When you sit down to watch an Overwatch League match there really doesn’t appear to be anything out of the sort. You have casters calling the action, two teams of some of the best Overwatch players in the world, and a YouTube stream full of fans cheering on their favorite squad. The action is quick, fierce, and — sometimes — a little hard to follow despite the camera team’s best attempts to keep pace with the action.
Overwatch is one of the most chaotic eSports games out there. Matches are incredibly fast-paced and games can flip on their head in a matter of seconds. Given what we’re dealing with in the real world, it feels perfect that one of the only sports you can watch right now is a chaotic video game. That’s not to say Overwatch League is immune to the struggles that come with online play in the age of social distancing. Put on a match and look closely and you’ll see it’s not quite the same game.
There are no raucous crowds cheering big plays, for starters. Sometimes matches pause for minutes because of an at-home technical problem. Overwatch League is in an online only environment and while it’s thriving it’s certainly not the same league. After two seasons in the Blizzard Arena, Overwatch League had big plans for its third season that saw teams host “homestand” matches all over the world. The COVID-19 pandemic ended that earlier in the year, however, opening the door for a return to online play with a retooled format.
“There’s been a real need to sort of develop a whole new set of processes and touchpoints.” said Jon Spector, Vice President of the Overwatch Leauge. “The plan for this season was that we would all be gathering at these big sold out events with thousands of fans and we designed the calendar and what does a weekend look like around that.”
The league opened in New York and then played in Philadelphia one week later. Crowds were electric and it felt like the idea of Overwatch League traveling around the globe could work. Unfortunately, like a team fight where you go in 6 to 5 with ultimate economy advantage, not everything goes to plan. The COVID-19 pandemic emerging in Asia caused homestand matches in that part of the world to be canceled, and teams like the Shanghai Dragons didn’t even make their season debut until Week 8 when the league had finally shifted online in full.
“Initially in those first two to three weeks it was really about who’s ready to compete.” said Spector. “Which teams in which cities, depending on different stay at home orders in different parts of the world and (lag) and things like that. Every single week we talk to each of the teams and said ‘What’s your status? Where are your players? Are you ready? And scheduled matchups on that basis.”
A sudden return to online play sparked reasonable concerns: How would players spread out all across the world play each other? Would they play at odd times? In one case, with the Vancouver Titans, the team tried to shift over to the Asian Division since all of its players were based in South Korea and they could play from home. But the experiment failed and eventually the team and roster mutually parted ways as Vancouver shifted back to the North American division.
It turned out that Vancouver was more of a blip than a foreshadowing of things to come. Other teams stayed together and adjusted to online play, and the league is back to playing on a weekly basis. And despite the odd setup, it’s led to some extremely high level play.
“One of the things I’ve been most proud of in the last month or two is that the matches have gone incredibly well in this online environment. We’ve had high quality competition and I’m probably jinxing us now but we really haven’t had major issues pop up in the online competition environment.” Spector said. “We have 200 or so players in the league and I think you’re seeing individual players respond differently to these challenges. In some cases, I hear from our players that I get to stay at my home and stream all day and practice and play Overwatch on the weekend and that’s great. A lot of players I hear miss the fans, (they) miss that energy and that atmosphere. There’s different types of issues. They’re also dealing with a lot of what the rest of us are.”
Adhering to social distancing guidelines and self isolation can be tough for anyone, but some Overwatch players are enduring this is new cities in different time zones and away from friends and family, adding a unique challenge to the work at hand.
“In some cases they’re home sick if they’re far away from home during this.” Spector said. “In some cases, they’re stressed out, they want to go outside, they’re getting a little bit stir crazy. But I also think they’ve been great partners and awesome to their teams about being flexible and adaptable and putting on a great entertaining show for fans all over the world.”
As the weeks pass and things get ironed out with online play, Overwatch League and its pros settle into what’s become the new normal. And as technical challenges are overcome and broadcasts settle into a rhythm, more and more of the old Overwatch League comes back.
“We’ve continued to add back in different features from the broadcast.” Spector said. “More content, post match interviews with the players started back up recently. And we’re working on getting player cameras back in the show in a meaningful way soon.”
While everything around them might feel chaotic, the Overwatch League is starting to feel like some calm among all the noise. They’re one of the few options we have for live sports at the moment and they’re handling it about as best as one could expect. Considering the chaos that takes place in the digital realm, it’s fitting Overwatch League is able to find success in times like these.