Without fans tuning in, an esport is nothing more than a video game.
Over the last half-decade, a slew of publishers have tried to cash in on the esports craze to no avail, preaching their video game as the "next great esport" and watching as the money they invested vanishes faster than a teenager browsing through Twitch.
Since its inception, Overwatch has been held up on a pedestal as the next video game with the actual potential to break into the Big Three of esports: League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2. Overwatch has sold like wildfire, and as of April, over 30 million people play the game. Given the popularity of Overwatch, Blizzard (the game's publisher) is pushing it as an esport. The logical conclusion is that Overwatch will be a slam dunk, maybe even with the potential to surpass the current leaders of the esports movement.
Yet as it stands today, Overwatch hasn't broken through the top ranks of esports, not by any stretch of the imagination.
If you were in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, that statement would surprise you, however.
In front of a specialized stage at the Lotte World Tower, it seemed nothing could be bigger in the world of esports. It was the final of OGN's Overwatch APEX Season 3 - OGN is a Seoul-based cable TV station -- and the two best teams in the world were duking it out. The favorite was defending champion Lunatic-Hai, playing its strongest challenger, KongDoo Panthera; the clubs had split matches earlier in the tournament. It was the classic battle between a world-class defense and a world-class offense: Lunatic-Hai fields the best tank and support duos in the world, and Panthera matches with the flashy firepower of Kim "Rascal" Dong-joon and Kim "Birdring" Ji-hyuk.
The characters and narratives were there, and the play itself matched the prematch trash talk and theatrics. The two sides knocked each other around over the course of the best-of-seven series, Panthera cornering and nearly knocking out the reigning champ on several occasions but never managing to keep the crowd favorite down. When the seventh and final game came down to a test of wills on Numbani, a map that favored the challenger, the "Golden Boys" of South Korea, Lunatic Hai, won the war of attrition, edging Panthera to capture its second APEX title in a row in dramatic fashion.
The final had everything: top-quality production provided by OGN, superstar players such as Birdring and Ryu "ryujehong" Je-ong from Lunatic-Hai, engrossing narratives, fans in droves watching live, and a match quality that amplified everything else around it. It was the perfect night of Overwatch; a great champion faced an equally great challenge, and when the crowd went home, not even the Panthera fans could look back on the night as a disappointment.
Outside of South Korea, however, when you roll out the entire world map, that same quality and excitement is lacking. The announcement of the Overwatch League at last year's BlizzCon was supposed to usher in of a new age in esports, and while that still might be the case, the Western scene has almost been frozen in place since that announcement. Teams and tournaments have popped up over the last year, and as fast as they entered Overwatch, they exited the scene even quicker. As the official window for signing players in the Overwatch League has commenced, the promise of the league is coming, but is it too late?
The numbers online on Twitch for tournaments, when compared to other top events, are tepid at best. And the one league that is excelling -- OGN's APEX -- still hasn't brought in the country's top sponsors like Samsung and SK Telecom T1. After the difficulties StarCraft II had in South Korea and the recent disbanding of the majority of the top South Korean Overwatch teams, it shouldn't come as a the surprise that the likes of Samsung and SKT are slow to attach themselves to a new Blizzard game.
Also, the players on Lunatic-Hai and other top South Korean teams would be on top of most owners' boards who want to build a team in the millionaire-owned Overwatch League. A North American team could feasibly field all South Koreans if the management wished. What happens, for example, if Lunatic-Hai, the team that is the glue that holds APEX together, gets picked up by a team in North America? What if two players stay in South Korea to play on the Seoul team, two go over to a team in Boston, and the other pair signs with San Francisco's NRG? It would be a dagger in the hearts of South Korean fans who have stood by Lunatic-Hai since its inception in Overwatch.
Without the marquee sponsors, and with the threat of losing top talent to the Overwatch League, APEX's standing could become what the Korean baseball league, the KBO, has become to America's Major League Baseball -- a fun but somewhat feeder league where the top talents get signed by the more prominent MLB teams when they prove themselves ready. And if the Overwatch League fails and those players are allowed back into APEX, by the time it's done, would the fans still be there?
Saturday's final proved that Overwatch can become something special. The spectator view needs to be made friendlier for casual viewers (a promise Blizzard has made) and other details in the game need to be ironed out, but the fan base and high level of play that brings people back are there if Blizzard can succeed in nurturing the Overwatch League.
No one knows what the future holds for teams like Panthera and Lunatic-Hai as the initial seven Overwatch League franchises begin to scout and sign players. If last weekend was the last time those two clubs in their current form played against each other, they made a declaration to Blizzard with their last dance in Seoul: If you give us the tools to succeed, we will make sure your faith wasn't misplaced.