Overwatch League is Not an Anime, But it Could Be

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

“Overwatch League is not an anime.”

Those words echoed across the OWL Twitterverse two days ago, a pebble thrown into a still offseason hiatus lake. It was another hot take from Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, a lead analyst and caster of the Overwatch League, a criticism of the emotionality and unreasonable hope some fans have towards their teams. It’s true: The Overwatch League isn’t an anime. But traditional sports have benefitted from the storylines, plot twists, and redemption arcs inadvertently built by their teams for centuries. Why shouldn’t we?

Here’s the tweet in its entirety.     

I’ll take on the validity of the basic idea of the tweet later, but first, some background. Pardon me for a minute, nerds, but we’re treading into traditional sport territory.

Cubs and Dragons

My mom is a hardcore fan of the Chicago Cubs. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she was a rebel, rooting for the northsider baseball team over the local Chicago White Sox. My childhood home was full of red, blue, and Ryne Sandberg pictures, because my mom thought he was cute. Many people share her love of the Windy City’s underdogs, who have a storied reputation of…losing.

The Cubs went 108 years without making it to a World Series and 71 years without making the postseason. Rumors abound that they were cursed by a goat in 1945, a black cat in 1969, and an idiot catching a ball in the field in 2003. Despite all of this loss, loyal fans still packed the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field game in, game out. In 2016, the Cubs finally won a World Series, breaking their century-long losing streak and bringing joy to their fans.     

Listen to that storyline. To me, “A ragtag group of loveable losers finally wins in a magical, ivy-covered stadium after a hundred years of being cursed by a goat” is the most anime-sounding thing to ever happen in sports. Guess what? Chicago, and baseball as a whole, ate that story up with a spoon for a century. Sales of Cubs merchandise and game tickets have never been higher. Their anime storyline has benefitted them both emotionally and financially.  

A Shanghai fan roots in the crowd / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

The comparison within the Overwatch League is, quite obviously, the Shanghai Dragons. Despite going 0-40 the entire inaugural season, the team has an outstanding number of fans. The mid-season addition of offtank Geguri, the only woman in the League, only garnered them more well-deserved attention. By the final two stages of the season, the entire arena – including the desk –  was covered in red and black for Dragons games.

I’m not even well-versed in anime, but that sounds a whole hell of a lot like the starts of most good sports series. What will the second season bring, now that the Dragons have signed a quality roster of former Kongdoo Panthera players? Stay tuned for their (possible) victory. 

Redemption

And yet, MonteCristo states that “there are no redemption arcs.” Are there not? Every single team had some kind of redemption arc during the inaugural season, whether it was for a player, coach, or the team as a whole. Here’s an example: the Los Angeles Valiant’s slow climb to glory. The season started out rough for them; Stage 2 was a disaster, with continuous losses and questionable mistakes. However, just when we thought we’d see them relegated down with Shanghai, they picked up support Custa and offtank Space, SoOn brought out his Widowmaker, and the coaching staff rallied. They ended up taking home the Stage 4 championship.

LA Valiant wins / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

The Dallas Fuel finally found success after an entire season of disappointment, thanks to new coaching staff. NYXL’s “Big Boss” Pine has just bounced back from a mental health crisis, stronger and ready to win. The Philadelphia Fusion went from not even showing up to the preseason games (thanks to visa issues) to duking it out with London Spitfire at the Grand Finals. It turns out that the OWL is chock-full of the best kind of redemption arcs. You just have to look past your cynicism to see them.

Drama

Like many things he’s said, MonteCristo’s tweet is a good idea that’s been wrapped, fried, and powder-sugared in bad execution. On some level, he’s actually right. The Overwatch League is not an anime or a fantasy; it isn’t a pro wrestling world where the storylines are lovingly crafted to keep the drama going. From the very beginning, it’s been about winning. About monetary gain from sponsors and owners. About the bottom line.  

Real people, sometimes good players and talent, get cut. This offseason, in particular, has been a bloodbath. A handful of the observing staff that shaped the way we view the games were laid off. Beloved support player Chipshajen, an original member of EnVyUs, was released from the Dallas Fuel. Jonathan “Reinforce” Larsson was not asked to return as on-air desk talent; you only need to look at the #JusticeForReinforce Twitter tag to see how many riots have started over that one.

