As it currently stands, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League–a hybrid of both esports/traditional sports systems–is already a solid success. With the closing of Stage 1–the first of five phases leading up to the Season 1 playoffs later this year–the London Spitfire came out on top against their current rivals in the New York Excelsior. While the end of the first part of the season is a major milestone, there’s still a ways to go as we inch closer to the grand finals later this year. In the meantime, there’s much room for growth and change for the League and the many teams over the next few stages.
While the League itself is has been gaining traction and found an audience of diehard fans, there’s still plenty of room for improvement–which the organizers are well aware of. We had the opportunity to speak with Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer during the Stage 1 finals, where he spoke about how things are progressing with Blizzard’s big gamble on esports, how they plan to refine how the games are run, and how they hope to make their sport as welcoming and inclusive as Overwatch itself is.
GameSpot: Even though it’s only been a few weeks for Stage 1, it already feels like Overwatch League is off to a solid start. Can you share your thoughts on how things are going so far with the League?
Nate Nanzer: Yeah, I think we’re off to a good start. There’s tons of things we want to continue to iterate on and improve, but right now we’re just really focused on figuring out how to continue to evolve and improve the show throughout the year, and have all of that culminate in the awesome finals event. But yeah, that’s the focus right now, and it’s really awesome that people are happy with it. Nothing is broken, so right now we’re just focusing on making it better. Our goal is to just make every stage and every season better than the last.
Esports is still in its infancy, and sort of trying to define what it is seems like a tough challenge. The sports genre is always evolving, and having this League try to define itself within the broader and evolving esports pantheon must a tough thing to get a handle of.
Yeah, that’s sort of the idea here. The thing about esports, with it being this awesome and organic thing, was really hard for people to follow–like there was no one place to go to aggregate the information–so we wanted to make following the Overwatch League really easy and have a consistent schedule. It’s been amazing to see all these teams play week in week out, and how the playing field has leveled. I think everyone coming into the League had certain ideas about which teams were good, and which teams were bad. And that in itself is exciting from the fan perspective.
Sports always has an underlying sense of drama to it, and you may end up finding yourself becoming attached to teams you didn’t expect you would. The Shanghai Dragons in particular haven’t been doing so great so far, yet I can’t help myself to root for them. Especially with their recent inclusion to the roster in Geguri, who’s the first female player in the League.
That’s one of the things that’s common in all of sports. Fandom often times is generated from familiarity with something, like your dad liking a team or being in the city where you grew up, or being a part of the same college, and we’re seeing that a lot here–such as the fans that drove up here to watch the finals to support their local team. Or, and in a lot of cases, you see fandom generated from the players themselves. And also, fans tend to like rooting for the underdog–which is why there are so many people hoping to see Shanghai turn things around. It’s really exciting to see how players have taken to game, the teams, and the players themselves. But all in all, it’s really cool seeing a bunch of fans come together whether at watch parties or online to come out and support their local teams. It’s really cool seeing how the regionality of it all is taking shape.
The game of Overwatch is something that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness, and it’s what many fans find most endearing about it. Do you feel there’s still room to go for the League itself, in terms of the regionality of the teams, and representation to match up with what the game is all about?
Well as of now, there’s 113 players in the League currently from 19 different countries. It’s an incredibly diverse league. Obviously we have players from Korea and China, but then we have players like Nomy is from Tijuana, and dhaK is from Venezuela. The League looks like what our playerbase looks like–with players from all over the world. One of the cool things about esports is that there are no physical differences between female and male players at this level, and we’re going to see things change and evolve over time. As a game, and as a league, we take professionalism and being a good citizen of our community very seriously. We’re not gonna solve toxicity on the internet and gender equality issues on our own, and it’s a bit unreasonable that one game is going to solve all those problems, but we definitely want to make Overwatch League just as welcoming and inclusive as Overwatch the game is, and we’re gonna do our best to do that.
With the League in its infancy, and there’s bound to be a few missteps here and there from players and also in how its systems function. Can you speak to how the League will go about addressing upcoming changes and fixes going forward?
Well, the Overwatch League is four and a half weeks old, and I don’t think we’re gonna have all the answers right away, and who knows what the League will look like three, four, five, ten years from now, so what we’re really focused on is just listening to all of our feedback from our players, our teams, our community–and making changes where we need to. We’ve already changed the order of the maps and flow our games, and we’ve always been iterating things, but at some point when designing a eague like this you have to put a flag in the ground and say “alright, this is what we’re doing”–but I think we’re gonna be very quick about something that needs fixing or needs to be addressed in a certain way, then we’re not going to be precious about our original decisions. We’re constantly listening to feedback from all of our stakeholders.
For more content on our coverage of Overwatch League, check out our additional interviews with Nate Nanzer and Game Director Jeff Kaplan about the making of the League, and how Overwatch can be the game to push esports into the mainstream.