As the Chinese fans, saddened by France’s overtime miracle in the Overwatch World Cup quarter-finals, left the Overwatch Arena to experience the rest of what the BlizzCon show floor had in store for them, USA fans quickly snagged their seats as if part of a well-conducted orchestra. A seat would open, and a fan sporting a newly purchased red, white and blue jersey would leap for it, signalling over his friends carrying the sinatraa and Jake posters.
The crowd was full in minutes, and the many fans who were unfortunately turned away huddled around the few TVs outside the entrance, eyes fixated on the most anticipated match between South Korea and Team USA just a 15-minute break away.
When I first met Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer at BlizzCon, his eyes were similarly glued to the France-China replay on the screen. He told me he was a little nervous for "the guys," but having seen Team USA moments ago backstage, he felt confident they could pull out the win.
The replays ended. Nanzer turned to me during the break and asked what I thought—not just about Team USA’s relatively higher-than-normal chances of beating a Korean team, but about the entire Overwatch World Cup.
He asked me about the arena first.
"What do you think? Have you had the chance to watch any games?"
Then he asked about the new spectator changes, the same questions tinged with the same eagerness, equal parts curious about how it looks and worried if it’s working.
Nanzer had been waiting for this moment, not just as a fan of Overwatch or Team USA, but rather, it seemed, what arguably the most anticipated match of the Overwatch World Cup would mean for an Overwatch League debuting in a few months—a league at the center of an esports moment, a league thrown into the gauntlet of high expectations.
Since its first announcement, Overwatch League has largely lived in a haze of high expectations.
Between Krusher99 memes and excitement for what a franchised league would look like in a quickly booming esports industry, the league’s first announcement at BlizzCon 2016 was met with overall positive interest.
Sure, many were uncertain about its staying power—which of the early organizations in Overwatch esports would get a franchise spot? How would its commitment to regions (which has never been successfully executed) work?—but initial feelings still lingered somewhere in between intrigued and excited.
"When we first announced, people thought Overwatch League sounded cool, but they wanted more," Nanzer told Bleacher Report. "We had this period where we didn’t have a lot of news, and it was because doing what we’re doing—selling esports franchises—there was no playbook."
Combine the scarcity of news with fans’ initial hunger to know more, and moods quickly swayed; the expectations were placed, and there was little room for Blizzard to mess up. No longer an interesting experiment, Overwatch League had to succeed.
Nanzer knew this at the time; he sympathized with fans unable to see the league be built behind closed doors. "People didn’t have information, and if I’m on the other side, you got to wonder," he explained. He knew that the little hints at progress in between new heroes or new maps wouldn’t satiate the need to know about this larger project Blizzard was embarking on, but he also wanted to present a product instead of a vague idea.
"We set off on the journey, and we didn’t want, after we announced the league, a drip of information," he said. "We thought that that would’ve been worse because people would have ongoing questions. We wanted to wait until we had a meaningful announcement."
He continued: "Esports is a thing where it’s been so organic over the years. It’s natural to not like the new and different thing, but we’re doing this not to just to be new and different. We actually think this is the right time."
In July, Blizzard finally revealed the first seven teams to earn Overwatch League franchise spots, and by mid-December, all 12 spots were confirmed. Right time or not, the doubts—the questions of whether this league could succeed fueled by more reports of the high entry cost for such a new esport or how the franchise model would work— would remain until Blizzard had more.
Throughout the entire bidding process, San Francisco Shock and NRG Esports CEO Andy Miller felt that weight despite being one of the earliest proponents of the Overwatch scene and part of that original seven team owners announced.
Knowing the inner workings as an early team owner, Miller read the barrage of criticism against the Overwatch League. He was able to dismiss the more unfounded doubts from the valid criticisms. But even still, it never quelled the growing questions about what Blizzard was embarking upon.
"I’m still super stressed out about it," Miller said. "This isn’t a home run. This is serious investing, and we’re making a big bet that’s not proven."
He continued: "It’s a very long-term play. This is definitely the first inning and no one has figured it out yet. We’re blazing some new ground here; it just has to sort of grow into its shoes."
Kevyn "TviQ" Lindstrom had always wanted to go pro. A former Team Fortress 2 player, TviQ saw the first Overwatch announcement at BlizzCon 2015 and immediately made the switch; in the game, he saw his chance.
After making a name for himself in the early days of Overwatch esports, he saw that same chance become a reality the next year when Blizzard announced Overwatch League.
Throughout the months of franchise bidding and roster selection, TviQ always believed that the idea Blizzard presented had been sound, but because of the sheer magnitude of what Overwatch League represented. That was, until it was truly tested in the preseason.
"You were always skeptical about how Blizzard would do it," TviQ said. "At least from this preseason, they’ve succeeded pretty massively and hopefully it just stays on this course and keeps succeeding."
In the sleek, new Blizzard Arena, Overwatch League finally introduced itself to the world, and it was hard to find fault in the presentation. The production was clean. The teams and regions they represented were appealing in ways that many didn’t expect to be drawn to so soon.
The league isn’t out of the woods yet by any means; those early expectations won’t go away, and issues continue to pop up. Players have to grow into their newfound fame and learn that they’re more than just players but faces of a franchise. Team owners have to learn how to transition any sort of online momentum into representing a region that still remains one of Overwatch League’s biggest questions.
But for a moment before the moment, Nanzer’s vision was realized—with every branch of the league working toward that goal, helping each other learn and mature as the league does itself.
"We might not know each other well, but everyone’s looking to do the same thing: play the game and become the best," TviQ said. "Everybody just wants the best for the league as possible because the league decides the future for all of us."
Houston Outlaws and OpTic Gaming COO Ryan Musselman echo the sentiment, seeing OpTic’s storied history—and the greater history of staring down challenge that is esports—in the growth of Overwatch.
"We’re thinking about the long haul and hiccups and challenges, and that’s the jungle every day," Musselman said. "Overcoming challenges is something we had to do time and time again, so there’s no possible way we could say we’re not in for the long haul."
When the match ended and South Korea walked away victorious, no one exiting the arena walked away unsatisfied. The cheers for saebyeolbe’s signature Tracer were deafening, and the real challenge Team USA put up against South Korea was enough for the fans to feel proud.
Building Overwatch League was never going to be perfect, and when the inaugural season starts on Thursday, Nanzer knows it still won’t be. But that’s because perfection, at the moment, isn’t what Nanzer, owners and players care about. They just want to get better.
"We’re not doing the Overwatch League as a trial for a year; we’re making a commitment," Nanzer said. "We’re going to make this successful. There’s definitely going to be bumps. We don’t expect everything to be perfect on day one. But our goal is that every day is better than the previous day; every season is better than the previous season."