Bren and Reinforce root for a Dragons win / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Monte’s tweet states that villains sometimes win. Unless he’s referring to some form of insidious backstabbing we don’t know about, there aren’t really “villains” in OWL. However, there are personalities that rub people the wrong way who just keep succeeding anyway. Main tank Fissure is on his third team (Seoul Dynasty) after burning bridges with his first two. San Francisco Shock DPS Sinatraa has a history of “tactical crouching” just about everyone. NYXL’s JJonak was the OWL’s first season MVP; he is the best, he knows he’s the best, and he’ll tell you he’s the best. They succeed because some fans like villains; the Dark Side exists for a reason.

Emotion

MonteCristo is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent analytical minds in all of Overwatch. Monte’s also far from the only professional who has these feelings about the League. Again, he’s right: OWL isn’t an anime. But what if these stories, these tales of hardship and success woven by fans or producers or players, are what’s bringing people in? What if this is the way we gain new fans, and keep the ones that have started their journey?  

The Overwatch League is emotional. Why do you think people get so invested in teams and in players? I’ve even written before about passion and love for teams that transcends borders and makes traitors out of even the most patriotic fans. The joy that this sport brings to people is unimaginable; nobody can deny that OWL has brought people through some dark times. And, as a bonus, if people love a team, they’re more likely to buy their merchandise and attend their games.

Outlaws fan in the crowd / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

But to some, these feelings are a mistake to be ridiculed; fans being emotionally attached, as if they were watching an anime series, is a sign of weakness instead of passion. It’s a harmfully gatekeeping way to look at the sport, and this tweet only feeds into that mindset.  

While I deeply respect MonteCristo’s career and understanding of competitive Overwatch, he has a history of going after people who tend to bring more emotion into the way they watch and love the game. Take his vitriol towards Outlaws fans, and his statement that people who were upset about cuts were being “unreasonably emotional” about the game. These statements, again, come from a place of truth: some fans do overstep boundaries, and the League is ultimately about winning, not saving players. But these “hot takes” target one specific portion of the audience, over and over again. It’s hard not to see a pattern.

Hope

New Overwatch League fans often start watching the streams because they care about a player, or have seen the unabashed cheering and wild fun that happens in the arena. Young fans idolize a team and the esports lifestyle. Female fans are often slapped with the “unreasonably emotional” label for being ecstatic and passionate in ways their male counterparts are not – or at least don’t get criticized for. Forget it if you’re a new, young, female fan. These tweets, and many like them, read as a direct criticism to people who put their heart into what happens on and off the stage.

Fans shocked in the crowd / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Sure, this isn’t an anime. Sure, this isn’t a fantasy novel. But not everyone has to get into Overwatch League just to lovingly stare at K:D ratios. Not everyone has to be able to unemotionally rattle off the spreadsheet of players who got sacked this offseason. Fans of every sport, electronic or traditional, follow the drama and “plot twists” of their team as if they were watching a soap opera, and the Overwatch League is no different. Look at the way people hang on the every word of leakers and analysts, begging them to throw in a possible boon for a team down on their luck, or to give them a hint at an unimaginable upset. They want the next episode of their story, the next chapter of their tale.

Let the Overwatch League be what it is: a sport that makes people care. Chicago waited for a hundred years for the Cubs to bring home a World Series win, returning time and time again, no matter how bad the statistics looked on paper. Let people do that for their OWL teams, for the players they want to succeed, for the talent they tune in for every week. Let people be invested without shame, without having to justify their reasons, without having to somehow “prove” that they’re one sort of fan instead of another. Let people come back not just for the statistics, but for the story. Let people hope.

Stop closing the gates on emotionally invested fans. Let people have fun.

Liz
Liz is an educator and huge nerd from Chicago, IL who specializes in humor writing and personal essays. Her favorite thing is Overwatch esports; her second favorite thing is pretending iced coffee is a meal. She can be commonly found banning people on Twitch, running Discords, and making bad life choices at Target. Follow her on Twitter!
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