We are now 10 days away from rosters locking for the Overwatch League’s first season. As teams continue to unveil their official branding, Blizzard is hard at work behind-the-scenes to ensure that our venture into the world’s first global professional esports league is a truly memorable experience. Listed below are, in my opinion, three ways that Blizzard can heavily influence the success and long-term viability of Overwatch League.
Optimize the Spectator Experience
One of Overwatch’s biggest criticisms to date involves the actual presentation of its esports content – and understandably so. From its earliest tournaments, production teams have been tasked with the difficult challenge of balancing the perspectives of twelve individual players (six per-team), all of whom are actively contributing to the outcome of the game’s fast-paced team fights. So how do the game’s observers (the individuals controlling the in-game cameras) ensure that they are highlighting the right heroes, or determine when is the best time to pull the cameras back to capture a wider-angled shot of the team fight? How do they prioritize showing the first-person views of offensive, tank, and support heroes to the viewers, or even the attacking vs. defending teams for that matter?
The challenge of optimizing the presentation of an Overwatch esports match is not restricted to the visual component, either. Production teams–and casters–must first determine the type of audience they are communicating with. To date, this aspect of the game has been relatively consistent as the overwhelming majority of professional Overwatch matches have been streamed over sponsor’s Twitch channels – a medium geared toward an audience of gamers, many of whom most likely come into the broadcast having some level of understanding of the game itself, whether that be playing it themselves, watching popular Overwatch streamers, or watching previous Overwatch tournaments.
One of the few exceptions to this trend was ELeague’s Overwatch Open, which aired back in October 2016. With the event being broadcast nationally on TBS, the production teams took the opportunity to develop content specifically geared toward the uninitiated viewer. They began with a synopsis of Overwatch’s backstory and continued with an overview of the game’s main objectives. The event hosts covered the different map types (control, escort, etc.), explained the various hero roles (attack, defense, tank, and support), and attempted to highlight the importance of using the heroes’ ultimate abilities. The efforts made to expand the coverage of the event to audiences outside the already established Overwatch fanbase were admirable, and Overwatch League will likely try to follow a similar blueprint during its inaugural season.
Unfortunately, the preliminary explanation of the game’s mechanics and objectives leading into the Overwatch Open couldn’t overcome the difficult-to-follow action sequences encountered during actual gameplay. Even viewers with hundreds of hours under the belts found the team fights difficult to follow. Too often, the most impactful actions that were actually deciding the outcomes of engagements were taking place off-screen. The casters providing play-by-play were just as much in the dark as the viewer, frequently relying on the vague narrative provided by the game’s kill-feed to craft their commentary.
Most Overwatch broadcasts to date have shown modest streaming viewership, but Blizzard will have to win over plenty of new, casual viewers if their hope is to make Overwatch League viable in the long-run, and the spectator experience is going to play a massive role in determining that success early on. If new viewers fail to follow or understand the implications of the actions taking place on-screen, Blizzard could find itself alienating and losing out on this critical audience before the league ever has a chance to find its footing.
To Blizzard’s credit, the developer has since sought the insight of many of the game’s most respected voices (professional players, casters, analysts, etc.) to continually improve the spectator experience. No one would argue that the current presentation format of Overwatch esports is ideal, but those close to Overwatch League have confirmed that considerable upgrades have recently been made to the game’s spectator mode. I have full confidence in the broadcast and production talent that have been brought on board to Overwatch League to deliver balanced content that can play to beginner and seasoned Overwatch fans alike. But if Blizzard truly discovered a way to optimize the spectator experience like we’re being told they have, it will no doubt help in clearing one of the league’s biggest hurdles early on.
Own the Social Media Platform
The NFL may still be king among traditional sports when it comes to the size of its viewership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the league is best-positioned for the changing media landscape going forward. According to this recent exclusive study from SportsBusiness Journal, the NFL is falling further and further behind leagues like the NBA and MLS that are proving they have significant traction in younger age demographics.
The data provided in the charts you see in this article tell two important stories.
First, league’s like the NBA skew toward a younger age demographic – most notably, the all-important 18-49 age demographic. One of the reasons the NBA is considered the most popular American professional sports league among younger viewers is its fan-friendly fair use policies with respect to game footage and highlights. In fact, the NBA likes the fan-made highlight videos that pop-up on social media and video-sharing sites like YouTube so much that the league has already created various tools and platforms to assist fans in their clipping, cutting, and uploading endeavors. The league’s fair use position has increased the NBA’s presence on popular social media platforms like Twitter during live games, where users can expect to find almost instantaneous uploads of highlight-worthy dunks, ankle-breaking crossovers, buzzer beaters, and even the occasional spilled popcorn tub when a player goes crashing into the stands to save a ball.
