The year is 2016. Three years prior, Blizzard decided to cancel its ill-fated MMO project Titan, citing a lack of ability to control its scope. Many of that game’s team members stuck around at Blizzard, though, and in no time at all, they’d turned around many of Titan’s assets and development processes to create Overwatch, a Team Fortress 2-style hero shooter with objective-based gameplay and varied heroes. It aimed to bridge the gap between TF2 and MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2.
Naturally, Overwatch was an instant and massive hit. It paved the way for other hero shooter-type experiences and became a mainstay on the competitive multiplayer circuit. The closed beta for Overwatch actually began in late 2015, but the game didn’t receive a full release until 2016, so that’s when it started to get noticed by wider audiences. Blizzard’s penchant for solid game design and ability to create compelling core loops meant that Overwatch was never destined for anything but runaway success.
Despite this solid core, Overwatch wasn’t originally designed with competitive esports play in mind. Blizzard cofounder Mike Morhaime said that although the team recognised the potential of Overwatch as an esports contender, they didn’t actually craft the game’s systems and characters with pro-level play in mind. Instead, the team gradually created and implemented features to support esports as the game’s development went on. Overwatch wasn’t created as an esports mainstay, but that’s where it’s ended up.
Blizzard announced its intention to create a professional Overwatch league during BlizzCon 2016. The appropriately-named Overwatch League would be a franchise which had a fairly high buy-in but which would function in a similar way to traditional sports, allowing massive corporations and investors to pour money into it in return for the kind of viewership that esports brings. Of course, the Overwatch League was hugely successful, spawning franchises in multiple cities around the world.
So, what exactly makes Overwatch such an enticing prospect when it comes to esports? The answer is multifaceted, and - just as with any other esports discipline - it takes all of these things interlocking in order to create success for Blizzard’s game. There have been many games that have tried and failed for esports dominance; if you want an example of how this process can go wrong, just take a look at a titan like FIFA’s failure to enter into the market.
One of the biggest contributors to Overwatch’s esports success is the ability to bet on outcomes. Overwatch betting has proven massively popular among fans of the game due to the way in which games can unfold in unpredictable ways. The meta for the game changes constantly, so you’ll never know how a certain game will turn out. This makes Overwatch ideal for betting since you can always play the system and try unlikely outcomes for huge payouts.
Of course, it wouldn’t be possible to bet on Overwatch if the game wasn’t so well-balanced. While there will always be effective tactics that beat out others - ideal team compositions, for example, or perfect map positioning - Blizzard’s constant fine-tuning of the formula means these don’t remain static for too long. Overwatch is able to succeed as an esport partly because its game design is so tight and well-crafted; if it was an iota less well-built, it would fall apart.
Blizzard has also been extremely supportive of Overwatch esports endeavours. In 2018, the studio launched a companion app that allowed you to view competitive Overwatch matches from your smartphone in an intuitive way. There’s also a minor league version of Overwatch esports; Overwatch Contenders allows pro players the chance to ascend to the League. The existence of multiple tiers for Overwatch esports means that Blizzard can maintain a solid presence for the game in all walks of esports life.
This also means that Blizzard was effectively able to completely remove third-party tournaments for Overwatch, replacing them with first-party events it could control. Blizzard calls its system “The Path to Pro”. You can start off right from Overwatch’s in-game competitive mode and work your way up through the ranks until you’re competing at Contender level. It’s part of the esports ecosystem that Blizzard has created for the game.
So, what’s next for Overwatch and the world of esports? It’s hard to say. There are some who believe that Overwatch’s time in the sun has faded and that the game’s systems can’t support a viable esports presence anymore. With games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Call of Duty: Warzone dominating the esports landscape, that may be true; games with more asymmetrical approaches could be on the wane, especially since Overwatch is four years old this year.
Still, the prevalence of EA’s Apex Legends suggests that might not be the case. If you ask us, Overwatch still has plenty of life left in it as an esports property. Blizzard announced Overwatch 2 at BlizzCon 2019, but its mechanics and systems are quite similar to the first game; it has the vibe of an expansion pack more than an out-and-out sequel. With that in mind, it’s clear that Blizzard is far from done with Overwatch as an esports title, and we’re looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for this titanic esports originator.