Overwatch is a ton of fun, but can it be the next eSport?

May 10, 2016

There's no question about it -- five minutes of playing Overwatch, the new multiplayer online first-person shooter from Blizzard Entertainment, is enough to fall in love with the game.

The 21 available characters offer a wide range of playstyles and unique abilities, and the game is visually stunning. The learning curve feels just about right, making Overwatch equally accessible and engaging. It's easy to pick up the game and feel right at home as a FPS novice, but becoming more familiar with each character and map rewards the player with a more robust experience. Running through the game, using the abilities and fighting other people is a lot of fun, which is what a video game is all about. On that level, Overwatch absolutely succeeds.

Just how deep the game is, however remains an open question, and one that will largely determine how effective Overwatch can be as an eSport. Over this past weekend, matches were almost numbingly repetitive. Heroes such as Bastion, a robot who can turn into a devastating anti-personnel turret that also heals itself, dominated the landscape. In fact, you could play for hours and still count on one hand the number of games that didn't involve trying to work around or with Bastion.

There are counters to the ubiquitous mech -- Genji, the ninja; Roadhog, the behemoth with a meathook who can pull Bastion out of turret mode; and Widowmaker, the sniper -- but it's frustrating to know your team has to figure out a way to deal with one specific tactic on every map with a defensible objective or cart to escort.


Which is all of them; that's what defines Overwatch, along with the shiny visuals and unique characters. Without significant re-tuning or a more drastic reworking of some of the characters, the game may not have a chance to mature and see changes to the meta-game over time. Why experiment when the most effective solution is so glaringly obvious?

Of course, some of Bastion's dominance came from the nature of the open beta. Few matches, in our experience, involved much communication between teammates. On consoles, the issue seemed even more pronounced; at least on PC, there were a couple of times where someone would take the lead and shout commands through their headset. It was one-sided communication, but it made a difference. Acting as a group and sharing information allowed other characters to shine in their roles. Healers like Mercy were particularly effective with some semblance of a gameplan; combining her targeted healing with a tank like Reinhardt made for a lot of fun as a team.

On console, however (Xbox One, specifically), one was often left going solo. That was fine with a character such as Reaper, an enjoyable assassin who makes up for a lack of range with sheer firepower -- and a fun reload mechanic where he just drops his guns and grabs new ones. It's a nice aesthetic wrinkle that indicates the thought that went into making each character stand out. But sneaking up on opponents and dispatching them as a lone wolf felt like a different game, and one that could grow old quickly.

While the non-PC experience is fun in its own way, it's difficult to see Overwatch working as a competitive game on consoles. First-person shooters just play better on computer, something the game's designers admitted when asked about crossover-platform support (via Game Reactor): 

GR: Can we expect cross-platform play, and will there be an option for PC and console users to play with one another, or is that a no-go for you?

JK: That's a no-go for us. The reason is that we think there's an unfair advantage because of the type of game that it is. Mouse and keyboard gives a much higher precision, the return rate is much higher, so we just think it'd be unfair to pit those players against each other. When it comes to cross-platform play, that is something we just learned about, and we're very excited to watch where it goes, but we don't have anything prepared for launch. But we're open-minded to exploring that, if it becomes more of a thing.

That's a problem: it creates a bottleneck of the competitive Overwatch playerbase. Consoles have a lower cost of entry compared to high-end gaming PCs, yet the best players -- and the tournaments in which they participate -- will likely gravitate toward PC use. From there, the playerbase could end up segmented into the haves and the have-nots, with the latter further split among Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

The silver lining? We can't stress enough how much fun this game is, which should create a pretty large pool of players across the various platforms. Overwatch might never reach the level of some of the more competitive eSports, but it has the potential to make an impact through sheer numbers. As the eSports community at large grows, there's surely room for more casual games that help immerse players in the world of competitive gaming -- and encourage them to have fun along the way.