The Most Important Job in Overwatch

Blizzard’s new FPS title Overwatch has been met with critical and commercial success, with the game even breaking League of Legends tyrannical reign over the South Korean PC Café market, becoming the most  shared game since its release. It seems destined with such a saturation of players, interest from the community as a whole and the inklings of tournaments and pro-player streams gaining popularity that Overwatch will gain momentum as an esport. Furthermore with a seasoned professional gaming developer in the form of Blizzard manning the reigns behind this burgeoning title’s expansion into the esports scene, the prospect of packed stadiums and six figure prize pools is not an unrealistic prospect. However, as Overwatch shakes off initial growing pains and tournament organisers start to fold in large international LAN events, I foresee that the most important job in maintaining casual and to some degree hardcore interest will be the observer(s) of professional games.

Observers are – in the overall scope of esports –  a relatively new  but welcome addition to the paid talent line-up alongside casters, analysts, desk hosts and interviewers. Observers play an integral role in managing the in-game camera during a broadcast and they control a large percentage of what thousands to millions  of people are watching on stream. Although in all the different games of esports, Observers are crucial in expanding the feel of a broadcast from clunky and amateurish to slick and professional , in Overwatch they could prove to be the most pivotal. To see why, let’s analyse the game mechanics and functions of an observer in the two most popular esport titles right now – League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global-Offensive.

league teamfight
A chaotic League of Legends teamfight, helped out by the bird’s eye view.

As a whole, the genre of MOBA’s is beyond comprehension to the average viewer, and League of Legends is no exception to the rule. With incredibly nuanced and difficult to understand  overarching concepts like wave control, and lane swaps, combined with a constantly expanding cast of champions to keep up with, metas to analyse and patch notes to pour over, League remains a mystery to those that choose not to be thrown in the deep end. That being said the incredibly high production value of the broadcast, professionalism and experience of the casters to decompress what’s happening on the screen, and the entire game being set from a off-tilted bird’s eye view gives a softening blow to the potentially head-trauma inducing level of prerequisite knowledge needed to understand the basics of a stock standard game. What’s key is that the viewer has a very large scope of vision as to what is happening on the screen, the observer can capture almost all of the key moments in action simply by zooming out, and so although the mechanics of the action itself might be difficult to wrap your head around, actually viewing the action isn’t as troubling of a task. So although without a talented observer the game would definitely lose its polished Riot Games edge, it is not as necessary as the other functions of a broadcast such as the casters.

eleague observer
The observer set-up for an ELEAGUE CS:GO match. Photo credit: @priuscsgo

CS:GO on the other hand has while admittedly some deep and difficult  tactics and mechanics to comprehend, a significantly lower barrier to entry for an average gamer/esports fan to watch. A team based FPS, the idea of 5 terrorists vs 5 counter-terrorists, shoot the bad guys and plant/defuse the bomb to win is easily accessible. That being said, because the game is entirely spectated within first person it puts a lot more pressure onto the observer to catch kills happening across the map. With the scope of the game’s scale changing between every map and the viewer being limited to one point-of-view, it is entirely up to the observer to manipulate the POV’s of ten different players simultaneously to catch a killing blow or important information before an execute. If it wasn’t for a group of talented observers all of which have an intimate knowledge with the game, the entire viewing experience could be hindered by not being able to see the key draw of a CS:GO broadcast, individual players skill and the team dynamic. This is directly opposite to how a League of Legends broadcast operates, but not necessarily in a bad way as it allows CS:GO to be broadcasted to a more mainstream audience (like the televised ELEAGUE). But how does any of this relate to observers in Overwatch?

overwatch-gameplay

Well Overwatch has the unfortunate pairing of both  a fairly high barrier to entry – with a wide cast of characters, each fulfilling a unique role and with different abilities – and the entire game being in first person. In order to effectively portray a broadcast the tournament organisers and talent line-up will have to deal with the challenges of League’s high barrier to entry with CS:GO’s almost exclusively one POV. This is where the games observer will come into pivotal play. They  will need to strike a solid balance between zooming out to view the beginning of a fight over a control point or payload contention, and balancing the POV of high damage and entertaining characters like Widowmaker, Pharah and Genji, with the less flashy and more defensive/supportive characters like: Mercy, Junkrat, and D.va. Furthermore, not only do they have to tackle with the management of twelve potentially vastly different opportunities to showcase action through a unique perspective, but when there is a chaotic contention over a payload checkpoint, or king of the hill point the observer will have to balance between showing the setup of the fight from the team’s perspective through an overhead shot, and highlight individual plays through the player’s perspective. To use a sports analogy to illustrate how important the function of observers in Overwatch will be, imagine watching Game 7 of the NBA finals but instead of having a myriad of different camera angles from high in the stands to on the backboard and around the court, all the players on both the bench and in the game had a GoPro strapped to their head and that was the only camera angles you could use. How difficult would it be to manage the viewing of defensive pressure, player movement around the court, and potential openings, whilst still getting that integral first person view of a game changing dunk, block or shot.  In this  hypothetical situation the people controlling which perspective to control will be the ones that hold the key to how accessible and enjoyable the game will be to watch. This is why the observer for Overwatch games will play such a big role in keeping the barrier to entry for Overwatch as a spectator esport low, and why the role of an Observer should be taken on by a person or people that have deep understanding of the game and how to effectively portray the different roles and perspectives of the game to an audience that has limited knowledge of the game. However just as Overwatch takes in both of the problems of League and CS:GO, it also takes in the potential to create a truly unique viewing experience that fills a gap in the current esports landscape and could – given the right talent – become an international phenomena that surpasses some of its  FPS counterparts like CoD and Halo. In order for Overwatch to successfully fulfil this potential the game will need to be easily accessible to a large audience, and this responsibility due to the specifics of Overwatch as a game, falls onto the shoulders of the unsung heroes that are willing to accept it, the silent vigil, the underappreciated gatekeeper to the mainstream fans, the Overwatch observer.

Written by Max Melit – @max_melit

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Max Melit

I write CS:GO and Overwatch content for Break the Game. Outside of writing, watching, and thinking about esports I listen to far too many podcasts, study full time as a student and watch my local Rugby Union side lose every Saturday.