Although improvements have been made, esports still largely exclude non-gamers from watching. Some of the problems include viewing platforms, how the pro players are presented, and even the tournaments themselves. Blizzard offers a new solution to these problems in how they structured their Overwatch League (OWL). OWL names teams based on geography, where each team has a city’s name and then some other word. By tackling many secondary issues, the progressive team name system makes it much easier for non-gamer viewers to enjoyably watch this esport.
Using worldwide cities in the title of each team gives something for viewers to support. In traditional sports, it’s common for people to support a team simply because they share a city or region. Even if a team is bad, the team will get support from the people living near their headquarters. Before OWL, esports teams didn’t do that, so the uninitiated viewer couldn’t find a roster and quickly choose a team to support. Rather than dedicating time to research, it was easier to just not watch.
The geographic aspect of the team also overwrites the issue of players’ nationalities. Previously in esports, team rosters had an international flair. It typically wasn’t possible for a person to support their country’s team and thus their countrymen (unless you were South Korean). International rosters are still alive in OWL, but the team names suggest they stand for a certain city. A casual viewer in London will still root for “London Spitfire” even though the team has exclusively South Korean players. Viewers suddenly don’t have to search for players of their nationality, who may or may not exist. Their investment can go quickly and easily into the teams instead.
In addition, they also don’t actively exclude this viewing base. As mentioned, the format of names in traditional sports is a location plus some sort of common object, which is then turned into a mascot. Everybody knows what a ram and a red sock are, so it isn’t odd or uncomfortable to have those items be present in team names. Some esports teams picked names that have greater significance, such as “Cloud9,” but many have names that otherwise don’t have obvious meanings. “Navi” and “Vici” mean nothing to a new viewer, or even worse, they suggest significance only within the game’s culture which would require more research, another deterrent. OWL move away from esports tradition towards the non-gamers by making names such as “Dallas Fuel” and “Boston Uprising.” These aren’t names that would fit into traditional sports, but they serve the purpose of being familiar terms, which is more than enough.
This team structure could also add stability to the individual teams, something esports traditionally lacked. It can be hard for non-gamer viewers to follow the participating teams because there is no equivalent in traditional sports for esports level of fluidity. Teams disappear and new ones form in the span of one off-season, but new teams sometimes share a majority of the old players, with only a few new faces and a new name. Team structure was essentially less formal in esports than traditional sports. On OWL’s website, they describe how they want to “create teams for years to come,” suggesting that the current lineup of teams will be consistent with next year’s roster. This structure feeds into the non-gamer’s expectations much more than any previously explored esports model, which hopefully attracts non-gamers enough to make them return.
The less blatant aspect of a team is the team color, which plays a big role in improving the viewing experience. Overwatch, and other games used to rely on arbitrary colors to denote opposing teams. The classic combination is red and blue. This quickly became confusing to watch because the colors had no significance. Watching only one match, it is easy enough to remember which team has which color, but each consecutive match requires you reject that information and quickly assimilate new info. An arbitrary color scheme would already be overwhelming to a non-gamer, but the overload of information worsens it. Since each team in OWL has its own color, like a traditional sports team, it is easier for non-gamers to assign meaning to what they are seeing.
OWL’s team system doesn’t tackle the main problem non-gamers face while watching esports, but it does a wonderful job of addressing many of the secondary problems. Innovations like this allow esports to still have their own charm and flavor while becoming more accessible. The road to mainstream integration is still long, but OWL took a much bigger step down that road than most institutions have. If other organizations follow this lead, esports across the board may become more accessible.