Why Overwatch’s South Korean coup matters
How has Overwatch unseated an unstoppable titan in a matter of weeks? We investigate.
Crown and king should not be conflated – the latter is forever destined to be replaced. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes years, but in the end, the mantle must pass to another. No reign lasts forever, and League of Legends may be drawing on, at least in one nation.
Establishing who is currently sitting atop the throne in competitive gaming is a complicated process; it’s not as clear-cut as a real-world coronation. Player numbers is a favoured metric in identifying the leader of the pack, as is profitability – sensible markers which give glimpse into how well each game is performing, but the true mark of royalty lies somewhere else.
The jewel in the crown of competitive gaming is not a number or quotable statistic, but a feeling: the love of the South Korean gaming scene. There can be no higher praise for a competitive game than success in Seoul. To achieve dominance in a region which favours mechanics over aesthetics and is, if such a thing exists, the pro-gaming holy land, is the supreme mark of distinction, and an indicator of a prevailing wind in eSports.
And in recent weeks this wind has swiftly changed direction. As recorded by the site Gametrics, after four years as the most played game in South Korea’s PC bangs, League of Legends has been ousted by Overwatch, a game which has only officially been on the market for a couple of months. South Korea has a new sweetheart, and her name is D.Va.
League still possesses a huge advantage in terms of worldwide player numbers, but inside the LAN cafes of South Korea, the game has taken a massive hit. At one time, games on the plain of Summoner’s Rift accounted for more than 50 percent of all games played in PC bangs; now the charts tell a very different story. In the past week, LoL matches made up 23.79 percent of the total, whilst Overwatch took home 33.46 percent. After four weeks at the top of the charts, Overwatch’s popularity is still showing no sign of abating.
Though the question of whether Blizzard’s shooter will remain on top – to which no one can know the answer for sure – is far less interesting than the question of how and why it managed to get there in the first place.
Some have cited the clear novelty of Overwatch as the catalyst for its stratospheric rise. Team Fortress 2 wasn’t a smash hit in South Korea and first person shooters have played second fiddle to MOBAs and RTS games since the 90s. Blizzard’s fusion of ability-based mechanics and straight-up point and shoot is familiar enough to be inviting and alien enough to be exciting.
There is merit to this theory, as well as the notion that the game’s undeniably polished design was enough to win people over, plain and simple. Credible though these versions of events may be, they overlook one key fact: Blizzard released its most powerful weapon during a time when League of Legends players are rebelling.
Earlier this year Riot permanently banished the solo queue from League of Legends and replaced it with the ‘dynamic queue’. Where previously it was only possible to climb the ladders by yourself, or with one other party member, it’s now possible to jump into ranked games with four friends and improve your own ranking. Dynamic queue also introduced the ability to select two preferred roles (top, bot, jungle etc) before entering the lobby, in an attempt to prevent arguments and reduce queue times.
Neither of these features have gone down well with all high-ranking players. Complaints vary from funky matchmaking which puts five premades against a team of randoms, to long queue times which assign roles that aren’t either of those the player selected. Bjergsen reported that fellow TSM team-mate Hauntzer experienced this exact problem, and after waiting three minutes to enter a game as top or mid, he was assigned support.
Riot recently announced that the solo queue, which afforded players greater autonomy and put less emphasis on algorithmic organisation, is dead forever. The decision has enraged much of the high-elo league aristocracy, who are adamant that the dynamic queue system “isn’t League”, to paraphrase an oft heard complaint in online forums.
It takes time, but bad feeling seeps into a community’s bones from the top down, and discontent about the game’s new systems will, albeit indirectly, sour some of the excitement that has always surrounded League’s competitive aspect. The eSports industry is far more visible in South Korea than in other countries, and the head of the snake far better connected to the tail comprised of more casual players. If there’s bad mojo going round, the people on the ground will likely feel it faster, whether they’re playing at home, or in a PC bang.
Whilst all this is happening, in strolls Overwatch – a game with a slew of problems regarding its ‘Competitive mode’ but in which choice over roles, and matchmaking in general, behave a lot more like League’s solo queue once did. Players select heroes (and thereby roles) whilst in the lobby, not before they queue, and although the game’s matchmaking is sometimes wonky, ranked mode is still in its early genesis. League has been established for years, and understandably, players care about their ELO a great deal. In Overwatch, players can be far more laissez-faire with regard to their personal standing; after all, the system may change tomorrow.
Riot have attempted to calm angry voices by reiterating that dynamic queue is still a work in progress, but the games industry, waits for no man and no individual feature. Overwatch landed at the perfect moment, and inadvertently capitalised on a moment when the world’s biggest game was uncharacteristically vulnerable. Supposition though it may be, the move to Blizzard’s team FPS can be seen as a kind of protest against developments which have left portions of the League community feeling disenfranchised.
It’s also worth noting the sheer heft of Blizzard’s titanic reputation in South Korea. Heroes of the Storm may not have taken flight within its borders, but Brood War was the progenitor of the country’s burgeoning eSports scene, and the undisputed favourite for over a decade. When at its peak, three TV channels were broadcasting games of StarCraft non-stop to their audience, and although the StarCraft II scene has waned in the wake of the MOBA revolution, Blizzard’s impression is still strongly felt, so much so that Brood War is still one of the top 10 most-played games in the country’s PC Bangs. For a title which is knocking on 20 years of age, that’s an incredible statistic.
It is still unclear whether this shift in popularity will blossom into a full blown mutiny – the Overwatch esports scene is still in its infancy and League is still a wildly popular game in South Korea. The passion for Blizzard’s latest hit may subside over time, and the South Korean charts establish a more even equilibrium, but it could just as easily be an early indicator of what’s to come for both titles. Every reign must end, the question is whether Overwatch will be the game to deal the killing blow and don the golden circlet for itself.