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Overwatch takes over Twitch

The inaugural season of the league has seen impressive numbers.

Overwatch League's first two weeks has wrapped up and drawn in thousands of viewers.

Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch League's first two weeks has wrapped up and drawn in thousands of viewers.

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Fans in brightly colored jerseys carrying signs adorned with team logos lined up in Los Angeles earlier this month, but they weren’t there for the Rams game.

Instead, hundreds of fans turned out to watch Overwatch League’s sold out opening week. Created by industry giant Blizzard Entertainment and released last year, Overwatch became a big name in the competitive gaming community within weeks of coming out for its 6-on-6, team-based gameplay.

But Blizzard wasn’t content with third-party tournaments, like APEX in South Korea, taking the game to a mainstream audience. Instead, the company has decided to bet big on itself and the game, creating a massive league with 12 teams and over 130 players. And to ensure the sport and teams would be taken seriously, the league has a minimum player salary of $50,000, mandatory health coverage and revenue sharing from merchandise.

So far, this bet is paying off. According to publisher Activision, Overwatch League had 10 million unique viewers in week one, with an average of 280,000 viewers-per-minute.

At its peak, the audience topped 400,000 concurrent viewers, easily beating out Thursday Night Football’s online streaming numbers. Which shouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering major sports figures are already getting involved. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft owns the Boston Uprising, and San Francisco Shock is owned by Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller, with financial backers like Shaquille O’Neal and Marshawn Lynch.

Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment
The Seoul Dynasty team skins. Blizzard released unique character skins for all 12 teams in the league.

 

With the first two weeks in the books, here’s what works and what doesn’t.

 

It’s clear Blizzard went all out for League’s first year presentation-wise. The Burbank-based stadium where all this season’s games will be held is beautiful, with massive screens wrapping around the audience, allowing the entire room to be a part of the game. It looks and feels like a real sports event, from the cheering crowd all the way down to the graphics and statistics flashing across the screens.

The team logos, jerseys and branding look great too. Most of these logos, especially the Houston Outlaws and Los Angeles Valiant, would fit right in with the NFL or NBA.

That being said, the youth of the league and broadcasting team is apparent. There are long gaps between rounds and games, which is to be expected. Most major leagues will just cut to a commercial, but the Overwatch League has made the rather poor decision to leave either a static countdown timer screen up, or endless clips from previous matches with no context or commentary. This improved in the second week, but now the broadcast uses recycled player features from the first week with more frequency. There needs to be more going on in between matches to keep viewers’ attention.

On top of that, the team expects the audience to have in-depth knowledge of the game already. That is understandable for football or basketball, sports most American kids grow up playing, but that isn’t going to work if Blizzard wants casual gamers and sports fans to tune in. The commentators need to explain the different game modes and maps better and more frequently.

There’s also a clear lack of female representation in the league. There isn’t a single female player under contract, and the broadcast team of 12 only has one woman, Soe Gschwind-Penski. For a game with such a diverse cast and a company that talks so much about bringing diversity into the community, the league isn’t doing enough for its first year when it comes to representation of women.

Overall, the lack of parity is the biggest weakness the league has so far, and it needs to be addressed going forward. Seoul Dynasty (4-0), a team made up almost entirely of former South Korea’s Lunatic-Hai, has been dominating the league. With the exception of their close preseason match with the New York Excel, the team looks untouchable. Along with Seoul, the London Spitfire (4-0) and New York Excelsior (4-0) have been the cream of the crop. On the other end, the bottom of the barrel teams need help. The Shanghai Dragons (0-4) have yet to win a game, and look outclassed in every match, while the Dallas Fuel (0-4) have at least looked competitive in the four losses.

While there are some obvious kinks to work out, so far the Overwatch League is off to an impressive start. If it can keep this momentum up for the next 36 games remains to be seen.

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