Written by Maria Ruotsalainen and Tanja Välisalo. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.
Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter game (Blizzard Entertainment 2016) with a wide player-base and a professional esports league built around it. Here, CoE researchers Maria Ruotsalainen and Tanja Välisalo tell the story of the Overwatch research project, and what they have learned from it so far.
Maria Ruotsalainen: In early 2018, I was, both as an Overwatch player and as a researcher, anticipating the start of the Overwatch League, a brand new esports league, with a sense of excitement. I was reading everything I could about it, when I ran into several statements by players expressing strong dislike, even hatred towards the Overwatch League. This sparked my interest: while it is easy to see why someone might be uninterested or indifferent, it had not occurred to me that someone could so vehemently dislike the idea of an esports league.
Some players announced they were not planning to get the skins (cosmetic additions to the game) representing the Overwatch League at all, not even the one free skin, as accepting them would be a way of supporting the League. These players felt that the League would make the game more focused on esports and professional players, and leave the casual playerbase at a disadvantage. They argued that Overwatch was at its core a casual game and in its center are the playable heroes with interesting aesthetics and background stories, designed in a way that players would forge a relationship with them, rather than being a game that catered to “skill-elitists”.
While I could to some extent understand this sentiment, I did feel I was out of my depth while trying to fully grasp its implications. Yet, it was obvious that in order to understand the way the player base related to Overwatch and its esport scene, I needed to treat this sentiment seriously. Thus, I turned towards someone who I knew would be excellent for this, Tanja Välisalo.
Tanja Välisalo: Watching sports, even esports, has never been that interesting for me, and even though in esports the context is more familiar, that of digital games, it did not seem to make a difference. So when my colleague Maria approached me with the idea of research collaboration on Overwatch, I was initially a bit hesitant.
After getting acquainted with the Overwatch phenomenon, I quickly realized it overlapped in many ways with my own research interests in media reception and fan cultures. The fans of the game were deeply involved in the fictional world and its heroes even though the game itself was a fairly straight-forward shooting game and the story only progressed in the ancillary content, such as animated short stories and comics.
Who were the players so avidly defending the casual nature of Overwatch against the threat of the Overwatch League? How do fans make sense of the complex whole formed by both the fictional world of Overwatch and the esports? These were some of the questions that finally lured me to the project.
Maria & Tanja: We set out to understand what was going on with the fans and the players by designing a survey directed to both, Overwatch players and Overwatch esports spectators. We gathered a total of 428 responses globally and have published the results at overwatchresearchproject.com/survey/.
We had hoped the survey would help us better understand the different ways the players and fans engage with the game and through that the hatred towards the esports, but to our surprise most of our respondents did both, played the game and watched the esports. It is worth noting that our data was influenced by the opportunistic recruitment method we used for the survey. Most of our respondents were French, despite the survey being in English, because a notable French esports personality tweeted about the survey.
Where the engagement with Overwatch the game and Overwatch esports differed were the everyday practices: activities like writing and reading fan fiction were more present in relation to the game, while for esports the most common activities were related to watching the matches and player livestreams and discussing topics related to the esports scene (Karhulahti et al. upcoming).
As our survey only gave us a limited view of the esports fans and fans of the game, we continued in gathering more data and actively following the online communities around both. We played the game, visited community channels on Discord, actively read the discussion forums, watched livestreams and the Overwatch League broadcasts, and in August 2019 visited a Overwatch League event in Downtown Los Angeles where we followed the matches, explored the event, and talked with the members of the audience. Thus it is fair to say that our research process has continuously been on the move, shaping as we move and discover new things of interest.
This flexible and organically evolving approach has been fruitful. By combining survey data and discussion forum data, we found that gender and sexuality of game characters as well as esports players could be important for their fans in terms of finding role models or just feeling accepted in the game. In comparison, nationality of the esports players was very meaningful for some fans, while nationality of the fictional heroes was mostly overlooked (Välisalo & Ruotsalainen 2019). Here, we might see the influence of traditional sports and the sportification of esports, prevalent also in Overwatch (Turtiainen et al. 2018).
The short fieldwork in Los Angeles functioned as an outright cataclysm for our understanding of Overwatch. The event showed us how fans of the Overwatch League negotiate the role of esports and what kind of phenomenon they understand as esports, and it truly challenged our own understanding of esports as something that can challenge ‘sports normativity’, which is becoming prevalent in esports through sportification and in attempts of making esports more appealing to mainstream (Ruotsalainen & Välisalo, upcoming 2020).
While our research has not yet given us a straightforward answer as to why Overwatch League is hated by some of the players, this initial question has led us to question dominant perceptions of esports, given us a deeper understanding of engagement with game worlds and esports as well as the differences and similarities between those engagements, and made us challenge ourselves in terms of methodology. Overwatch research project has been also extremely fruitful in demonstrating the benefits of co-research as by combining our research interests and backgrounds we have been able to achieve fuller picture of our research subject. The constant dialogue it encourages, opens us up to new perspectives and invites us to widen our perspective while seeking to understand the phenomena of Overwatch and Overwatch esports.
Maria Ruotsalainen is a Doctoral Candidate in Digital Culture at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her doctoral thesis focuses on examining the construction of the cultural identity of Overwatch Esports and how fans take part in this process.
Tanja Välisalo is finishing her PhD in Contemporary Culture (University of Jyväskylä) on audience engagement with fictional characters. She has also published on transmedia production and transmedia audiences, detective games, and game education.
Karhulahti, V.-M., Koskimaa, R., Ruotsalainen, M. &Välisalo, T. (upcoming 2020) Esports Transmediality: The Case Overwatch. In Yin, D.Y. (ed.), Global Esports: Transformation of Cultural Perceptions of Competitive Gaming.
Turtiainen, R., Friman, U. & Ruotsalainen, M. (2018). “Not Only for a Celebration of Competitive Overwatch but Also for National Pride”: Sportificating the Overwatch World Cup 2016. Games and Culture. DOI: 10.1177/1555412018795791
Välisalo, T. & Ruotsalainen, M. (2019). “I never gave up” : engagement with playable characters and esports players of Overwatch. In FDG ’19 : Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games. ACM, 40. DOI: 10.1145/3337722.3337769
Ruotsalainen, M. & Välisalo, T. (upcoming 2020) “Overwatch is anime” – Exploring an alternative interpretational framework for competitive gaming. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2020.