The Overwatch League represents one of the most significant ventures into esports to date, and certainly the largest from Blizzard. Significant resources are being put into the league, with Twitch reportedly paying a major sum to secure broadcasting rights. Blizzard has also built a major arena in Los Angeles and released a huge batch of new Overwatch skins to help drive interest in the event.
Clearly, the company’s investment in esports is serious, though it remains to be seen what kind of success it will enjoy (or not). Blizzard has been careful to temper expectations for this first season, but it believes it’s made decisions–some of which were inspired by mainstream professional sports–that set it up for success. That includes its region-based approach, where teams hail from particular cities or areas, much like an NBA or NFL team, thus helping prospective fans to choose and really get behind a group.
In the lead up to the Overwatch League’s launch, we discussed Blizzard’s approach to esports, whether the league’s existence impacts how the studio handles balance updates, and more with game director Jeff Kaplan. You can check out our full interview with him below. We’ve also got a primer on Overwatch League, a rundown on all the teams and rosters, and a guide on how to watch Overwatch League. And, of course, following the most recent Overwatch update, we’ve also got a look at all the new team skins.
GameSpot: What does Overwatch League mean to somebody who’s been working on the game for several years now? What does Overwatch League mean for Overwatch?
Jeff Kaplan: Well, I think we get excited about not only what does Overwatch League mean for Overwatch the game, which is obviously, in some ways, exciting and daunting and flattering to us that such an amazing league would get built around the game that we worked so hard to make. But I get really excited for what Overwatch League means to esports. I’ve always been a huge pro sports fan, and I’ve always loved esports. The two have always felt so separate to me. There are awesome things that pro sports does and is doing that we’ve always wished we seen more of in esports. There’s awesome things about esports that pro sports doesn’t understand. I’m really hoping that this becomes the marriage and the inspiration for esports in general that we could sort of level up to that next level, and just really solidify and professionalize esports.
What is it about the city-based structure that you’re taking from pro sports that’ll help Overwatch League? Do you think it’ll lend more personality to it and loyalty maybe among fans, or what are some of the pro sports aspects that you really want to see shine through in Overwatch League?
I think the regional-based teams is one of the main things for pro sports that we’ve taken a huge inspiration from. I think we can all remember when or have that friend, if it’s not us personally, where they weren’t into a particular sport, but, for whatever reason, their home team makes it to the finals and now they’re going to get into it. It becomes this life-long love that you suddenly have. That really has been hard in esports. One thing that will happen with esports, for example, is you’ll approach a game that you’re really into for the first time, and you might become aware of the esports scene. It’s so hard to have an immediate grasp on who you should be a associating with in any way. There’s all these organizations where, if you’re an esports fan and have been following them for a long time, they really mean something to you and you know what these names are and what they stand for. But if you haven’t been following esports, it’s a little bit foreign in that regard. So we think bringing a regional-based approach will help some fans immediately associate.
The other thing that I hope it does is start to bring esport awareness to more parts of the world. I think we all know that there are certain parts of the world, such as Korea and California, that everybody knows what esports is. Everybody’s really into it and following it. But there’s so many parts of the world where esports really hasn’t penetrated fully yet. It would be great to start to see regional-based teams get more and more exposure to some of those parts of the world.
The thing about esports is that, I guess, compared to like traditional sports, it’s sort of like the rebellious, younger brother. It’s still evolving. Overwatch is a very accessible game compared to League of Legends or StarCraft that allows more people of varying experiences and skill levels to try to get into the sport. Is that accessibility something that you’re always thinking about?
With everything that we’ve done with Overwatch, from the game itself to the league, there’s always been a desire to be as inclusive with as many people as possible. We try to make things approachable both in the game and in the league structure so that somebody who’s not necessarily familiar with Overwatch or Overwatch League immediately feels welcome. That’s always the goal. It’s kind of a Blizzard goal with all of the things that we do, to speak to as many people as possible. A lot of times it gets taken the wrong way. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’re trying to dumb things down,” or, “You just want to make for the casual audience.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, there’s nothing more hardcore than trying to stand up in esports, a franchise esports league like we’ve done. It’s extremely targeted at the hardcore audience experience..
