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Collegiate Overwatch is better than you think

Aaron Alford

The Overwatch League has returned, with the past two weekends marking the opening matches for the Overwatch League’s 20 teams. While I was excited to see the return of the Overwatch League, the Overwatch event that I can’t stop thinking about is the Collegiate Championship broadcasts that took place during the two weeks leading up to the Overwatch League’s opening weekend. The Overwatch Collegiate Championship ran for over two months and culminated in a March Madness-style bracket that concluded at the beginning of April, and I could not look away.

Overwatch Collegiate Championships 2021

Many OWL fans would likely enjoy the entertaining action of the Overwatch Collegiate Championships. Image via Overwatch Collegiate Championships.

The Collegiate Overwatch Championships featured many well-known names in college-level athletic competitions. Ohio State University, University of Utah, University of Michigan, and pretty much the entire University of California system participated in this year’s 2021 Collegiate Overwatch Championships. However, these well-known, well-established collegiate titans did not dominate the Overwatch tournament. Instead, Northwood University in Michigan and the eventual winners of Maryville University in Missouri competed in the National champion match.

Collegiate Overwatch was not only fun to watch, but it was also arguably more fun to watch than the OWL. There is something special about the tradition of college sports in America that speaks to people. College esports is able to benefit from the legacy and tradition of college sports. This reaches a mainstream audience that may otherwise not be interested in esports at all.

The appeal of college Overwatch 

College esports can capitalize on America’s love for collegiate competition

The biggest appeal for college Overwatch, or college esports generally, is that the players represent huge universities with instantly recognizable names and brands. 

“I think the appeal of collegiate Overwatch is that its accredited universities playing instead of random teams in Tier 2 Overwatch that are filled with random players,” explained Cameron Watson, the Main Tank of Maryville, the 2021 Collegiate Overwatch Champions. “I believe the future is in collegiate and can only get more interesting because . . . it is kind of like regular sports where it is extremely interesting to watch well-known universities compete.”

Collegiate sports competition is massive in the U.S. Big schools have a storied history dating back to the early 20th century intercollegiate sporting competition. Today, in most U.S. states, the top paid public employee is an athletic coach for a public University. That is for a good reason. In addition to college sports being popular, they also make the University money through donations and boosted enrollment. College Football National Championships boost enrollment for schools, as has major upsets in football. This is known as the Flutie Effect.

“Athletics truly is a front porch to the University,” Explained Scott Barns, the Athletic Director at the University of Pittsburgh.  “It is not the most important room in the house. But it is the most visible, and what comes with that is opportunity and responsibility.”

College esports is the next frontier of intercollegiate competition. Tier 1 schools like the Ohio State University are always looking to expand into the latest forms of competition. Simultaneously, teams from Maryville and Norwood have a chance to put their school’s name on the map by besting huge names like Ohio State and Utah. That mix of highly respected schools and scrappy underdog schools makes for interesting storylines that are easy to follow. They are interesting to audiences, even if they don’t know anything about the players involved in the match.

College esports features a more creative clash of playstyles

Another big appeal for collegiate Overwatch is its surprisingly diverse and creative meta. This leads to unpredictable and exciting games to watch. 

The Overwatch League teams almost always play the most optimal, technical meta. But college teams explore various serious and silly strategies in their matches. There is a great variety of skill levels on most college teams, where a team might have a couple of outstanding players and a few more average players. This less predictable mix can make a wider variety of playstyles viable.

The creativity I am talking about is exemplified most clearly in the Northwood strategy on King’s Row, where they teleport a bastion on top of the statue. It would probably never work in the Overwatch League, but it did work for them, which was fun to see. You can see the University of Ottawa and Norwood University fight to control the statue in a hilarious game of musical chairs in the clip below.

The diversity of the collegiate meta makes it more interesting to watch. While Overwatch League commentators fixate on players and meta choices, College Overwatch commentators focus on the competing styles in the game. This makes the game easier to follow for viewers. It can also create some spectacular moments that are rare in Overwatch League. Outside of teams like Chengdu Hunters, or most recently, Washington Justice.

Collegiate Overwatch reminds me of the early overwatch APEX series, which existed before the Overwatch League. Those events ended up being a clash of playstyles. Each team had a preferred method of playing, and there was no established “best method” for winning Overwatch games. College brings a lot of that same energy back into Overwatch competition.

The creativity in Collegiate Overwatch reminds me of the things that college football teams can get away with that don’t work in the NFL. From fake field goals to a running quarterback, the nature of the collegiate competition is just different in sports and esports. It’s fun to see the game played in new and creative ways.

The enormous potential of Collegiate Overwatch

The normalization of collegiate esports gives talented players a chance to go to college on esports scholarships and get a good education. Most players won’t compete in esports forever. College esports helps them procure valuable education to help them in the future. 

“It’s a great experience especially for someone who wants to pursue the path to pro while also attending a university and getting a degree,” Cameron explained in his interview with Hotspawn. “It’s a privileged position, I think for myself and a lot of the other players on the team since not only are we on a full scholarship, but I also get to live in a foreign country while pursuing my dream and an education.”

He continued, “I used to study a different degree at a university here in Scotland. But I feel like I learn a lot more at Maryville since the way the curriculum works. I am involved much more in the learning process, and I would say playing college Overwatch has made it so I have to focus a lot more on my studies and overall made me more mature as I have to have much better time management.”

Collegiate esports has a lot of potential growth. The involvement of tops schools like the University of Utah, the Ohio State University, and UC Irvine bodes well for the scene’s future. There is also a huge pool of potential talent for schools to draw upon. A ton of college-age Contenders would likely attend college on scholarship. Many former pros will want to go to college eventually as well.  On top of that, both Norwood and Maryville competed in the American Contenders league. Perhaps we will eventually see the collegiate competitors start to dominate the Contenders scene as well.

The Collegiate Overwatch Championships could grow significantly over the next few years, and I am here for it. While Overwatch’s path to pro continues to struggle, Collegiate Overwatch is just getting started.

*Originally published on April 26, 2020