The Overwatch Open Grand Final Underlined the Challenges of E-SportsPhotos courtesy of ELeague / Turner Sports Games Features E-sports
The Overwatch Open Grand Final, a mouthful of words if there ever was one, is about one thing: competitive Overwatch. You might be surprised that there’s a competitive scene around the game if you haven’t been paying close attention. After all, it’s about brightly-colored characters with goofy superpowers and weapons smashing into one another over and over. It has the feeling of a toy, or an action figure set, and just as my G.I. Joes never seemed like they were really in it for deep, serious combat, Overwatch seems like it might be an odd fit for the rough and tumble world of the modern first-person shooter competition scene.
People are serious about Overwatch competitive play. I mean, people are serious as shit about watching a man sit hunkered behind a computer controlling a giant scientist gorilla from the moon. They love watching him knock his enemies back and forth, raging the whole time. They cheer, and by “cheer” I mean scream, when an opposing player is eliminated (Overwatch’s more gentle term for “killed”). They stand up, they chant “USA! USA!”, and they do everything else you would expect from people who are gathered to watch bloodsport rendered down to cartoon detail.
I saw EnVyUs and Misfits play each other in the finals of the Open Grand Final. It was a good game, a 3 to 1 victory, with the underdog Misfits putting the favored team on tilt with a fast first match win that allowed them to push an affective advantage the whole way through. It was good play, too, with each team’s Tracer players putting on a hell of a show for an audience who is keyed in on what expert play looks like. It was strategic when it needed to be, and it was tactical when necessary, and the perfect harmony of those two factors always makes for an excellent show of sports skill.
Turner Broadcasting’s ELeague studio is where it all went down, and it’s such a strange place. I walked through a labyrinthine zone of twisting hallways and security guards. I entered a basement, the kind of rousing space where you can get a cup of coffee or sit in a weird little cafeteria. And then there was the arena itself, this shiny plastic and metal reflective theater space that you could imagine existing in some kind of Johnny Mnemonic remake but with, like, not enough money to do it right.
I don’t mean that as an insult. The area is, to my knowledge, predominately used to host seasons of ELeague’s own Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitive league, and the space fits the aesthetics of the contemporary PC gaming market. This is a world of enthusiasts who love shiny LEDs, stylish fans on big graphics cards, and hollering at other dudes to git gud. Believe me, I know this world, and the space captures the aesthetic well.
I watched Misfits stomp all over EnVyUs for a couple hours in that cold basement studio, and I just kept thinking about how the event isn’t for the people here. Sure, the staff was getting these 200-or-so people who had packed out this room super hype for the event. And I could sit and look at the feeds of the video and audio guys beside me to see what kind of enthusiasm gets to go on camera. But that enthusiasm wasn’t for me, or for the group of dudes shouting “USA!”, or the put-upon parents whose kids had dragged them to the studio for an event that started at 10 PM. It was for the people at home who might be flipping through the channels and stop to watch e-sports on TBS.
I wonder how effective the things that happen in that room are at reaching the people at home. Any competitive videogame is hard to follow, period, even for someone who pays a lot of attention to them. Each game is its own kind of sport, and they each have their own language that only its players know. Moreover, this is a game that takes place in teams of six versus six, and the camera moves erratically between players in order to get the best view at the action.
I play Overwatch daily. I have a deep knowledge of each character, the general strategies you use to play them, and what it looks like when certain characters encounter others. I can maybe tell you 75% of what is happening in a professional Overwatch game. It’s complicated, and it’s a vast network of events all going on at once, and the announcers are literally hollering a mile a minute to make sure that we understand it all. It’s exciting, and the hype is real, but the method gets in the way of actual understanding. More than once another journalist and I conferred about how a match had ended to make sure we had it straight.
There’s also a language barrier, one that I’m becoming more and more familiar with as I cover more e-sports events. Each game has its own language, but it all starts to blend together into words that hinder more than they might help. At the Open Grand Final, the announcers leaned into the word “war chest” as a way of talking about the ability for characters to use their ultimate abilities (which can swing a losing game into a winning one). After a few uses, I knew what they meant because of my intimate familiarity with the game. For the audience at home? I don’t know.
The Grand Final was presented to people at home, for viewing on a television. It was not for the live audience, despite how much they might love it; at best, we’re hype props, people to get covered in confetti or to show off the latest Overwatch toy. The people the event is packaged and sold to are out there, and my hunch is that they’re confused by it more than they are entertained.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.