Blizzard Entertainment rocked the professional gaming world in 2016 with the announcement of an entire league to support their new property Overwatch, a multi-player, team-based objective-oriented FPS. While e-sports tournaments and leagues were nothing new at the time, Blizzard made a unique commitment to run Overwatch League from the start with the professionalism and precision of traditional sports leagues like the NBA and NHL.
After a successful 2018 inaugural season culminated in July with the London Spitfire winning the Grand Finals, Overwatch League (OWL) continued its winning ways by hosting an incredible All-Star Weekend Event in Burbank, CA, this past weekend. Fans converged from all over the globe for the sold-out event at Blizzard Arena, and OWL turned the entire weekend into an e-sports spectacle.
While baseball has the Home Run Derby and the NBA has the famous Slam Dunk Tournament, Overwatch mixed up the action with various challenges on Saturday afternoon including a bracket-style Widowmaker 1v1 tournament and a "Talent Takedown" where the commentators and personalities around OWL had the chance to compete and show their skills (or lack thereof).
The hosts are smiling now... wait until they're the ones competing live for +100,000 fans worldwide.
The first challenge Saturday afternoon was the Lucioball competition. This 3-on-3 game mode (which sounds like the classic television star "Lucille Ball" when said too quickly) features only one character, the healer Lucio, and uses Lucio's unique skill set to create a de facto Soccer Match where players try to "shoot" a giant ball into the other team's goal posts while defending their own.
The Lucioball challenge set the tone for the entire weekend because frankly, no pro Overwatch player spends their time practicing on the Lucioball pitch. This meant all the players were a little out of their element... and therefore entirely relaxed and having fun.
The challenge was not a disappointment, as both Atlantic and Pacific teams fared well, pushing the final match into overtime. Philadelphia Fusion flex tank Gael "Poko" Gouzerch scored the winning goal in overtime, a fitting finish for the Frenchman on this international e-sports stage mirroring France being the 2018 FIFA World Cup winners.
Poko said that despite the grueling in-season practice hours, OWL stage matches, and time difference, he made a point to wake up very early in the morning to watch all of France's World Cup games from the Fusion team house in Los Angeles, cheering for his favorite player Kylian Mbappé. "France won the World Cup this year," Poko said, "So I am very proud to win the Lucioball this year."
Those Lucioball launch angles are trickier than they look.
Poko's story of migrating from France to join the Fusion is not unique. In fact, only two of the 36 All-Stars in this year's Inaugural field are from the United States. However, many players agreed that the OWL focus on creating region-based teams is an exciting development in pro gaming.
OWL franchises are backed by the power of investors such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft of the NFL, who knows a thing or two about building a sports dynasty, as well as Jeff Wilpon, COO of the New York Mets. While all of the teams are currently housed in Los Angeles, by 2020 the league hopes to have each franchise based in their respective city and hosting a "Home and Away" tournament format where teams can foster a hometown fan base as well as travel to compete in various cities around the globe.
The twelve current OWL franchises, including three international teams.
Speaking of adapting to new situations, the second showdown of Saturday was the 6v6 Mystery Heroes. Part of Overwatch's appeal has always been it's unique character heroes, each with a particular set of skills (and weaknesses). Pro players gravitate towards and perfect the strategies of certain heroes. In the Mystery Heroes scenario, each respawn assigns a new hero at random to the player, making for both confusion and fun as pros struggle or thrive under their hero's constraints.
The Widowmaker 1v1 tournament started next, which was a great time to catch up with fans as this was the only point in the event where the entertainment factor lagged somewhat. Despite some impressive singular moves in the "headshot-only" competition, a 7-point one-on-one matchup bracket took just a little too long.
Talking with fans showed the true breadth of e-sports. While only a few years ago it may have been common to mock e-sports, every millennial fan interviewed said that they encounter none of that from their peers today.
"If you're interested at all in the game, it's really fun to watch people play at a high level," Hailey, a Geguri fan from LA said. "It's just kind of interesting to see the way the game changes when you play at that level." Hailey added that as a player herself, who also follows the pros on social media, getting out to the live events was a great experience because of the connection between the pros and their followers.
At any particular moment during the weekend, there was always a crowd buying OWL merch.
Scott "Custa" Kennedy, an All-Star starter from the Los Angeles Valiant, added from a business standpoint, "building a fan base makes you more valuable, you need to build that base." Much like how traditional athletes are now focusing on brand building and careers after their playing days, pro gamers generally understand the value of cultivating a strong personality and following, and perhaps parlaying that into a media role upon retirement.
Towards that end, Custa took part in the role-reversal that was the Talent Takedown by stepping in as a caster while the main OWL personalities competed in the Talent Takedown. Hosts Chris "Puckett" Puckett, a former Halo pro, and Alex "Goldenboy" Mendez were captains for the Pacific and Atlantic respectively. However, it was the skill play of interviewer Soe "Soe" Gschwind & commentator Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat that helped put Pacific on top.
Rumor has it Puckett paid handsomely for those signs to be placed there.
