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Overwatch League’s First Week a Perfect Proof of Concept

I’ve never been an esports fan.  Gaming jerseys, goofy, gamertag-esque names, weak commentating (I guess that last one describes the NFL as well): it’s all typically too much for me. So, when the Overwatch League (OWL) was announced, I was indifferent.  Prior to the announcement, I had been watching YouTube videos for some time to improve my play and see the state of the game analyzed.

My favorite of these channels frequently used pro footage to coach or commentate on the game. Over time, I started learning the teams (then LunaticHai and Team EnvyUs, for example) and players that eventually morphed into official OWL teams and stars. Team logos and colors started being released, and, even at my level of indifference, I eagerly awaited seeing more of these grade-A designs.

Then the preseason started up and I watched a couple of match breakdowns to learn from the pros before watching some of the matches themselves. By the time the inaugural season of the Overwatch League kicked off, I was hooked like a healer trying to escape a Hog.

The first week of OWL did not disappoint.  Instead, the league has immediately proven itself more approachable, captivating, and competitive than many initially anticipated, promising for an enticing season that all fans of Overwatch should be watching.

It’s extremely easy to watch OWL, and I don’t just mean easy to stream (though it is that). Whether watching on Twitch or overwatchleague.com, you can stream matches live or catch up at any time with on-demand recorded videos. Matches can even be viewed via the official Overwatch League app live or later, so you can watch on the go or secretly at work (shhhhhh!).

But what I really meant to say is that OWL is the most approachable esport I’ve ever witnessed thanks to its familiarity and all around quality. For starters, unlike team names typical in gaming culture, OWL team names resemble any athletic team sport name, including the associated location of the team (in this case a city) and an exciting, electric sounding name.

Those unfamiliar with the MLS and OWL, for example, might be unable to discern which team belongs in the MLS and which doesn’t between the Houston Dynamo (MLS) and the Houston Outlaws (OWL).  The names are comfortable to audiences unfamiliar with esport type names, and by giving each team a home city, there’s an immediate local relatability. This simple aspect provides an easier point of access with a logical team to support for those in close proximity.

Blizzard quite intentionally modeled Overwatch‘s league after existing professional sports leagues. Watching a professional Overwatch match feels nearly identical to watching a traditional sport thanks to the level of production. Blizzard Arena in Burbank provides the spectacle and showmanship one would expect from a traditional sporting event (the full name of the arena is actually Blizzard Arena Burbank, insinuating there will be more Blizzard Arenas given time).

Its impeccable screen and camera work, strong direction, and overall immaculate staging (including an impossibly cool, massive halo light which reflects the teams in play) exceeds what viewers have come to expect from a sports venue. While carefully calculating what they’re capable of, Blizzard has seemingly spared no expense in legitimizing its league, and to great effect.

Like a traditional sport, each match is replete with a present team of deeply knowledgeable analysts. They handily prepare the audience for what to expect from a match to come, while providing a beneficial and intelligible breakdown of events before, halfway through, and after the match. Oftentimes, they highlight critical plays that can genuinely inform even astute Overwatch viewers what they just witnessed.

Even more impressive are OWL’s are genuinely intelligent and insightful commentators, a rare commodity in traditional sports broadcasts. Overwatch games unfold at a relentless pace, yet these professional commentators are always up to the task of keeping up. They helpfully highlight match aspects like team and player positioning and general strategy, all while shooting off great dad jokes (terrible, yes, but great). No need to mute the audio here, football fans.

The real reason for watching is of course the captivating gameplay itself.  The quality of play on display is astounding, easily matching the quality of the overall stream production.  Even without attachment to either team, the calibre of game mastery being streamed guarantees entertainment and critical plays each match that will be endlessly discussed in the Overwatch community.

On opening night alone, viewers were treated to some of the most spectacular trick shots and skillful exhibitions Overwatch has ever seen. The first game of the true season saw Los Angeles Valiant’s DPS (damage per second, ie. offensive) player, SoOn, thread the needle and snipe an opponent through the tiniest sliver of an opening in what seems an impossible shot.

