Craig Whitfield was sitting at his computer in his bedroom on a recent Friday, feverishly trying to get his colleagues’ attention.
“Might win, might win,” Whitfield shouted. “Orange blade. White blade, white Bob. Orange grid out.”
The seeming gibberish was Whitfield’s effort to communicate about the cybernetic ninjas and robots that were clashing on a dimly lit cobblestone road on his screen. A particularly crucial passage of play was about to happen in a live match of the popular video game Overwatch that was streaming live on YouTube to tens of thousands of viewers.
Whitfield’s job is to capture this action for the audience that had turned in to see the Philadelphia Fusion play the Dallas Fuel as part of the Overwatch League. Overwatch is a multiplayer, first-person video game that launched in 2015 and quickly drew millions of players. The game’s owner, Activision Blizzard, started a professional league the began competitive play in 2018.
Since then, OWL, as it is known, has become one of the most popular leagues in the burgeoning world of esports. OWL, much like the NBA or MLB, has franchised teams based in cities around the world, with teams like the New York Excelsior and the Shanghai Dragons fielding six players each to duke it out on a digital battlefield. There are also sizable payouts involved. For the 2020 season alone, OWL has $5 million in prizes for players and big-name advertisers like T-Mobile, State Farm and Coca-Cola.
The league has been able to continue to operate as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on live sporting events. OWL viewers get to enjoy it mostly the same way they did before the pandemic, due in no small part to people like Whitfield who are known in the industry as observers — virtual camera operators that capture live gameplay and slow-motion replays.
The catch? There are no players on a field, the cameras are digital and the slow-motion replays may feature an armor-clad ape attacking a hamster in a mechanical suit. Instead of trying to track a single play, Overwatch observers are usually trying to track a flurry of activity that can shift suddenly, forcing observers to anticipate and react or else miss important action.
Jessica DiPaola, 28, a replay observer, said Overwatch’s multiple avenues of attack and defense make a game that moves “very quickly, all the time, always.”
“If you’re not on top of whatever anyone else is doing, you’re going to lose track of what’s going on,” she said. “A lot of it is just having your head on a swivel and making sure if something happens, you need to react quick enough in order to make sure what needs to be done gets done.”
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It’s a high-pressure job. If observers don’t do a good job of capturing the action, they can become the subject of criticism from viewers and esports media.
Derek DePontbriand, the observer director, said due to the rapid pace of the game, the team has developed code phrases to speed up communication. His observers will call out these phrases like “orange blade,” helping Depontbriand keep track of what’s happening between the multiple viewpoints. To a newcomer, DePontbriand’s commands can easily get lost in a flood of nonstop communication in which every member of the team seems to be talking simultaneously while also moving to make sure they capture the action.
“Where that language comes from is just, it’s trial and error,” said DePontbriand, 28. “We know that these things are happening fast and we have to communicate it fast.”
The burgeoning esports scene has continued to grow and attract new viewers year after year with market research firm Newzoo projecting that global esports revenue will surpass $1 billion in 2020 and draw half a billion viewers. Blizzard, the maker of Overwatch, has organized its own competitive league to get a slice of the esports cake.
This has spawned a new industry that has made not just playing video games a potentially lucrative pastime, but also generated plenty of other jobs associated with sports leagues — and even some that didn’t quite exist before.
“If you come from a traditional sports background or traditional TV background you might equate this to camera operators and a director and that’s fair, but the workflow is completely different,” said Frank Laspina, director of global broadcast at Blizzard. “Comms in Overwatch are bidirectional, with observers telling the information up to the director and informing everyone else on the team.”
OWL employs a team of 10 observers, all of whom are stationed in their homes in Southern California. As the coronavirus pandemic shut down their trips to the office, travel to the league games was also shut down, which would have otherwise had the observers flying around America and across the globe to be on-site for games.
The team is young, mostly in their 20s, with varied backgrounds but united in navigating the ups and downs of working in a job that did not exist just a handful of years ago.
Isaac Jimenez, 22, received a scholarship to play Overwatch for the University of California, Irvine, esports team and later joined OWL as an observer. He said his family had a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept that their son was working as a virtual cameraman for an international video game competition.
“My parents always had, like, not a negative stigma, but other family members would judge them,” Jimenez said. “Oh, you’re letting your son play video games all the time? Oh my goodness, what terrible parents.”
DiPaola said her father, skeptical of her career path, kept offering to keep a spare room open for her in case it didn’t work out and she had to come home.
“Since this is such a new thing, in terms of just esports in general and video games as a career in general, it’s understandable that there was some kind of lack of connection as to what this really is and how legitimate this was,” DiPaola said. “And it took some convincing, but I’m still here and I did not get thrown back home.”
Maikol Brito, 27, the lead observer for the team, said there’s still a stigma against video gaming as being a true sport, and people have questioned if his career is a sustainable one. Brito, who was born in Cuba, said his immigrant parents trusted him to make the right decision after being convinced by Brito’s older brother. When Brito got his lead observer position at Blizzard, his parents finally came around: “You have a career, you have a big boy job.”
Whitfield said the job has offered him a certain satisfaction, particularly during the pandemic.
“What pushes me to go through this COVID scenario is that there are so many people looking for something to be happy for right now,” Whitfield said. “And I feel like me and my team, we get to be a part of that experience that people can look forward to.”
“Even if it’s virtually,” Whitfield added. “I think that’s such a uniqueness of our platform that no matter the location, we can provide that experience to you.”