The caster game in all of its sloppy glory helped keep the energy high throughout Blizzard Arena. The state-of-the-art facility has the necessary carve-outs to make for incredible production, empty space for camera booms to sweep across both the crowd and the player dais, sound insulation to prevent echoes, and a separate stage for the commentators.
Yet these technical implements do nothing to detract from the spectator experience. Every seat in the 450-seat arena is spacious and comfortable. The entire weekend had the feel of sitting in the World's Living Room, with 450 strangers whose love of the sport made them instant friends, even when cheering for rival players (and an additional 100,000 friends per hour watching the online broadcast).
While the first round of the Widowmaker bracket may have dragged, the final round featuring Fusion's Carpe against Los Angeles' Gladiator Surefour had all the energy and tension of a sudden death World Cup Final tied in stoppage time. When the underdog Surefour made his final snipe to secure victory, cheers roared across the Arena and the night ended with everyone feeling they had witnessed a championship performance.
Who needs video game movies when live tournament broadcasts have this level of detail?
The Overwatch League does not operate in a bubble, as any player or caster will tell you. There is migration across games, platforms, and leagues. Pros know there are challenges and tournaments constantly in new video games across the country.
Sunday's tragic shooting at a Madden NFL tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, occurred about forty-five minutes before the Overwatch All-Star Game was set to start at 11:15 AM PST. This unspeakable tragedy affected both players and staff, however, the All-Star Game went on as planned. It should be noted that both days of the All-Star event Blizzard Arena had a full security detail in plain sight, and both attendees and participants had to pass through metal detectors to enter the facilities, which gave a strong sense of security within the community.
The gameplay for the All-Star Game was fun like the Saturday challenges, but also serious at the same time. Fan-favorite Do-hyeon "Pine" Kim (New York Excelsior) said, "it was a different type of fun." Pine's Atlantic teammate Jae-hee "Gesture" Hong (London Spitfire) shared a similar perspective. "When we practice, it is a very serious environment," as opposed to the All-Star Game where there was not the pressure to win to move on like in the regular season.
Hijinx ensued, as Atlantic star Saebyeolbe wore a Pacific jersey to the Press Conference
Pacific team opponent "Mickie" (Pongphop Rattanasangchod, OWL's sole player from Thailand) brought a different perspective. "It's a good experience to play with the enemy," the Dallas Fuel flex tank said, playing on a team with players from the two Los Angeles clubs as well as from the San Francisco, Seoul, and Shanghai franchises.
At halftime of the All-Star Game, Overwatch further demonstrated their commitment to fostering a professional and healthy competitive environment by presenting the inaugural Dennis Hawelka Award for Positive Impact on the OWL Community.
Dennis "INTERNETHULK" Hawelka was a beloved German player and coach who passed away in November 2017, at the age of 30. INTERNETHULK was known for his kindness, generosity, and great spirit. Every person with a history in the league, including members of the press room, had a personal story about Dennis' positivity touching them in some way.
The award was presented to Dallas Flex's Mickie, who himself carries an infectious positive outlook during the game and off the stage. As he accepted the award, Mickie fought back his emotion, speaking about how Dennis discovered Mickie when no one else was scouting Thai players, and later influenced his approach to being a teammate.
Inaugural Dennis Hawelka Award winner Mickie of the Dallas Flex
"When you are losing, or you feel down, whatever," Mickie shared, "you have to remember the people behind you. If I am sad, the people watching me will be sad."
This attention to positive mental health underscores what player after player said sets apart the Overwatch League. OWL provides every player a guaranteed base salary, as well as health insurance and retirement benefits, and each team has their own set of mental health and nutrition professionals that assist within the team houses.
Despite the rigorous playing schedule during the season, South Korean native Gamsu (Young-jin Noh, Boston Uprising) said if he has any personal time in a day, he will go for a walk or go hiking in Los Angeles to stay healthy. Describing the league, Custa said, "it's no longer amateur hour." There is not only the expectation of professionalism, the league also provides the resources to help players attain that professionalism with ease.
Beyond the repeated testimony of the players, the greatest testament to the future of the Overwatch League was the All-Star Game final match.
While the tournament started off with each team trading a match in a best-of-five format, the Atlantic team stormed ahead in matches three and four, winning the All-Star Game handily without the need for a fifth match. However, in the spirit of Overwatch play, OWL promised all five maps would be played and the players stuck around for a fifth match.
The packed house stayed full for a dead rubber fifth match at the end of OWL All-Star Game Weekend
Remarkably, the audience of fans also stayed put and a packed arena watched the entire final match, applauding with the same enthusiasm as they did during the four matches leading up to the Atlantic squad's victory.
It is these fans that will make the Overwatch League a success, like Antonio who made the trip of a lifetime from Oklahoma to attend the OWL All-Star Weekend, saying simply, "being here is amazing, I love it. I'd love to come back one day."
As Blizzard and Overwatch continue their commitment to providing experiences beyond just a game to fans and players alike, that chance for Antonio and many others will surely come again.