The very next match, LA Gladiator’s support player, BigGoose, provided countless, fan-favorite “boops” (pushing another player, frequently off the map) as Lucio. One of the more notable ones was against Shanghai’s support, FreeFeel, who had just used his ultimate attack, making him otherwise invincible, completely sweeping the leg of the Shanghai’s last defense.

To close the night, Seoul team captain Ryujehong “dunked” an incoming enemy Junkrat tire (one of the most lethal ultimate attacks in the game) in an inconceivable spectacle of human reaction time, leaving the community reeling.

All that was in just the first day of the league and doesn’t include the now infamous Pine “McCree god” game the next day as NY Excelsior dismantled the Boston Uprising.  Thanks to the in-game team colorization, Overwatch has never been easier to follow, even at its breakneck pace.

OWL has clearly captivated the Overwatch player base as well, as players have begun emulating pro character picks, team compositions, and positioning.  I’ve never seen more Widowmaker picks, for better or for worse, and dive tank picks seem to be at an all time high. Wannabe Pine McCrees are seeping into every game, and players who prefer Zenyatta to Mercy have never been more validated after some of those pro performances.

As a player who’s already sought out external sources to improve my game, I’ve still learned so much watching these teams and their synergy. I’ve gotten the satisfaction of knowing that countless more players are absorbing the lessons I’ve learned in the past (like punching at the end of a D.Va boop for quick burst damage) or am currently learning (like how tough defenses are to tackle when they dominate the high ground).

Balance is better this time around: as Blizzard works to ensure each hero is viable, pros demonstrate many of the strengths and benefits of some of these niche team makeups and character picks, which in turn is absorbed into casual play providing fresh ideas and diversity in team rosters. It provides validation for the creative and adventurous (my brother and I have been playing Orisa/Hog for months) and variation for those that hate a stale meta.  If nothing else, OWL is fun to watch and gives invested players something to talk about.

A lot of the excitement and captivation comes from a healthy amount of competition.  I think many fans feared OWL would be dominated by the teams comprised entirely of Korean players.  While, yes, those teams (Dynasty, Spitfire, Excel) are all 2-0 and at the top of the league after the first week, it wasn’t without brilliant opposition.  Thursday’s matchup of the Dallas Fuel versus the Seoul Dynasty was arguably the best professional Overwatch match the world has ever seen, demonstrating how sensational this league can be.

The first round of the battle of colossi went to Fuel in a hard fought victory.  The next game was one of the closest games in Overwatch history, nearly extending into a fourth round before Seoul took it.  While Dallas underperformed in the next game and Dynasty exploited their weakness on control maps, the final game in the series ended in a draw, Fuel undoubtedly demonstrating they were in the same league as the Dynasty.

Elsewhere the competition has proven equally fierce as a multitude of unexpected teams have risen to the challenge. In a brilliant upset, the Philadelphia Fusion beat the top tier Houston Outlaws after an incredibly close series which was tied after four games and forced to go to a fifth, decisive game where Philly truly came into their own.

Maybe more of an upset was the LA Valiant’s victory over the Fuel, the first game of which lasted even more rounds than the Fuel’s game with Seoul! While the Fuel lost fuel after a game two draw, the 3-0 Valiant victory doesn’t adequately convey how fierce this match really was, a series many thought would go to the world class Dallas team.

While it’s only the second week of the season, the standings convey some interesting things: with the Valiant tied for number one, unexpected teams have come to play. With the two top tier Texas teams yet to accrue a series win, the tides are undoubtedly about to turn. Of course, the hope is that as these teams go head to head some of the best in the world, all will grow and learn. Ideally, competition will only get that much tighter.

The Overwatch League might not have everything (a Seattle team, for instance, colored in blue and emerald green; we like that here), but what it does have is fierce competition, enthralling play, and quality the esports world has never seen. I expected to like OWL, now I absolutely love it.

Calling all agents of Overwatch fans, sports fans, and everyone in between; there’s a new league in town and you should be watching.  So, pick a team or two and get ready to stream. Like Overwatch, its League is here to stay, so let the dragon league spirit consume you!

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