There’s been much anticipation for the first season of Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League. As its first effort at organizing a global competition, the developers behind the popular hero shooter are looking to take things to the next level by thrusting the game into the broader realm of esports. With 12 teams scattered across the world, each with their own unique management and sponsorships, Overwatch League blends together many ideas and practices that are commonplace in traditional sports, but within the esport arena.
Ahead of the kick-off for the first season of Overwatch League, lead producer Jeff Kaplan (who also serves as Overwatch’s game director) and league commissioner Nate Nanzer spoke about their somewhat disruptive approach to traditional esports. During our talk, they discussed the importance that community and transparency have in their league and what their hopes are for this season and beyond. While Blizzard Entertainment has deep ties within esports thanks to StarCraft’s immeasurable influence over its nearly 20-year history, Overwatch looks to be the start of a new page for the developer and its connection to the growth of its community.
For more content and info on Overwatch League, such as where you can watch online, and where to get those special league skins, be sure to check back at GameSpot as we cover the League in its first week and in beyond.
When compared to other esports games like League of Legends, StarCraft, or Counter-Strike, Overwatch is a far more accessible experience. With people of all ages and levels of experience being able to dive into the game, it’s become one of the more popular online shooters. When initially setting up the league, were you looking at the game’s accessibility to give a sort of different experience for what people can expect from an esports competition?
Jeff Kaplan: With everything that we’ve done with Overwatch from the game itself to the league, there’s always been a desire to be as inclusive with as many people as possible. We try to make things approachable both in the game and in the league structure so that somebody who’s not necessarily familiar with Overwatch or Overwatch League immediately feels welcome. That’s always the goal. It’s kind of a Blizzard goal with all of the things that we do is to speak to as many people as possible. A lot of times it gets taken the wrong way. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’re trying to dumb things down,” or, “You just want to make for the casual audience.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, there’s nothing more hardcore than trying to stand out in esports, a franchise esports league like we’ve done. It’s extremely targeted at the hardcore audience experience that we’re trying to do.
The Blizzard approach is not to make everything casual. The Blizzard approach is to find what we think is amazing as hardcore fans ourselves or hardcore players in games and then how do you bring that to as many people as possible and not be off-putting like some hardcore content and features can sometimes be.
When you look at esports, it’s very much like the rebellious younger sibling compared to traditional sports. However with Overwatch League, it adopts more traditional systems and practices that mainstream sports has–such as regional teams and a regular season with a set schedule. Do you feel that you’re still retaining the essence and freshness that esports is all about with Overwatch League?
Nate Nanzer: Yeah, I think we are. We have a very strong record at Blizzard of making great esports content and really listening to our community, and building things alongside them. And we’ve been actively listening to our community along the way with the Overwatch League, and if you look at our talent, we’ve hired a world-class-talent team that have all been doing esports for a very long time. Just because we’re putting a professional structure around this, at the end of the day we’re still very authentic to esports.
There will be memes, there will be kappas, there will be all of those things. We’re fans of this content too, so at the end of the day, people should know that everyone who works on Overwatch League is a huge fan of the game, huge fan of what we’re doing. We’re a little bit doing this for ourselves too; one of the things I’m most excited about this week is finally being able to watch all these teams play week in, week out. There’s great players that we’ve assembled here in LA and that is what I’m most excited about and I can’t wait to see it. Fans shouldn’t be scared of additional investment and people coming into esports; it’s an awesome validation of this thing that we’ve all been doing for a very long time, playing games and watching esports. The fact that the Kraft group and Kroenkes, and all these big investors are coming into esports is a total validation that this thing that we love and we care a lot about is big, it’s important, it’s only gonna take off from here.
That’s sort of our commitment to the fans, it’s that we’re gonna always listen to the fans, we’re gonna make sure that we’re making content that resonates with them, and just know that we’re fans too, and we’re just as excited as you are to see this stuff kick off.
What are you most excited in seeing happen with the league?
JK: I think there are two things that I’m most excited for with Overwatch League and that I hope to see. The first is we have this whole cadre of amazing pro players that I feel like have really been legitimized in their career, legitimized in their talent and their skill, and they’re going to get the recognition that they deserve. I feel like under the Overwatch League structure they’re very protected as professionals, and that’s very exciting to me. These players are at an awesome point in their lives, and this is an amazing opportunity for them. To me, more than anything, this league centers around them and this opportunity. So that’s going to be exciting. I hope they get the spotlight that they deserve because they’ve earned it. It’s going to be really exciting to see it play out.
The other thing that I’m super excited about with Overwatch League is the first-time esport fan that’s never even paid attention to esports before. I know we’re going to attract some of them. For me, I can remember the first time my dad brought me to Dodger stadium. I have almost an emotional reaction to those memories. I can’t wait for the next generation to grow up with memories like that of their Overwatch League experiences. Also, for people to realize–like it’s a hard pill for some people to realize who’ve never sat down and watched esports that watching a video game be played at the highest professional level is actually amazingly exciting. I think [for] a lot of people, it’s easy for them to dismiss that or roll their eyes for that. Then they go to their first DreamHack or BlizzCon or International or hopefully Overwatch League match and they realize the energy and the excitement and the skill level of what’s being performed before them is actually amazing and a great experience. I’m really excited for those first-time esport fans.