Most traditional sports share the common objective of getting a ball to a specific area, whether it be a net, basket or end zone. Casual viewers can watch these sports and comprehend which team is doing better, even without knowing the underlying strategy. We also innately understand the abilities that humans have — they can run, jump, dive, etc.
Esports throws all of that out the window — we are now dealing with virtual characters with make-believe abilities in a virtual world. The possibilities are endless.
For first-time viewers, it’s hard to understand the objective of many esports titles. Pushing a payload, capturing a point or destroying a base is not an intrinsically obvious task. To non-esports fans, that last sentence was gibberish. That’s the problem.
I’m decently well-versed in esports, so when the Overwatch League began its inaugural season last year, I tuned in. I had played the game a few times and thought I understood it well enough to enjoy watching a professional match. Wrong. I was lost, without a clue as to what was happening.
What is a payload? How do the players move it? What abilities does each hero have? These were just a few of the questions held by myself and other first-time Overwatch viewers following the league’s introduction.
A year later, Overwatch has become my most played game. I have spent hundreds of hours moving payloads, capturing objectives and controlling points. Now when I watch professional Overwatch, I understand the objective, strategy and abilities of each hero.
For esports like Overwatch to be a part of the mainstream sports schedule, it can’t require hours of playtime for viewers to understand the basics. This issue is compounded by the fact that esports are broadcasted in a completely different manner from traditional sports.
Think of the last sport you watched. How was the game shot? What did the camera see?
The answer is all of the action. Wide shots are used for every play in sports. This helps the viewer understand the arena — where players are in relation to each other, the basket, goal or sidelines. Close-up shots are reserved for replays or highlights.
Imagine trying to watch football from the perspective of the players. Prior to the snap you see what the center sees. After he snaps the ball, you watch from the eyes of the quarterback. He throws the ball and the camera goes to the wide shot. As the receiver is about to reel in the pass, you see his point of view. That’s basically how esports are broadcasted. It is incredibly disorienting and makes it difficult for viewers to understand what is happening.
Watching a fast-paced title like Overwatch can be confusing. What the viewer sees on screen is constantly changing, jumping between different players’ point-of-view and third person map-wide shots. While it provides an added perspective for more experienced viewers, this shift makes it difficult for first-time viewers to grasp the context of the game.
How do we fix this issue? It’s not a simple solution.
Game developers, streaming services and tournament/league organizers have to make some serious changes. I am not calling for a complete overhaul of competitive video games. There is little room to manipulate the games themselves before they become too simplified for professional play. Rather, the focus should be placed on helping the viewer understand what is happening.
Simple changes, like spending more time on wide shots or explaining the objective for the game mode about to be played, would give viewers a smoother transition into this new world of esports.
However, I will give the Overwatch League some credit. Of the esports I have watched, they have done by far the best job in simplifying the viewing experience.
Before each round, the commentators explain the objective and offer commentary during the game to explain what is happening, how certain abilities work and what to look for. For the most part, they do a decent job of capturing the action from a third person view. And unlike many other esports, OWL has a season format with games every night Thursday-Sunday, so viewers always know when to tune in.
If you are interested in understanding what esports are all about, I suggest you watch an Overwatch League match. You’re not going to understand everything within a couple minutes; it will take time to understand the intricacies of a professional esport, but I guarantee that after a couple games you’ll start to understand the general objectives.
However, the burden should not fall on the viewers; they should not have to spend hours watching or studying a game just to understand the basic concept. It should ultimately be the responsibility of tournament and league organizers, game developers and streaming services to make the game comprehensible.
For esports to be a part of the mainstream sports world any time soon, the industry needs to find a more effective way to broadcast matches to make games more accessible to new viewers. To the readers, I hope this column will give you a glimpse into the rapidly growing world of esports and encourage you to approach these sports with an open mind.
Sam Arslanian is a junior writing about esports. He is also a former sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Plug & Play,” runs every other Wednesday.