Overwatch: The Birth of a Sport

After enjoying the opening of the Overwatch League in LA, we reflect on what could be a pivotal moment in the fortunes of competitive gaming.

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When our parents and grandparents went to the stadium to watch a football match, standing on the terraces as they cheered their local team, they probably would never have imagined what the game would turn into during the twenty-first century. Multi-million deals, merchandise everywhere, dedicated media, millions of fans all over the world sharing billions of words online as they discuss and analyse every aspect of every single game. Our grandparents, in short, went to the stadium to watch a match unfold, but over time, they also witnessed the transformation of a game into a sport and, above all, into a cultural phenomenon. We're recalling this because with the birth of the Overwatch League, we too are witnessing the same process: the transformation of a video game into an Esport and, perhaps, into a new cultural chapter in our history.

The problem is that football has taken more than fifty years to turn into the product we all know today. The world of video games runs at a much faster speed, and consequently, everything has to happen faster. The challenge is, therefore, a difficult one; we not only have to change the way we think about competitive gaming, but we also have to do it in just a few years, maybe months.

Thus, for the Overwatch League, Blizzard has chosen to follow a model that has proven itself commercially viable in the United States, and which is used by all the major sports leagues in the country: the franchise model. It's a system in which the teams are not created spontaneously or organically, as happened, for example, with the big clubs in European football, but in which a private company creates a team and acquires the rights to represent a certain territory. In this way, in a very period of short time, it's possible to have an entire championship with a number of teams to cover the major metropolitan areas of the country and, in the case of the Overwatch League, crucial territories such as China, South Korea, and the UK.


This allowed the Overwatch League to start the championship in style: twelve teams, each composed of some of the best players in the world, catchy logos, splendidly-made merchandise, and an arena where fans and journalists can be welcomed. A new professional league was created, and with it, a sporting event was born. It's genuinely American one, of course, but it's still a new and honest competition.

But there is a problem: at the moment, this is a league without a real fan base. Although Overwatch is loved by a huge number of players, the fact that some of them would choose to follow the championship is not a certainty. And, even more so, the fact that they choose to cheer for a team created six months ago is even less obvious. It matters little if the team bears the name of a city: at the moment, there is a certain distrust that's leading fans to approach the sport with caution. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and looking at the Overwatch League with the innocent eyes of the fan that has not yet turned into a fanatical supporter, you can better appreciate the technical aspects of each game and the skill of every single player. But, at the same time, it lacks that almost religious aspect that leads each supporter to worry about the results of their team as if it were the health of a member of the family. For this reason, the first major obstacle to overcome is to build a story, a narrative, something that pushes players to build a network of preferences and dislikes.

Photo: Overwatch League

In fact, after the first press conferences on the opening day of the Overwatch League, the first seeds of this narrative have already been sown. For example, the two teams from Los Angeles arrived at the Blizzard Arena aware that they had a large section of the local crowd on their side, Shanghai was experiencing the pressure of being the only team to represent China, while the players from Seoul Dynasty are so good and confident of their abilities that they could well turn out to be that winning team that nobody but their loyal supports can warm to. It's evident that there will be a time and way to instil those elements in the audience's head, to turn a mere sympathiser into a huge fan, or turn a good player into a star of the sport. Blizzard has created the sport, now we all have to help create the sportsmen.

In short: the Overwatch League is something innovative, an attempt to build a new community around what, for many, is "just" a video game. Blizzard sees a future where we talk about esports as we do today about football or basketball, in which the teams represent a territory and with it a series of supporters, where the value of honest competition can emerge and flourish. For years, esports have pursued the same goals, but now more than ever with the Overwatch League, we have seen Blizzard's clear intention to educate and involve the public, to draw them in and keep them engaged. Blizzard wants everyone to understand that sport can be found in unconventional places. This, ladies and gentlemen, could be a historic moment.

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REVIEW. Written by Rasmus Lund-Hansen

"Overwatch is, without a doubt, the best multiplayer-shooter I've ever had my hands on."

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