Esports is a huge part of Blizzard's focus when it comes to games, as their games strive to be more competitive and more watchable. StarCraft II, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm all have huge competitive scenes, and even World of Warcraft's Arena mode has a history with esports. So why would Overwatch be any different?
We spoke to Jeff Kaplan -- the Game Director for Overwatch and a 14 year veteran at Blizzard -- about how the team is approaching esports.
"We're very excited about esports, we're big believers in esports as a company but also as a game team," he told us during our interview. "The first thing that the game team is going to do is to continue developing our broadcast and spectate tools. We already think that some of the features we added to Custom game for this Beta patch will really appeal to people trying to run tournaments and that sort of thing. For example, you don't have to restart the map every time. You can set up a map rotation or if you just want to play five matches on Temple of Anubis, for example, we now allow you to do that. We're trying to give functionality and tools to the people who are running tournaments and having competitive matches happen."
The changes to Custom Games (formerly Private Games) are significant, in fact, allowing hosts to do a lot to manage the type of game competitors will experience.
"You can now set-up a map rotation, so if you only wanted to play Control game mode you could set up a map rotation that only had the [new with this update] Nepal map and the Lijiang Tower map in that," Jeff told us enthusiastically. "Beyond that, beyond picking maps, which is cool, but it's pretty basic, we went crazy with the features. You can set a lot of features that really open up new rule sets.
"For example, you can set a flag that allows you to, when you're playing on the server, players spawn as a random different hero every time they die," he continued. "You can set a flag to not allow hero switching if you want. You can set it up so one team can only be Hanzo and the other team can only be Genji if you want. You can set it so head-shots only is the way the map is going to be played. There are options to allow you to tune how fast people gain ultimate ability charge. You can tune hit points so if you want everybody to die super fast or live a really long time you can adjust all of that."
Providing players with the tools needed to practice in a variety of different scenarios is critical to a game's growth as an esport, and it's clear Blizzard knows that. There's obviously more to it, however, and Blizzard isn't wasting any time there either.
"The other big thing is we're definitely planning to do some organization around Overwatch and the esport itself to help people really define how should Overwatch be played as an esport," Jeff detailed. "We don't have anything to announce right now but it's something we're really interested in and we're working really hard on. We have a lot of people focused on what Overwatch esports should be about, how can we best serve the community, and how can we best serve pro-players."
One of the things returning Overwatch players might notice is the absence of any sort of ranking system -- players have their levels, which is tied to the brand new progression system, but there isn't an actual Ranked Play the way there is in other games (liked Heroes of the Storm). And Ranked Play might not actually make the game's launch in Autumn later this year.
"It's not [esport specific] but I think it's related and competitive players are interested in it, is we are actively designing out and talking about what ranked play should be for the game," Jeff told us. "We don't yet have an ETA on when ranked play is going to be in. We would like to get ranked play in for the shipping feature, but if it's not working correctly or if it's not exactly how we want it to be it will probably come shortly after launch. That's what we're actively working on right now, is ranked play."
Hopefully it makes the cut before the game launches, but it's definitely a priority nonetheless. Access to the closed beta for Overwatch is currently limited, but more beta testers are being added regularly, so make sure you opt-in via battle.net if you're determined to get involved!