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Why Overwatch is the next big esport

The characters of Overwatch. Provided by Blizzard

The closed beta of Blizzard's latest IP, Overwatch, ended for good on April 25, marking the end of one of the last stages of development before the game's official release on May 24. As with many games released these days, the focus isn't just on whether or not the game itself is fun, but whether the game will foster a competitive environment that helps keeps audiences hooked for years--not just months.

While there are still a lot of questions about how the competitive scene will play out in the long term, after living with the game for more than two months during the second closed beta, I feel that the game will likely be fully rated as an esport. Let's run down some of the reasons I think competitive Overwatch will remain in contention as we head towards the release.

Professionals are already taking it seriously

Getting buy-in from the pros is an important part of developing an esport these days. To get people interested in the game on a competitive level, you need to have highly-skilled players that are able to do things in-game that you wouldn't see in a pickup game with friends or automatic matchmaking. Quite a number of established teams, such as Cloud9, Luminosity Gaming, and Team Liquid have already fielded and recently signed Overwatch teams. Arguably the most successful team during the closed beta, IDDQD (if you know that Doom code by heart, you may be as ancient as I'm becoming) signed with Team EnVyUs.

We've already seen some early tournaments, from the GosuGamers weeklies to the One Nation of Gamers invitational earlier this month. The prizes aren't big yet--we're still talking about a game that most of the public hasn't gotten their hands on yet--but the early interest in a tournament environment is there.

Not Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Call of Duty

One of the challenges for any new competitive first-person shooter is the difficulty of directly competing against the most prominent games in the category. Games like CS:GO already have well-established teams and viewers.

The good news for Overwatch is that it would be pretty darn difficult to confuse it with CS:GO or CoD. Far more than either of those two games, Overwatch fits more into a "fantasy FPS" genre that owes a bigger debt to a game like Team Fortress 2, that eschews reality for a game that is more based on a variety of unusual weapons and outlandish environments. Grenade-jumping around the map like Junkrat, bending time, setting off gravity bombs, and summoning a dragon--all things done casually in Overwatch--would seem almost ludicrously out of place in CS:GO.

But these crazy things, among others, find a home in Overwatch.

It has developer support

Competitive Team Fortress 2 is a thing. I've competed in UGC myself for TF2, but it never really exploded in the esports world because it was a game developed before competitive esports and streaming became very big things. Developer support is important for an esport and Valve has generally been content here to position TF2 as a terrific casual game/hat collection simulator.

Blizzard may have been caught by surprise by the competitive scene developing around Hearthstone a few years ago, but in this case, Blizzard developed the game with esports in its thoughts. Activision Blizzard announced a whole esports division back in October and purchased Major League Gaming for $46 million in January. These are not things a company meekly dipping its toes into the esports waters does. The company wishes to succeed in this space and has given every indication that Overwatch will be a part of it.

Blizzard also doesn't plan to stop developing the game at the point it launches. Scott Mercer, the Principal Designer for Overwatch spoke to ESPN about some of the company's plans to increase the number of heroes available for players to use.

"The team is already prototyping additional heroes for release as free content after Overwatch launches. We have a lot of interesting character ideas for heroes that will bring new gameplay options to our lineup and also allow us to further develop Overwatch's amazing universe. We want to release heroes at a pace that keeps our game fresh and exciting, but not so fast that we overwhelm our players' ability to adapt to change. As our hero lineup grows, the potential for crazy unforeseen interactions between the heroes also increases. We just need to make sure they're all fun and interesting!"

It has variety

While not every hero is played frequently in any given meta and roles for heroes have significant overlap, playing each hero does feel different. Just look at the support heroes--Lucio, Mercy, Symmetra, and Zenyatta. While they all fulfill the generalized role of focusing on aiding teammates, they do so in very different ways, each with their own game states in which they excel or fall short.

For example, Lucio's Soundwave and mobility disrupts close-ranged enemies, Mercy's Resurrect can cause gigantic momentum swings, Symmetra's sentry turrets provide enfilade fire/skirmishing, and Zenyatta can debuff an enemy. Even weaker heroes that find themselves at the bottom of the meta, such as Mei, have abilities that you can at least envision using in a particular moment.

These interactions of strengths and weaknesses makes tactical situations harder to solve as different heroes serves as checks on other heroes. Widowmaker causing a problem? Send in the Tracers. Junkrat dominating a choke point? Pharah's vertical mobility frequently makes short work of him.

In a game that's not designed around twitch gameplay, these options and counter-options are necessary to retain interest.

It's fun to play and watch

On a fundamental level, games are about having fun, not about having the best competitive infrastructure. At any given moment, millions of players are playing a game of League of Legends and for well over 99.99% of those players, it's not because they're professionals. Who watches a game that nobody enjoys playing? I've been playing in the Overwatch closed beta for some time and I've enjoyed it so much that I've barely played any Team Fortress 2, a game in which I have nearly 2,000 hours logged. Among my gaming friends, there are people in the closed beta and those that wish they were; people are excited to try this game and even if the game doesn't succeed in the end, it won't be because people didn't want to give it a chance.

For an observer, the game design generally lends itself well to broadcasting, something that should continue to improve as the infrastructure for competitive play becomes more refined and the game's knowledge base continues to grow. Overwatch has colorful environments with heroes that are obviously recognizable for a spectator and each hero has a fairly defined role, which gives structure to the matches that you're watching.

"We know that the success of Overwatch as an esport isn't simply a matter of making an incredibly fun to play game. We also have to make a game that's fun to watch," said Mercer when I asked about Blizzard developing with the esports community in mind. "We need to provide amazing tools for our broadcasters to not only allow them to explain what's going on to viewers, but also allow them to tell amazing stories. We've received a tremendous amount of valuable feedback on our current beta features from our own internal esports teams and current Blizzard partners, and we've also reached out to traditional sports broadcasting professionals for their insights. So we have a great set of future goals for Overwatch's broadcasting and spectating features, and we'll continue to work towards them."

Final verdict

While we won't know for a while whether Overwatch succeeds in the esports world, if you weren't lucky enough to take part in the closed beta, you can get a taste when Blizzard stress-tests the servers in an open beta test from May 4 to May 9 (a couple days earlier if you pre-ordered).