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Interview

Richard Lewis on Overwatch League

By Mark Register
Oct 23, 2017

Oh Lord. OK well let's do it then. Let's be absolutely clear about why the Overwatch league exists. OK? Blizzard have made a significant and amazing contribution to esports. No doubt about it. Accidentally, you see? That's the problem. They did it accidentally. I remember interviewing Blizzard employees where they explicitly said, and this is as late as I think 2012, that explicitly said we do not care about esports. If we make a great game first and it happens to be a successful esport, great. But we do not care. But then esports took off and it made crazy amounts of money. So first they tried to fix StarCraft II which should have been... again they had all the tools at their disposal. Should've been amazing, right? They should have done WCS format when it first came out. They didn't have the vision so they didn't do it. They try to throw money at the problem and region locking it all this and everyone was like you ‘know what, I'm bored now sorry.’ We had a major event every weekend with the same casters as every week. And you know and money just flying everywhere and now people are bored of it. You're lost.

Then I remember, because Blizzard used to like me, and I remember talking to Blizzard employees and they said we're going to lock down the Heroes of the Storm. I'm like guys OK few things. You come in late to the MOBA party just in case you don't know. And then second of all like you want to do a WCS format which has just failed in one game and you want to do it in a MOBA that isn't even a proper MOBA. And why do I say that? Because it was designed in a way where you really can't carry, not to the same degree you can in DotA or League of Legends, it's kind of more team focused and they deliberately made that design choice. Let me tell you about esports fans, I know a thing or two about them. They like to follow the best players. They don't care ‘oh we're all the same on a team’ that's boring. You don't want five clones who all play at the same ability. You want a God who just come. You want a Dendi. You know you and somebody like this, you know a Faker. Right? Somebody who's just on a team and it's just outrageous, you know, at that moment in time. The player that wins you games. You don't really have those names in Heroes of the Storm. And because of that design choice, I think it was hampered by the fact that came late, so he threw a bunch of money that. Can we be honest about it. It failed as an esport. Hey they even didn't put fundamental things in the game, like you have to use a separate website to show the drafting system at home.

Hearthstone, accidental success again. Not an esport, not esports ready in any way shape or form. Took off because it's a popular game that borrows from a popular IP in the form of World of Warcraft. Does it have a spectator client? Yeah I don't think it does. How can you not make... You had to replay system in Starcraft! You've actually actively gone backwards.

So OK Blizzard have had a checkered history with esports. But then when they saw it take off they were like 'wow everyone's getting paid now. Christ we kind of built this by accident so we should get something out of it.’ And I know this because they were, one of the reasons they liked the idea of the Activision Blizzard buying MLG was because it had a TV platform because when they, I think when they saw twitch go to Amazon for $970 million, they were ‘like our games helped that... do we get any?’ Twitch were like ‘nah of course not this is our thing.’ So they wanted a TV solution. They've even had talks with Azubu at one point. I'm very glad for Blizzard they avoided that train wreck. That's absolute dumpster fire. But, you know, they wanted MLG TV as a TV solution for Call of Duty and for whatever games they wanted to put out. They're not going to use it like that I don't think. I think too far down the beaten path now.

But then they really started flexing and this is where Overwatch comes in. They've designed the game to have this populist appeal. I have no problem with that whatsoever. It's fine but they've ignored some fundamental rules about esports. Class based shooters do not do well as an esport. It's too much information. You have all the complexities of a MOBA with loads of different things happening and different visual abilities. First-person Shooters must be simple to watch. Gun, crosshair, bullets, that it. I only know what the gun does by looking at the gun. I kind of like 50 different things shooting out the end of a gun and have to like follow the color of the bullets to know whether it's going to stun them or kill them. What is this nonsense? The average fan can grasp that. So it's a huge challenge. That's why it never worked. So first of all you game choice is outrageously stupid. Second of all, has there ever been an esport succeed that was forced as an esport? Anyone? No one? Yeah no no takers because there hasn't been one. You can't force it. You have to organically build up a community. You have to make a really good game that people are engaged with and want to dedicate hours to and the player base that I'm talking to from Overwatch, I'm talking to ex-TF2 player who are like I'm here to make money. That's the pros, by the way. And the average casual player is just like wow the balance is all out of whack. You just kill this kill it. You're changing things. The patches are coming too fast. None of us can keep up. Blizzard don't even know how balance the game. People are bored. They're not having fun. Hours are going down. It is very much a casual experience and again I'm sorry you cannot synthesize and esport from that. So blizzard have a lot to do just to get the game in shape.

So all of that said here's what we do. We we are going to use the success of League of Legends. We're going to use the success of DotA's International particularly, and everything Valve has done in CS:GO and we are going to create a document, which I've read, the Morgan Stanley document this is legendary. If you can get your hands on it you will... It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen. They're comparing esports to the WWE and stuff like this you know? It's like how long I've been around for? OK good. Yeah. And they've literally duped venture capital companies, who've got money to spend you know. You know how venture capitalists work right? It's like they're placed in a series of bets at a series of tables. They don't care because one of them will win. If you lose 60 mil but one investment comes in and makes you a hundred mill it's all fair game. You got the money to play with. And they've dupe a bunch of people into sort of investing in it. I would not have advised it. I don't think it's a wise investment. I think dropping $20 million to have a slot in a league with no proof of concept. When you get 20,000 people watching the premiere tournament that's being played right now. And you know... this is madness. And I've seen these bubbles before. They are dangerous because when people buy in stuff and if it collapses all of that money disappears. All of those jobs disappear. All of that investment disappears. And you won't see any of those people affected for a few years. So this is why I'm not resistant to it. I've said I actually want it to succeed just because of what the consequences will be if it doesn't. But everything about this is wrong. It's too expensive. The game isn't attracting a hardcore audience. The money is too much for startups.

Again, I saw Hastr0 he's out of his mind these days. He said on Twitter he's like going show me the viewing figures for the first year of League of Legends. OK I will. I didn't have to pay 20 million to get in that league. I just got a team and paid them a low level salary in season one. That was all I had to do. Minimum investment. It leads to growth. All right. OK. So this is insane is absolute insanity what's going on at the Overwatch league and it's dangerous. I don't want massive venture capital firms that first experience getting burned for 20 mil. They're never coming back to this. So Blizzard have a huge responsibility on their shoulders and I wish they could see a little bit further than just ‘we want to get ours.’ I think that's really negative for one of the major players in the esports industry. So you know, am I on board with it? Absolutely not. Blizzard will certainly not involve me in any capacity with it at this point. You know I've already heard from people that they certainly think my attitude is unacceptable but I care about esports I don't care about Blizzard. You know? I care about the bigger picture and I think as it stands the Overwatch League has the potential to be incredibly harmful and burn a bunch of people.

Interview
Richard Lewis
Mark Register profile
Mark Register
Mark is the Editor-in-Chief @ Blitz Esports. He was the creator of Esports in a Nutshell, led production @ the Young Turks for 5 years, and in his other lifetimes won an Oscar, recorded albums (on Spotify), and most importantly spent a summer as a SeaWorld performer.
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