The Blizzard approach is not to make everything casual. The Blizzard approach is to find what we think is amazing as hardcore fans ourselves or hardcore players in games and then [discover] how do you bring that to as many people as possible and not be off-putting like some hardcore content and features sometimes [are].
Blizzard has had a hand in esports for a very long time, like with StarCraft, which arguably sort of molded modern esports as we know it. Through Overwatch League, this is a more conscious and involved effort on Blizzard’s part. Was it tricky to figure out how exactly you were going to inject more traditional sports, like setups and systems, within the esports model?
Well, the awesome part about working on Overwatch League is that we can take that love for pro sports and start to bring it to esports. The hard part wasn’t the ideas themselves. You know, coming up with regional-based teams or that we wanted to start to embrace having home and away uniforms in the game or that we wanted to feed statistics to our broadcasters in a way like pro sports was doing. The ideas wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was actually the execution on those. That’s the thing that we’re going to continue to iterate on. We’re very pleased with the progress that Overwatch has made from the Overwatch World Cup at BlizzCon to the Overwatch League pre-season games that happened in December to what we hope is going to be a great kick-off for this opening week. We know we can do way more than we’ve already done, but to us it’s very much about iteration and then constantly sort of raising the bar on ourselves. We’re going to watch every single match and decide how can we be better every single time.
Now that Overwatch has this chance, because you are taking things from the more mainstream professional athletic sports, is there a sense that you are trying to prove something to people who might not normally be into esports or even people who are but maybe might not think the structure is going to work?
I think there’s a lot of pressure on us with Overwatch League to get it right. There’s a lot of eyes, and we’re very excited. We don’t want to let people down. I think of it less in terms of we have something to prove and more of what I hope our legacy is, both as Overwatch the game and Overwatch League. Obviously the dream is for Overwatch League to become far reaching, to have people fall in love with not only Overwatch and esports but our teams and our players, and to really get to know them just like any professional sport. That would be the ultimate goal.
I feel like even if we come up short of that goal, as long as Overwatch League inspires the world that esports is bigger and more important than they realize… I feel like the younger generation already gets it and knows that this exists. And that we validate that esports is real and important and growing. And that future esports endeavors strive to do something a little bit higher, a little bit better, a little bit more professional. I feel like that would be a victory.
When a game enters the esports scene, I always am curious how that affects your view with all these Mercy nerfs and whatnot. With something like that, is there extra weight to those balance updates? You’re very open with your audience about the updates and I always look forward to [YouTube user] dinoflask’s take.
But does the league add more considerations, like how something affects the Overwatch League meta as opposed to the casual meta and so forth?
Well, we’re always balancing with our pro players in mind. So the fact that Overwatch League exists hasn’t changed that. We were lucky enough to enjoy a really thriving pro scene in the beta that just sort of developed organically on its own. Those players have always communicated very clearly with us, and they have a lot of avenues to get through to us. So pro players have been influencing the design of Overwatch since its inception, since the earliest days that anybody besides the development team could play it. So not a lot has changed in that regard.
I think, obviously, any time you have a lot of eyes on something, which I hope will be the case with Overwatch League, it makes you want to get it right. But I feel like we wanted to get it right [prior] to Overwatch League existing. The fact that the league exists doesn’t change the responsibility that we have as developers to make sure that the game is balanced, that it’s super fun to play, and that it’s also super fun to watch.
Is there one thing in particular that you’re just hoping will happen? Whether seeing fans and people respond to it more like excitedly or anything? Is there something like that?
I think there are two things that I’m most excited for with Overwatch League and that I hope to see. The first is we have this whole cadre of amazing pro players that I feel like have really been legitimized in their career, legitimized in their talent and their skill, and they’re going to get the recognition that they deserve. I feel like under the Overwatch League structure, they’re very protected as professionals, and that’s very exciting to me. These players are at an awesome point in their lives, and I think this is an amazing opportunity for them. To me, more than anything, this league centers around them and this opportunity. So that’s going to be exciting. I hope they get the spotlight that they deserve because they’ve earned it. It’s going to be really exciting to see it play out.