The NFL, on the other hand, makes it nearly impossible for content developers hoping to incorporate NFL audio or video into their work. Unless it’s coming from the NFL or one of its affiliated media partners like ESPN, NBC, CBS, or the NFL Network, good luck finding any fan-made or original content elsewhere.
The second important takeaway from this study’s data involves the 2-17 age demographic. Youth viewership has been decreasing consistently between the years of 2000 and 2016, gradually making up a lower and lower percentage of each sport’s overall viewership each year. Why is this so, especially for the NBA and MLS after we just finished discussing how these leagues are skewing toward a younger viewer demographic?
Jeramie McPeek, former longtime digital media executive for the Phoenix Suns who now runs Jeramie McPeek Communications, a social media consultancy, cited the movement of younger consumers to digital platforms that aren’t factored into the traditional demographic numbers.
“It is smartphone and tablet usage by younger people who are on Snapchat or Instagram all day long and watching a lot of videos on YouTube and Netflix,” McPeek said. “Rarely are they watching TV and they are on their device constantly where they can watch videos on demand.”
Despite the fact that younger viewers may not be counted into the viewership statistics that professional sports leagues are reporting, they are there. If anything, this data helps us to understand that, not only are younger audiences following sports, but they are doing so in ways that outdated metrics cannot sufficiently capture.
Leagues like the NBA and MLS realize this. They generate content exclusively for social media platforms that cannot be found in their television broadcasts, knowing that the content is finding its way to the eyes and ears of their desired viewer demographic through social media platforms on smartphones and tablets.
So you’re probably wondering: Why did he just force-feed me 500 words on aggregated viewership metrics?
It’s no secret what viewer demographic Overwatch League is going to be marketed toward. Sure, Blizzard and its partners would love for nothing more than to attract 30 and 40-somethings to their broadcast, but esports will always skew toward the 2-17 and 18-29 age demos – the “smartphone and tablet users” that McPeek referenced earlier. Blizzard, participating teams, and content creators would do best to remember that when deciding how to best disseminate their marketing campaigns. I fully believe that the teams themselves should make every effort to connect with their local and regional fan bases on local television, but Blizzard would also be smart to repurpose some of their undoubtedly huge national advertising budget for internet and social media content creators that are more likely to connect with their ideal viewership demographic.
Don’t Leave Your Stars on the Outside Looking In
For all of the Overwatch League roster updates that have been made public already, one of the more interesting storylines centers around the players who have not yet been signed to a roster. There are still ten days for teams to sign additional players, but what happens if any number of the Overwatch scene’s most popular players are ultimately left out come November 1st?
I hate to constantly go back to drawing parallels between Overwatch and traditional sports leagues, but could you ever imagine a league like the NFL or NBA moving forward without its most popular players? I fully understand that roster construction is up to the individual teams, and unlike traditional sports, Overwatch’s most recognizable streamers are not necessarily the most talented players.
In my opinion, however, the biggest mistake that Blizzard could make leading up to the first official season would be failing to find a way to incorporate the Overwatch scene’s most well-known personalities in some type of official capacity. I’m not suggesting that every popular streamer or player needs to be rostered. Rather, these players have been essentially doing their own marketing and developing their own individual fanbases and followings for Overatch over the course of the last 18 months. By failing to find a way to incorporate these individual players, many of whom come with what amounts to built-in viewership in the tens of thousands, Blizzard could be indirectly forcing them out of Overwatch altogether to seek some other means of financial sustenance (rather than having to wait for the next iteration of the league to find a potential fit with a team).
I fully understand the business model that Blizzard is working with for Overwatch’s first season. But I do worry that the “exclusivity” factor could be detrimental to the health of the league. Since Overwatch’s release, professional players have dedicated many hours to developing their own devoted and passionate fanbases. Usually, it is the fan’s connection with the player–and not the organization he or she is attached to–that keeps them interested in the professional side of Overwatch. I know this isn’t the case for all Overwatch fans, but I can promise you that a large contingent will be less inclined to tune in for Overwatch League if their favorite player is left on the outside.
It is possible to make Overwatch League an exclusive venture when it comes to opening slots to new teams, but considering this is in many ways an experiment that will play a major role in future esports leagues, it would be best to make all other facets of Overwatch League as inclusive as possible. Don’t make the mistake of leaving the biggest names in the scene on the outside looking in. Be it Blizzard, the teams, or associated content creators: Find a way to include as many of the professional players who have worked hard to build the Overwatch brand to this point. It will pay-off in the long-run.