Into The Metaverse - The Train That Overwatch Might Be Missing
Esports has come a long way since we downloaded replays of top players to make sense of the action for ourselves. Waaagh!TV, a client that allowed a synchronised broadcast of a Warcraft III replay with a WinAMP stream, through which a shoutcaster would be commentating the action while users could follow in client once used to be a giant step towards esports fandom. Experiments with television were tried in the mid and late 2000s, with the Championship Gaming Series running for two seasons on different TV networks, but ultimately failed for various reasons.
Once streaming video became both technically possible and economically feasible, we unified the experience into one video stream. Xfire, a chatting client targeted at gamers, gave a select few World of Warcraft players, like famed gnome mage Affix, the opportunity to stream for a couple of hours, pointing out that the server cost was immense, a reality that seems far away from where we are with streaming platforms like Amazon’s Twitch.tv. Major League Gaming around 2010 streamed their MLG tournaments trying to install a pay per view model, allowing buyers of the ticket to upgrade their stream quality from 360p to 480p.
With the streaming platform competition picking up between own3d.tv and Twitch as the front runners at the time, things moved forward quickly, and esports grew alongside the technology rapidly. Investment flocked into the sector, giving innovators the resources to play with. General gaming became a culturally significant pastime, and we got to develop the tournament products, going bigger and better, allowing professionals to have dedicated careers in broadcasting and production. The mainstream has taken notice, and crossovers between music and esports can be seen on various occasions, some more successful than others as the Overwatch League fan would know. Some were not the best - DJ Khaled. Others felt more like organic engagement based on artists having expressed a genuine interest - Zed.
Developers like Riot Games have been pushing the envelope of live entertainment and broadcasting during their League of Legends World Finals, with Emmy award-winning “AR dragon” created by Real-time VFX company Zero Density. Connecting musical performances by artists like (G)I-dle, Madison Beer, Imagine Dragons, The Glitch Mob, and more, the “worlds song” has become a spectacle with hundreds of millions of plays across music streaming platforms, with over a hundred million views for five of their songs on YouTube. Musical live performances merge with the game’s universe assisted by VFX effects, creating stunning visual experiences.
Professional gaming has entered the entertainment industry for real, on the verge of becoming an established mainstream phenomenon. Plotting the growth charts, esports has grown alongside emerging technologies, constantly reassessing ways to make the experience more real, authentic and awe-inspiring, trying to escape the perception of “just a video game”.
To demonstrate that they are part of the real world, developers and production crews are attaching, collaborating, and merging with other industries when an opportunity arises and increasingly, they are interested in what esports has to offer. The point of convergence for all these industries appears to be on the technological horizon.
Enter the metaverse
Imagine you are playing Overwatch. After you are done with your games, you stay on your device, and instead of having to launch another application to watch a movie, you go through a virtual space that connects those experiences. It’s the same digital space where you could hang out to watch a football match, or even where your job as a salesperson is located. This place is the vision of the metaverse, a collective virtual shared space which connects many virtual worlds or even augmented realities. Companies like Epic Games with Fortnite have made it no secret that their strategical moves have been going towards the development of integration points of such a space.
Events like the in-game concerts of artists like Marshmello or Travis Scott within Fortnite serve as a taste of what experiences like this could look like, giving creatives tools in a space that doesn’t have to adhere to the laws of physics, while the viewer may uniquely interact with the action. While the technology is still capped in terms of scale, new advancements could realistically create musical performances in which tens of millions of people could participate at once, crushing the Rod Stewart’s record of a concert with 3.5 million viewers at the Copacabana Beach in 1994 with relative ease.
Games like Minecraft, and even Roblox, have added to a vision of the multiverse in a different way, allowing creators to build their businesses within the game’s framework in the form of mods, among other ways. It’s a starting point for the metaverse and between now and the endgame envisioned in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, plenty of steps will have to be taken.
Overwatch and Blizzard Entertainment looking back
For a while, Blizzard could’ve been argued to have been a leading force in the development towards a metaverse. Using the engine of first Starcraft: Broodwar and later Warcraft III, the “fun map” Defense of the Ancients invented an entire genre of games that Valve with Dota 2 and especially Riot Games with League of Legends massively benefitted from while Blizzard Entertainment failed to tie the game to their business when it was hot.
While not at all legal, many people once went to work in the morning firing up World of Warcraft to farm the in-game currency gold with the goal to sell it for real dollars. During the Diablo 3 launch, the real auction house for items was introduced and for a couple of months, friends of mine went to “work” farming high-quality items and paying their way through (admittedly European) university with it.
A lot of people did business in Blizzard’s games, but - for better or worse - the company has so far failed to make it their business, and the bitter taste the aforementioned experiences left in their mouth could be standing in their way. The 2016 Warcraft movie was neither a commercial success nor a failure, but likely also didn’t meaningful contribute in the resulting opportunities presented to Blizzard by other companies.
With Overwatch, the freshest of Blizzard’s franchises, we have a game that is so beloved, and a universe that seems to resonate so deeply with a lot of its fans, that it seems to beg for a tie in into the metaverse. The Overwatch League, which got big names in business and especially in sports into the industry and close to Blizzard’s chest, should further help in developing gateways that the game could cross over into other forms of entertainment with.
Yet, there are barely any desirable fields in which Overwatch esports is meaningfully ahead in the entertainment product they offer to the customer. Almost every other major esport has innovated their broadcasts, enhancing and shaping the experience viewers share, while Blizzard has looked towards old models of localisation, hoping that similar social structures such as in traditional sports would develop, arguably working towards the striving goal of a metaverse for now. Instead of creating experiences like the Travis Scott concert to create products that are so enticing that they could work as a pay-per-view model, Blizzard seems to hope that the properties of sports fans investing more into their favourite team will transfer to the Overwatch League fanbase.
Moreover, technologies that could be argued to be interactive experiences such as the Replay Viewer client which appeared functional during the 2018 world cup are inaccessible to the customer for no publicly known reason. Successful parasocial experiences like the companion streams, during which a streamer will comment on live Overwatch League games in a more private and less restricted manner, some broadcasters like the Overwatch League’s very own broadcast talent Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson popularised have not been tied into the Blizzard network. Even Activision’s rollout of Call of Duty - Black Ops Cold War could be argued to be a more fruitful endeavour of interconnecting mediums than what the Overwatch universe has been used for so far, with the digital comic series as a notable exception.
In terms of creative innovation of a broadcast experience and ancillary media creation, Blizzard has fallen behind its competitors, arguably having failed to leverage their market position to drive innovation into a metaversial future that appears to be inevitable. As the Overwatch League fan has to be content with another Snapchat or Instagram filter, League of Legends fans look towards Riot Games to top the AR dragon and the beautifully mythologised story-telling of RISE in the lead up to its World Finals coverage starting next month.
Images via Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment