Overwatch has been one of the
fastest-growing eSports in recent years, launching itself into a
genre left practically untouched for nearly a decade, and
dominating competitors to the throne. The question on everyone's
mind, however, is whether this success will last. Surely, it's on
track for a record-breaking run at the industry, but it's also
attracting it's fair share of criticism, both from fans and
industry experts. Can Blizzard beat the heat? Or will the Overwatch
candle burn out too quickly?
For the moment, those questions are on hold, but with ELeague and FaceIt's new tournaments, alongside ESL's Atlantic Showdown the future looks promising for Blizzard's new IP, especially in comparison to its older brother Heroes of the Storm. To me it seems the problem facing this new release is simple and the solution that those involved in the eSports industry give could shape the future of the ecosystem as a whole going forward. Is a game developer forced to produce intensive marketing and work to quickly establish a new eSports scene or should they take time to build a 'grass-roots' loyal community following? Doubling down on that, is it even possible to do so any more
Overwatch has been out for a few months now and been given an insane amount of media coverage during this period, eclipsing every other new release this year, with the exception of the infamous phenomenon, Pokémon GO. The number of streams exploded at its launch and again later with the introduction of competitive mode, placing the game into the current Top 6 watched on Twitch. Nevertheless, the numbers during the Atlantic Showdown qualifiers, the biggest Overwatch tournament to date, are not very impressive for it's first 'big' competition.
Blizzard's new-born may barely be out of the studio, but it has seen an insane amount of hype since its first promotional animation short. It was almost the same story for Heroes of the Storm, a title that was supposed to challenge the big names of the MOBA scene, though to date has failed to attract a community big and loyal enough to build a viable eSports scene.
On the other hand, many eSports organisations have not waited a second to fully dive into the hype, recruiting rosters left and right in order to instantly secure the best players. The idea being that they could make it to the top of any tournament the moment the scene gets organized, even if they have to pay a roster for months before a decent competition shows up. The attention of gamers and media is heavily focused on new licenses, so it can be argued that the teams have to be there in order to sustain that focus and indirectly lead to more revenue.
Teams and tournament organisers, are investing their efforts and money into securing professional teams and creating events, with no clue as whether the scene will last or not. For Heroes of the Storm, Cloud 9 secured possibly the best roster in the Western scene and yet recently released them. For Overwatch, Fnatic is already on its 2nd roster, surprisingly North American, as the 1st reportedly decided to run solo. The scene is currently in complete chaos where even the big guns are having trouble establishing some stability.
Of course it is standard modus operandi for organisations to evaluate and take risks, but as Heroes of the Storm still proves problematic, we can only hope that Overwatch will not be history repeating itself. At least this time around Blizzard seems to have taken a different path, leaving the third party professionals to the create the basis of a pro circuit, though potentially admitting their uncertainty on where to go next. In a sense they're testing the waters and letting the dedicated eSport organisations take the initial risks. I'm pretty confident in saying that having a big eSports scene was not the first goal for Blizzard and that Overwatch's launch is already a success, after all the game has proven itself hugely profitable for them.
Teams and tournament holders, on the other hand, are betting heavily on the involvement of the community without concrete proof that this community exists. They are only just beginning to set a standard for what rules should be applied, which format is most suitable, and will continue to be taking risks on the production side of things; despite everything said before, they're limited regarding the viewing experience as the in-game system is developed on the whims of the games creator.
This situation has two potential outcomes: If the community is here and ready to spend their time watching competitive Overwatch: Blizzard sees the potential and decides to partially integrate into the pro circuit, like it does for its other titles, creating an Overwatch Championship Series. Assuming all goes well, everyone is happy and all parties can make some money.
In the worst case scenario, the community is not present, or at least, much smaller than expected and Blizzard can now shift their focus to the casual side of the game: releasing in-game content and relegating any eSports efforts to a secondary objective. Unfortunately in this case organisations will lose time and resources that could've been allocated to something else and have to start from scratch with a new title. The true losers at the end of this story are aspiring pro players who will go from glory to nothing over such a short period, they could stick with the game and play in 'local' tournaments but it's unlikely that they could make a living out of it. Their other option then would be to transition to a new game, if anything looks promising.
Over the last few years many developers have been trying to ride the unstoppable machine that eSports so far seems to be, with a multitude of titles having fallen by the wayside. Two prime counter examples are Hearthstone which, from my point of view, spontaneously exploded with popularity and Smite which has remained quite small in comparison to both League of Legends and DOTA 2, its two better known cousins. Nevertheless, none of the new 'big eSports games' have beaten old titles that took the time to build an engaged and loyal fan base from scratch, which today fill entire stadiums.
In my opinion, developers, teams and eSports organisations cannot do what their predecessors did. Watching the scene build itself holds more risks than when there was nothing before it. There is obvious room for opportunity to work collaboratively and think about what's best for viewers - though unchecked that path can lead to dangerous debates around competitive integrity like the questions that are beginning to face RIOT games.
Due to its growth, the people involved in the eSports industry are starting to face more and more complex situations that need to be addressed if they want to avoid throwing money down the drain. The road to building a new eSport scene is not just about the Hare and the Tortoise but as far as factors go it's proving to be a major one.