All in all a sweet taste test for the 2021 season.

20:00, 19 Apr 2021

The community waited for a whopping seven months for the Overwatch League to kick off after the season final on October 10th, 2020. While it’s arguable if the wait was worth it, the opening weekend of season 4 was a renowned success, drawing larger viewership and engagement than generally expected. Whether or not Overwatch League can carry this momentum throughout the season remains to be seen, but a solid foundation was laid that feels a lot more closely aligned with the community it’s serving.

Of course, not everything went according to plan. We selected the things we liked and didn’t like during the opening weekend of Overwatch League season 4. 

+++ A major production step-up +++

Finally turning towards their core fan base while listening to their endemic voices, the Overwatch League has successfully implemented key features that improved the experience tremendously.

The quality of the stream itself, even on resolutions available last season, looked much crisper, with limited moments of cluttered pixelation destroying any chance of understanding what’s going on. The new clips feature decreased the barrier for fans to share their favourite moments with their friends or community, giving us a higher amount of special and otherwise easily missed moments.

While we can discuss how kosher it is to lure viewers into your stream and mix them up with engaged viewers, the reality is that most esports have some external carrot to draw in an entire audience. Needless to say that some of those initially only coming to hunt and gather will find that there’s more to the experience and convert into faithful fans. It appears that YouTube and Blizzard Entertainment have finally managed to have a functional integration for this crowd, helping the appearance of the esport.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the much-improved experience that the broadcast talent brought to the table, providing a fresh take on a familiar vibe. 

--- The experience of watching together ---

There are few experiences more annoying than being spoiled of the amazing play you’re about to witness because someone in your group you are watching with online is a few seconds ahead of you. Similarly, holding back the emotion to not spoil your friends feels equally frustrating.

Even if you manage to sync your streams via speeding up the player to two times the speed, frequent stuttering and buffering will eventually desynch your group once more, pushing you into the same annoying situation as before.

In a way, it feels very 2005 to be in this situation, without the ability to have a streamlined experience that allows for synchronised viewing out of the box.

+++ Really good close matches +++

The most essential part of any esport is that the action and play shown on broadcast is of high quality, and in this regard, the Overwatch League could’ve hardly asked more of its teams. Between high-level matches, close calls, and exciting upsets, the teams put on a show. As a result, only three 3-0 blowouts over the entire weekend took place, when the same scoreline used to be almost half of all matches in season 3. While too early to proclaim universal parity between all mid and upper table teams, especially until the meta settles, the theory that this might be the most competitive season yet is at least got some meat to the bone.

The Outlaws, against the Shock especially, was a barn burner and has likely already booked its place as one of the best matches of the season. Having everything you want out of a series, from individual skill to an enticing storyline and a thrilling end, the match delivered all the way. Even the matches that did end up in a blowout like Chengdu’s victory over Shanghai provided solid entertainment in regards to the team’s audacious history and the expectations for Shanghai’s season.

--- The “forgetability” of the meta decisions --- 

If you like meta diversity, be my guest. Personally, it does little for my enjoyment of the match, and the coin flippy nature of the first fights on especially control sub maps is frustrating to follow. Moreover, without taking rigorous notes, I find that I have little recollection of the hero choice specific solutions teams found that I could take into the next week to see where improvements were made and form a coherent story for me to enjoy.

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However, there is some reason to believe that this won’t be a regular issue with experts such as Assistant Coach Christopher “ChrisTFer” Graham and Alber “yeHHH” Yeh suggesting that a more structured meta is likely to form towards the end of the tournament cycle.

+++ Player cams and seeing how much they care +++

But the rules of the game give them a pass; in fact, one could argue that it’s only during competitions that we are socially permitted to try our absolute hardest, unlock our desire to win, and be at our most intense. No wonder we like it so much.

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- Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson

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Player cams have been a much-needed injection of a general and intuitive understanding of how much it means to players to be victorious on the server. Parasocially, the meaning of the action is communicated and transported to the viewerbase, giving them an idea of what it’s like to be a professional player in high-pressure situations but also giving a new connotation to the general experience of a video game. Despite the logistic difficulties of getting everyone set up with a camera kit due to players playing from their home facility instead of one stage, the Overwatch League realised the value of the feature and pushed it through.

The implementation of the UI is relatively non-intrusive and always active for the Western broadcast, allowing fans to catch each moment indiscriminately for the player in focus. Considering that the broadcast wants to ideally find the most impactful player at that very moment to observe, it also shows the reaction of those who are currently most interesting, adding further to the experience. It’s a feature that many esports have found to add to the experience of their broadcast, and it was high time that an implementation was also available for the Overwatch League.

--- APAC production --- 

While the competition in APAC was a delight to follow, the stream experience really wasn’t. Constant stuttering made large and important parts of the matches unwatchable. While technical difficulties are expected, quicker workarounds would’ve been appreciated. As it was, fans who wanted to catch these matches in order to really comprehend the action will have to turn to the replay viewer in order to get an idea of how some of those matches were won.

Moreover, the lack of player cameras does make a world of difference and once spoiled with the feature on the Western broadcast, the contrast to not having them became all too apparent. Having the Eastern broadcast be the neglected step-child is hopefully not a permanent development. 

+++ Loosening the leash on bantz +++

Already in the first week, professionals around the Overwatch League have cashed in on some developed storylines or interactions in a humourous way, nagging the other side of the table with light-hearted but well-pointed wit. Competition as a playful simulation of battle can only gain from personalities clashing in a fun way after which everyone can go on with their day without being all too hurt by the opposition.

One got the impression that over the last three seasons, players and staff had been put on a tight leash about their social media interactions with fines punishing oversteps. Not only does it appear that the Overwatch League has eased up on those rules of engagement, but professionals have also developed a better understanding of where the line is. Moreover, past conflicts have also provided more of a reason to hold a real grudge for some of those parties involved, giving a real feeling of revenge and even justice when, for instance, a player gets to punch up against their former organisation.

Here is a selection of our favourite interactions this weekend.

Crimzo vs the World

Philadelphia Fusion clap-back against COO of Seoul Dynasty, Arnold Hur

Junkbuck's heel turn against his former head coach Crusty

Slime vs Titans

Images via Blizzard Entertainment

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