The Overwatch League is a feeder!
Let’s get down to brass tacks here, what type of content in Overwatch does well? Drama. Even the smallest hint of an argument or a pointed discussion topples the headlines. Generally, no one is asking for more cotton-soft pieces. And drama doesn’t have to be throwing a dolly through a tour bus ala Conor Mcgregor. It can be simple showmanship or a little banter between friends. People want some spice, they want some mud throwing. They want drama and they want genuine emotion.
The league frankly needs more people like Dusttin "Dogman" Bowerman running around calling other players feeders, a term the gaming community has used for years to refer to someone who’s frankly playing poorly and dying too often.
Harmless banter is fine and if the community has problems with it, so what? As long as there are no lines crossed and it puts the product into the public eye, is it really a problem? A wise man did say that there is no such thing as “bad publicity.”
Now, to defend the league and it’s creative directors for a moment, we’re dealing with young adults that frankly don’t have a ton of people skills let alone want to run around and draw negative attention their way. And I understand that but we have to continue to build this out. Geolocation alone won’t continue to bring people in. We need names in headlines, we need otherworldly stories to tell the next generation. And you do that by taking a real event and enhancing it.
Select players are giving it to us, but the league isn’t milking it for all it’s worth.
Why did this player slam the desk in anger? What did this player say to his teammate to console him from crying? Why do these players dislike one another? The people want to know and frankly the people should know. It’s a win-win scenario.
And while this offseason in particular has been quite dry, you still see these springs pop up from time to time that the community gathers around. Like Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles’s departure and subsequent battle with Overwatch League commissioner Pete Vlastelica. Or when former Dallas Fuel coach Justin "Jayne" Conroy criticized the signing of Overwatch streamer Philip "ChipSa" Graham to the Philadelphia Fusion. Hell, we can even go back to MonteCristo berating the fans of the Houston Outlaws with an ASMR inspired video.
And this isn’t something super departed from esports history as well.
Take Greg "IdrA" Fields from Starcraft lore. After being apart of an elite few western players in Starcraft: Brood War to play in South Korea, he was invited to join the South Korean team, CJ Entus after winning winning the eSTRO SuperStars tournament. IdrA is most known for his hot temper and leaving games just a touch too early. He paired his strong performances in both South Korea and in western tournaments with his strong personality and became a near enigmatic figure in Starcraft.
Lee "firebathero" Sung Eun is another Starcraft progamer that comes to mind when I think of a strong “showman.” Take this iconic clip of firebathero walking into a group draw ceremony or when he took a victory lap around infamous progamer, Ma "sAviOr" Jae Yoon. And it’s hard to forget firebathero’s MVP performance in the 2008 Shinhan Bank Proleague Grand Finals against Hite Entus. After his victory he stripped down to his swimsuit and dove head first into the ocean in dramatic fashion. This is the epitome of showmanship while teetering on the edge of polarizing and entertaining.
Last week on my podcast Philadelphia Fusion assistant coach Christopher "ChrisTFer" Graham had the perfect perfect hypothetical on this very point. “[...] If we tweet out that Chipsa is starting in the game against Florida Mayhem on Sunday, are you telling me you’re not tuning in? Of course you are! Every single person [is].”
This stuff works wonders. This puts butts in seats.
We’ve seen this to a small degree within Overwatch teams as well. Take Meta Athena for example or Chengdu Hunters from 2019. These teams build interesting personas on the way they played their game. Meta innovated with map rotations and a heavy Zarya style whereas Chengdu took a similar approach and added Wrecking Ball.
Even the european iteration of the Florida Mayhem with their silly walkouts gave fans something to love. As the team scraped the bottom of the league in 2018, two years removed and the Mayhem are still known for their antics outside of the server, which doesn’t make up for poor performances, but at least gives them a likeable persona to fall back on.
We’ve got plenty of heroes to champion, but we need a villain. We need someone to willingly become a provocateur and stir up the pot.
There are a myriad of forgettable teams that could easily take up this mantle. Every season we have effective bye weeks where two underperforming teams face off in a battle to see who is less terrible on the day. Now if we were to make one of these hypothetical teams more villainous or more prone to trash talking or spice the dish with a touch of showmanship, then we enhance the experience and drive more traffic based on the narrative alone. Yes, we don’t make the teams any better or worse, it is completely lateral—but that’s the beauty in this!
You don’t have to be good or bad to demand an opinion. And that’s what’s lost with this league. We’re so hopped up on traditional sports and non-endemic growth we’ve forgotten what’s got us to this point.
Villains can be just as popular as heroes and at their worst they accentuate the heroes. But, by in large, the problem is that we only have poorly promoted players touting Gucci flip flops and the same cliche narratives of “brotherhood” and “friendship” that frankly feels more processed than a pack of Kraft Singles. Throw in someone who can really stir the pot and you really start to see people's true colors. Do they fire back a witty remark or do they ignore it entirely?
Some people want to see sparks fly, they want tension on stage, they want people to deny others handshakes. They want drama.
Others appreciate the respect others show to each other despite their differences. Almost like a martial art. The players, and these select fans, respect one another because they’ve walked in their shoes.
Both are fair, fine, and valid.
The problem is that we have too much of column A without much from column B.
This has got to be Overwatch’s toughest pill to swallow. Reality T.V dominates for a reason and let’s face it, many of the fans of the Overwatch League are non-endemic to esports. With the push for cable broadcasting and the denial of the history prior to the league (which I’ll admit they’ve gotten better at) it’s not surprising when the vast majority of people tell me they just started watching esports with Overwatch.
Blizzard’s strategy has worked, so let’s give the people what they want. We’re not at the stage where we can rant and rave about how good or bad a player is. We are still talking about how star players are mean and nasty and how others are funny on stream or are wholesome because they own a dog.
It is imperative that the Overwatch League—and it’s players—invest more into building stories and enhancing real drama and emotions this season, because if it doesn’t, this year will be flatter than day old soda. Why? Ask yourself this: are you willing to go back and watch the VODs? Are you willing to stay up to see your team(s) play in China or South Korea?
Probably not, right? You might catch some highlights or some clips here and there, but by in large, you’ll move on.
But what if something happened? What if someone gives a pointed and sharp post-game interview? What if a player broke down in a close set with a rival team and the home crowd cheered them up? What if Chipsa comes out and styles on the last years champions, the San Francisco Shock?
You’d tune in, 100%.
Give the people a rivalry and watch the money, watch the eyes, and watch the numbers skyrocket.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment