A case study of feelings when watching high stakes matches in the Overwatch League.

20:00, 10 Aug 2020

Masks down - on an average day and especially during leisure time, we aren’t doing as much critical thinking as we would love to pretend that we do. From some point of view, we are the pilot sitting somewhere located inside our skull driving this biomechanical wonder of blubber and bones with the goal to propagate our amazingly creative and deep ideas, solving crises and working towards world peace. From another point of view that is less prominent in our culture, we’re a stomach that developed tools such as a brain and eyes to find the best strategies to continuously fill itself, tricking our brains into believing that a burger, curly fries, and a milkshake are totally in our self-interest, firing the good chemicals into our brains, gluttonously gulping away and having the greatest time that makes life worth living! 

So when I’m putting Overwatch League on my information diet, what am I and the majority of us doing it for? Is it to test our analytical thoughts and ideas, or are we there to feel something extraordinary, be it the drama of the moment, our chosen tribe winning, or Alarm hitting that Sleep Dart that he absolutely positively shouldn’t?

While we’re probably all falling into some range of the spectrum, there’s a mismatch in the frequency with which we discuss these interactions. You’ll find a bunch of analytical breakdowns of gameplay, and why something happened in the game, more rarely do we explicitly talk with fellow fans about the range of emotions that we felt and why we felt them, putting a disproportionate amount of effort into explaining the logos. Seldom do we share more than a gasp or a snide comment with each other that communicates a particular stance towards something happening. Very rarely do we either explicitly share our feelings or use that thing on our neck to find mechanisms to promote so we get more of the good stuff (game developers excluded). When was the last time you admitted to someone that you’re totally lost on how things unfolded?

So I watched the Countdown Cup with a view inward, looking at my emotions like a cat looks at a mouse hole - to catch the feeling on the escape. Here are my personal findings - none of these will be fair or balanced but just presented as I perceived them. Feel free to share yours with us on Twitter.

One thing that I found to be important is to look at the expectations that I came into a match with. I had predicted based on scrimbux that the Florida Mayhem would make it past San Francisco Shock and to a degree, this prediction framed which team I wanted to win. I wanted Florida Mayhem to tell me that I was right and pretty!

The most felt emotion I had during the Countdown Cup was probably confusion. While the killfeed is an anchor to hold onto that tells you some of the story, whenever a first kill wasn’t translated into a fight win - I despaired. Knowing that around 70% of first kills translate to fight wins, rarely was it clear why that advantage couldn’t be pushed in this particular meta. I feel it should have something to do with defensive cooldowns, ultimate threat and map architecture but I can’t say for sure. I’m not trying to say that we couldn’t find out what the reason was, what I mean is that in the moment, it wasn’t apparent to me as it perhaps would be when watching traditional sports like soccer or another esport like VALORANT

As I’ve put a significant amount of time into watching Overwatch, I felt frustration at myself as I perhaps should be capable of recognising patterns more. My ego wrote it off as a hero pools thing, not getting to learn win conditions for every meta composition at a pace I’m comfortable with. Another part of me is mildly worried that I’m getting too old for this, or that I’m otherwise incapable while everyone else gets it.

Take this drawn-out fight on Havana point B. After a back and forth with everyone blowing ultimates, Jun-ki "Yaki" Kim finds a double kill blade that in my mental arithmetic, put the Mayhem up by one at about equal spawn distance. As the fight continues, I didn’t understand why this didn’t result in a point B capture at the time. When Seong-ju "Byrem" Lee got killed by Seonchang "ANS" Lee, a feeling of anger flushed over me as I perceived it to be an ego peek. Having reviewed the footage, none of my initial emotions feels fair, balanced or true. Is that a problem with the game, me, or is it even a problem?

Another emotion that I frequently felt was a sense of satisfaction over what felt like a plan coming together either on a team or individual level.

Looking at the final fight of Philadelphia Fusion vs Paris Eternal on Havana. As Hee-Su "Heesu" Jeong takes a cheeky flank, he finds Ki-hyo "Xzi" Jung, the only member that can realistically contest him from the distance he’s standing away from the enemy team. As Heesu takes the long sightline and whiffs the first couple of shots, I became anxious that this opportunity served on a platter would be squandered. Heesu, now basically playing an aim trainer without his counterpart there to keep him in check, can then convert his advantage into four kills with which they were able to win the match - while I feel satisfaction. Someone in a voice chat with me points out that this situation is why you don’t play Doomfist, implying that Genji would have a better chance of coming back in this situation. I subconsciously agree, and it puts a mild downer on my excitement because it moves from a wow-moment more to a field where that play was something to be expected, though not by much. I still recognise that Heesu had to see that opportunity to manifest it and that that feels like an earned skill.

His teammate Josh "Eqo" Corona comes around to congratulate him on a job well done. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside that this young man’s talent is being recognised by his veteran peers after having been second fiddle to Jae-hyeok "Carpe" Lee most of the season. 

Sometimes there are plays that entirely cut through the confusion as very obviously great even when the opponent had to make a mistake in order for it to happen. The payoff of those moments is a pure dopamine shot, playing a game of catch with the prefrontal cortex. Hit me!

One of the best drugs to get to those moments are clutch Ana’s Sleep Darts and my favourite dealer this weekend was Kyung-bo "Alarm" Kim. As the Eternal rolls into third with an astounding six minutes for point C, I once again feel anxious, this time that a great match could be taken from me. The underlying greater story that I formed for myself was that the Fusion were on a tear, winning 15 straight maps before losing Nepal to the Eternal, and I wanted them to be this juggernaut that can bring it to the Shock, because they hadn’t had a big win in their franchise history.

Alarm’s Sleep Dart marked the reawakening of the Fusion, sleeping Xzi out of an EMP that would’ve likely ended the map at a troubling time bank. As he hit it, I felt hope, as we looked at the replay with Mitch “Uber” Leslie screaming that “if you don’t vote Alarm MVP you are dead to me!”, I felt satisfaction. The narrative applied additional weight to a great moment, even if I now realise that using EMP in that specific location was very likely a large misplay by Xzi. Where confusion before had taken a great moment by ANS, it had given one here - to varying degrees.

Overall I noticed that the stakes the tournament brought multiplied the impact of every play I witnessed, with increased stakes providing leverage. I also have a hunch that I located a reason why I dislike hero pools more than other people, as I favour knowing what is going on more than experiencing novelty. The narratives of Shock as the giants, Paris Eternal as the title defender, Philadelphia Fusion the rolling but forever second and Mayhem as the dark horse increased my enjoyment by a lot, and I realised that for me to enjoy Overwatch League, I need thoroughly stacking stories that make sense despite hero pools and balance changes. If Alarm’s Sleep Darts were dopamine, then the narrative payoff of these teams was serotonin. It is obvious to me now that I need both to enjoy my time. How about you?

Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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