If you haven’t heard of Blizzard’s Overwatch League, their attempt at a shiny new crown jewel of eSports, then you’re not paying attention. Or you are paying attention, and the targeted advertisements didn’t hit you because you’ve never tweeted the words “Video games.”
The new league, now over two months old, has just completed its first “stage” and given away its first cash prizes, a total of $125,000, to the teams topping the first five weeks of play. The cartoon-y first-person shooter’s attempt at an organized league has been the most “sports-like” attempt at competition I’ve seen yet from a video game so far. Teams are associated with cities. They have their own in-game “jerseys” for the Overwatch character roster. They have…well…uh…hmmm. That’s actually all that the OWL has that makes it any more like a traditional sports league than an organization like League of Legends’s League Championship Series (LCS) or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s ESL Pro League (ESL).
There are failings in eSports that I believe will keep the format from ever catching on in the United States the way that traditional sports did, and watching hundreds of hours of LCS and now five weeks worth of OWL matches has only cemented my position. This is not a judgment of people who watch eSports, or of the value of eSports themselves. It’s a list of reasons that eSports falls short of the traditional sports product, and (sometimes) things they can do to fix the problem.
There are no home teams to cheer for
“But didn’t you just say that the OWL has teams associated with cities?” I did! I did say that! And that’s a huge step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean anything when all the teams still play all their games in Los Angeles. No one in Cleveland would like the Cleveland Browns if they were terrible AND didn’t play in Cleveland. No one is flying in from Florida to see the 1-9 Florida Mayhem, but they might grab a beer and watch a game if it’s just around the corner. Accessibility is an quick way to build a fanbase for a bad team.
Note that the other eSports have it worse. When you have to choose between cheering for Optic Gaming or Cloud9 in the LCS or ESL, what reason would there be to not choose the team with the better record? There’s no built-in associations to lean on for a casual or first-time viewer.
Sports are the ancestral home of the nickname. From Albert Pujols “The Machine” in the MLB to Giannis Antetokounmpo “the Greek Freak” in the NBA to Doug Martin “Muscle Hamster” in the NFL, the nickname game is alive and well. So where did eSports go wrong? Early on, eSports settled on using the players’ self-assigned nicknames as their official league identifiers. Huge mistake. Some of the nicknames make the league seem incredibly casual and amateurish. I’m only in my early twenties and I cringe when I hear players called “ShaDowBurn” or “Grimreality.” If eSports want to be taken seriously by an audience of people older than 14-18 year-olds, they have to take themselves seriously and start using players’ real names.
No youth leagues
This borders on ironic, since generally speaking video games are “for kids,” but in a competitive video game environment children are actively discouraged from participating. This makes sense. A college football team would also try to get out of playing with a 10 year old. They’re not ready to compete at that level and listening to them talk about memes and youtubers would be super annoying. Traditional sports have leagues specifically for kids, where they can learn the fundamentals of the game, plus teamwork, sportsmanship, and social skills. Until eSports can offer that, they’ll be an awkward niche at best.
Americans aren’t the best
The London Spitfire just defeated the New York Excelsior in the OWL Stage 1 playoff to win $100,000. Both of those teams are composed entirely of Korean players. In fact, three of the top five teams are (those two, plus the official Korean team, the Seoul Dynasty). The last five consecutive LCS world champions have been Korean teams, and no American team has even come close. There’s nothing wrong with this. But eSports can go join soccer in the box of things that people in other places like, because Americans only want to watch themselves win.
Terrible spectator tools
This might be the biggest problem on the list. ESports are absolutely awful to watch. Imagine a football game where the only camera angle is a tight shot on the quarterback. You see him take the ball, drop back, and throw, and then…the camera stays on him. Maybe he gets hit. Maybe he raises his arms in celebration. Maybe he shakes his head sadly. No matter what, you missed the interesting action happening offscreen because you were stuck in a bad forced perspective. That’s the eSports viewing experience.
I think we were all thinking it. Now, I am also a huge dork, but even I’m like “hmmm, no, that’s too much.” Imagine all the time and training it takes to become the best in the world at something, basketball, tennis, trapeze, anything. Now imagine all that time was spent alone in front of a computer. That’s not a great recipe for being well-adjusted. Until there is a player who can be the cool, charismatic face of their eSports league, professional video games will not attract a general audience.
If Antonio Brown walked on the Field at Heinz Field doing this, I’d call him a dork too.
None of this changes the fact that I’m excited to see what the OWL can do in the eSports arena. I think with a concerted effort to make eSports more accessible and familiar to a casual viewer can save professional video games from being stuck forever in nerd no-man’s-land of mild internet popularity.