide roster of characters, each with a unique set of abilities. The way these abilities work together and counter each other forms much of the title's appeal. Players often have to switch tactics, and even characters, mid-game to gain an advantage over their opponents.
"People on the outside make the mistake of thinking the game is much simpler in terms of 'pick X to counter Y,'" Souder said. "However, when mixing these characters together, everything changes, which makes you always need to think about what not only you are doing but how to better fit with what your team is doing, as well. This makes it a good esport because it is essential for the individual skill of every player to come together as a team in order to be successful."
And Overwatch is very much a teamwork-based game, in a way that's more obvious than games like Counter-Strike. There's only so much you can appreciate about watching an expert shooter in CS; if they get the headshot, they're going to get the kill. It's impressive, but once you've seen it a few times it becomes rather predictable.
"I was actually becoming depressed with [Counter-Strike] as it was just so stale after years of playing," Souder said. "All the fun in that game came from the community for me, which I wasn't enjoying for the most part."In Overwatch, there's a lot more to take into consideration, and even the most skilled player will run into trouble against a well-coordinated team. This makes it exciting to watch—and, for players like Souder, more exciting to play.
Overwatch's emphasis on cooperation is highlighted even further by the way Blizzard has built the game; there's not even a leaderboard you can check to see how you stack up against other players. Conversely, if you're having a bad game it's tough for other people to notice. Plus, many of the characters have abilities that can make you feel like you're contributing to the overall effort, even if you couldn't hit the side of a barn with your gun.
This focus has attracted a certain segment of players from other games. "I believe the people that are the peak of a competitive scene in a game like League of Legends or Counter-Strike are not going to switch anytime soon," Souder said. "However, it seems like a good amount of players that are not at the absolute top have already switched, and more will probably switch as the game takes off into a more established state."
This does raise an interesting question of whether the current crop of Overwatch players are those who simply weren't good enough to make it at the top level of other games. To that end, it remains to be seen whether they will flourish in a new environment, or whether top-level talent needs to be brought in to keep Overwatch driving forward. According to Souder, there are currently around one or two Overwatch tournaments a month, with prize pools ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. It's a decent, if modest, start, but if these figures increase—and with a gaming behemoth like Blizzard behind it, you can expect them to—higher-level talent will surely follow.
Yet from a pro player's perspective, Overwatch still requires a handful of changes before it can really hit the big time. "The main components standing in the way at the moment are a reliable replay system, pause function, and a proper spectator system with a functioning UI that can better connect the viewers to whatever game mode ends up being the norm," Souder said. Replays are not only handy for a spectator; they're also essential if pro teams want to learn from their mistakes and find out how other teams play. Pausing is always important for competitive video games, which are played in complicated technical environments where things can and do go wrong.
Given how quickly it's built an audience, Overwatch is almost certainly the next big esport. While we won't have a good indication of Overwatch's longevity for a few more months once the tournament scene is fully established, a competitive shooter hasn't exploded like this in a long time. With good post-launch support from Blizzard, fans will stick with the game for years to come. The question now is how big can it get. It's up to the players to provide the entertainment.