The other thing that I’m super excited about with Overwatch League is the first-time esport fan that’s never even paid attention to esports before. I know we’re going to attract some of them. I think for all of us as a kid… for me, I can remember the first time my dad brought me to Dodger stadium. I have almost an emotional reaction to those memories. I can’t wait for the next generation to grow up with memories like that of their Overwatch League experiences. Also, for people to realize… it’s a hard pill for some people to realize who’ve never sat down and watched esports that watching a video game be played at the highest professional level is actually amazingly exciting. I think [with] a lot of people, it’s easy for them to dismiss that or roll their eyes [at] that. Then they go to their first DreamHack or BlizzCon or [Dota 2] International or hopefully Overwatch League match, and they realize the energy and the excitement and the skill level of what’s being performed before them is actually amazing and a great experience. I’m really excited for those first time esport fans.
You also have to wonder if there are people out there who are extremely talented Overwatch players, where maybe it’s like a very serious hobby for them, but now this structured league could bring out the next generation of players.
We’re excited for that as well. One of the things that I really love his approach on is Nate Nanzer, who’s the commissioner of the Overwatch League. Since the inception of the League, [it] felt like it wasn’t just about coming up with an amazing professional league. It was about coming up with an entire ecosystem that made it very clear for players the steps that they needed to take to achieve that someday. I think we all, you know, when we watch our first professional baseball game or basketball game, it can seem really daunting, but there feels like a path to get there. You know you can ask somebody like, “What do I need to do to be that someday?” We wanted the same thing for Overwatch League. We wanted it to not only be the celebration of the top play in the world, but also to be a very aspirational thing that, you know, our really talented players who might not realize it might have a future in pro esports.
It seems like it’s fostering a sense of community, right? It’s always been connected. Esports are always very like digitally connected. Then of course there are the actual tournaments and the actual match where people go and there’s a ton of people. When Major League Baseball players have to go down to AAA for a while, it’s always fun to go see them play for a $5 ticket. I wonder if eventually Overwatch League will become so widespread that there will be that really concrete sense of community around it. You touched on it, but that just seems so appealing to me to be like, “Oh, there’s a Dynasty game this weekend. Let’s have friends over and watch it. Like get pizza.” Or go to a bar and watch it.
You’re speaking specifically to one of the design goals of the league itself in the regional-based sense, which is, you know, there are a lot of Overwatch players who know exactly who they’re going to root for: I’m a Genji main, and I love Seagull. I watch his stream every day. So therefore, I’m going to be a Dallas Fuel fan. That’s a very informed decision that you’re making at that point. Whereas, some people just want to enjoy the sort of experience at first, and they’re not yet initiated into what that means. So they need those things to latch onto. So I think and I hope that the regional-based approach will be one of those things that allows people to say, “I’m not sure who my Overwatch team should be, but I’m from San Francisco so I’m going to root for the Shock just because I’m from that area,” for example.
We also thought a lot about that when we helped the teams develop their names and their logos as well. That some people won’t be from any of the areas that these teams are in, but they’ll just look at, “Wow, look at those Seoul Dynasty uniforms. That black and gold. It’s gorgeous. I love how it looks on D’Va. I guess I’m a Seoul Dynasty fan now.” I think we’ve all had that friend who just bought the Oakland Raiders football jersey, you know, back in the day just because it looked cool. Now they’re a Raiders fan for whatever reason. So I think there’s going to be some of that as well.
When you talk about trying to make something broader and appeal to more people, that means that you’re looking for multiple avenues for people to get into the experience. Obviously, I think what we all understand is–with that highly competitive Overwatch player, esports fan–what their avenue is. They’re going to immediately be attracted to this because of the high-level competition and the players who are playing in the league. But for those who aren’t yet familiar with that, we have to give them these other things like the regional-based association or cool uniforms and logos and names for them to associate with.