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Overwatch: Building an esport from the ground up

At the DICE Summit, Mike Morhaime, Nate Nazer, and Kim Phan discussed the publisher's approach to establishing Overwatch as a top flight esport

Of Blizzard's six distinct properties, it's only the Diablo franchise that lacks an esports offering. In this respect, Blizzard is a unique publisher, having established five separate esports from three intellectual properties: World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Overwatch.

Speaking during a DICE panel discussion, president and co-founder Mike Morhaime was joined by director of esports Kim Phan and Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nazer to discuss how the publisher's approach to esports has evolved over the years, and its future approach to the burgeoning industry.

As with many great endeavours, happenstance played a significant role in Blizzard evolving into the esports powerhouse it is today, beginning with the original Starcraft. After the iconic RTS exploded in popularity, the community essentially turned it into an esport before Blizzard even realised, Phan admitted. But from there, the publisher began to explore how to make its future games more audience-friendly.

Panel host Geoff Keighley with Mike Morhaime, Kim Phan, and Nate Nazer

"When we were working on Warcraft III we wanted to make sure there were better observer tools," said Morhaime. "When we were working on Starcraft II, it was a bit more proactive. We knew we wanted to make this an esport, so we were thinking about how to support broadcasts and make the game broadcast ready right from the beginning.

"With all of our games now we think about viewability, and we think about what is going to be necessary from a development perspective to make sure we're ready if a game does take off as an esport."

Viewability is an obvious requirement for any game to take off as an esport, and that's something which has been reflected in the titles that have dominated the scene over the recent years. Games like League of Legends, Starcraft, and Street Fighter may all have incredible levels of depth, completely beyond comprehension to the eyes of a novice, but each is presented in an easily viewable way.

Overwatch however - arguably the largest esport second-only to League of Legends - is a face-paced first person shooter, lacking the innate viewability of top-down strategy games, or the simple side-on presentation of a one-on-one fighter.

"If you described Overwatch as a sport, it's essentially 12 players on the field all doing something important at the same time," said Nazer. "So how do you show that to a viewer?"

"If you described Overwatch as a sport, it's essentially 12 players on the field all doing something important at the same time"

Nate Nazer

The answer lies in cleverly designed tools, conceived early on in development, and built from the ground-up with the long-term view of establishing the game as an esport. Nazer drew particular attention to the replay system, which includes an event log that allows broadcasters to pull up a specific event within the game history, and render a replay in as little as 15 seconds.

"It's almost like if you were broadcasting a football game with infinite cameras from every angle," said Nazer. "That's essentially what we have."

This viewability, facilitated through smart tools and planning, lies at the core of a successful esport. However, it's not the only component, and what makes a game perfect for esports is broader question.

"The balance of the game is very important, and it has to be interesting to watch with a high skill curve," said Morhaime.

Expanding on this idea, Phan added: "It's the intricacies of crazy moves that the players do... You just watch it and you're in awe that a player is able to manoeuvre in that way."

In other words, as Nazer commented, the game should be easy to learn and hard to master.

Tying all of this together is Blizzard's wider philosophy towards esports, which has developed slowly over the years and hasn't ever been quite as deliberate as with Overwatch. According to Phan, it boils down to consideration of how the community chooses to watch and play the game, and working with partners who are passionate about Blizzard's properties.

"We have great partners who have helped us build the community and show us what competition can look like," she said. "Through it all we've learned what we enjoy watching and what we enjoy playing. With Overwatch it was very deliberate that we went in with what we've learnt, to try and introduce what we think would make a great esport.

"At the end of the day it's unique to that community. I don't think you can take what we do with one esports title and try and apply it to another. It just wouldn't work that way. It's like taking soccer and trying to make it work for basketball."

According to Nazer, Blizzard drew from the world of traditional sports, taking the long-established best practices and applying them to the publisher's first new IP in 17 years, with the aim of building a business around it.

"At the end of the day its unique to that community. I don't think you can take what we do with one esports title and try and apply it to another"

Kim Phan

In order to make this happen, to apply the lessons learnt from conventional sports, Blizzard had to consider what Overwatch would look like as an esport, long before the game had finished development.

"When we first started talking about Overwatch esports and what we wanted it to be, that was probably the first game where we were brainstorming and building out what Overwatch esports would look like while the game was in development," said Phan. "It was way earlier than we have done with any other game.

"With Overwatch it was very intentional to try and start early and plan out what we wanted to do, so when the game came out we would have something ready."

Naturally, this raises the question about how developers can lean into esports in the future. Blizzard built Overwatch with esports in mind, but how viable is it for other games to crack the scene in quite the same way?

Late last year, developer Daybreak announced that it was setting up the H1Z1 professional league in partnership with Twin Galaxies. It promised a "player-first" approach, offering salaries of $50,000 (comparable to that of Overwatch pros), a governing committee with representation for players and team owners, a Player Bill of Rights, and a well-defined revenue sharing model.

All of this for a game that released two years ago, designed without the holistic approach to esports. With PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite firmly solidifying their spots as the top dogs of battle royale, H1Z1 now struggles to break 9,000 concurrent players where previously it was peaking at 150,000.

According to Morhaime, however, there isn't necessarily one right approach to esports, but he argues that a healthy professional league built around a game can catapult it to newfound success.

"When you think about traditional sports, you think of baseball and it's really hard to seperate that from MLB and the World Series and the kind of impact having a professional league has on the entire ecosystem," he said.

Kim 'Geguri' Se-yeon

"For us we're trying to create genre-defining games. If you're going to make a competitive game, and you want it to be one of the best games in the world, you have to have a healthy esports ecosystem around the game."

Blizzard's Overwatch League enjoyed a strong launch, with the first week attracting over ten million viewers. The fundamentals of a successful league are there, with both endemic and non-endemic brands flocking to throw their dollars at partnership deals.

The next great challenge facing the OWL is not whether it's financially viable, but its long-term sustainability and whether it can answer the questions surrounding diversity in the industry that have hung low in the air, particularly since the league's first broadcast, which attracted the ire of countless online commentators for it's distinct lack of women on teams and in presenting roles.

Of course, the issue of diversity is inherently more complicated than how many women are visible, though that is undoubtedly a factor.

"There's work to be done from all different angles," said Phan. "It's amazing to have Geguri, the first woman pro Overwatch League player, but we're not just seeing it in Overwatch. We saw Scarlett win IEM PyeongChang which was amazing. She's the first woman to win a Starcraft title. We started long before that, now having more women commentate as well. That wasn't common before.

"Behind the scenes I'm very proud of how many women we have working on our esports team and also on Overwatch. It's probably a bigger percentage than other departments in the company. "

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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