In this section, the outcomes of the thematic and sentiment coding are presented via a narrative analytical report with a focus on two selected areas: players (including the “Competitive Non-professional Play” and “Working Conditions and Professionals” themes) and the community (including the “Community” and “Infrastructure” themes). The idea is not to comprehensively examine all themes and their sentiments, but rather to illustrate with examples why the Brazilian Overwatch scene did not take off as expected. At specific points, direct references are provided in footnotes.
The “Path to Pro” in an “Emerging Region”
The technical structure of the SA server was generally considered weak, with constant disconnection and instability issues (Blizzard Forum 2018). Competitive players felt that it was hard to find people on the same level to have balanced matches. Match outcomes thus felt random, causing frustration and a sense of stagnation. A new grouping system, in turn, was considered promising, but in the SA, this also meant long queues to play.
Playing with friends or groups of acquaintances was considered the best option for playing Overwatch. Many streamers, in turn, gave up performing live because there was an increase of smurfingFootnote 7 accounts created to gankFootnote 8 streams by annoying and provoking adverse reactions, which would be clipped and spread to strikeFootnote 9 a streaming channel. The streaming platforms and game owners did not respond to such events, which made many streamers frustrated.
Despite the above difficulties, enough players were ready to play in Brazil to form a competitive community. They are mainly driven to win and master the game mechanically, ranking top in their countries and influencing the decisions of the representatives in the Overwatch World Cup. This commitment sometimes transformed high-level players into analysts and coaches.
Teams in Contenders SA mostly consist of Brazilians, but also include Argentinians, Uruguayans, Chileans, Colombians, and Mexicans. Other nationalities are under or not represented. Although SA is generally perceived as Latin, internally, there was fragmentation and few joint efforts. Brazilians tend to care a lot about how NA perceives them.Footnote 10 They were considered the “inspirational region,” with players frequently endorsing them in terms of skill. Brazilian players in Contenders SA trained mainly on the NA server because to them there was not much to be learned in the SA.
Going over-server, however, brought issues of connectivity and language. Negative experiences on the NA servers were toned down even if explicit xenophobic (Viana 2019) behavior was reported as anger toward players on the SA servers. Offensive behavior was nevertheless also interpreted as a learning process, which would make them better players. This perception might have been fueled by unsatisfactory playing experiences, and the assumption that excelling involves pain, sacrifice, and will be eventually rewarded by fulfillment.
Neus et al. (2019) have suggested that esports audiences online pursue completive knowledge gain. However, the Brazilian professional play data, such as those of the Overwatch World Cup, did not yield evidence for any such motivations. In general, the professional scenes were discussed as entertaining, and the enjoyment was derived from social and aesthetic aspects.
A former Director of the local Overwatch League, Nate Nanzer, said in an interview in 2017 (Falcão 2017) that the product was inspired by the Football World Cup (FIFA) where qualified delegations attend an event at the international level for a broad and enthusiastic audience. Perhaps the event that better corresponds to this is the Overwatch World Cup, as reported by Turtiainen et al. (2020). Team Brazil attended the event from 2016 to 2018 but never passed the first stage. Many expressed this underperformance to be related to the low-level working practicesFootnote 11 and the competitive potential of the SA.
According to the Brazilian Overwatch Contenders Regulation document,Footnote 12 reams “may enter into services agreements with Players in connection with Player participation on the team. Any such contracts must comply with applicable laws.” Viana (2018b) found that the average Brazilian Contender player did not have a formal work contract, salary, or other benefits. The local regulation also favors Overwatch League teams in conflicts, as they can buy out any player from a Contenders team with 25% of the upcoming Overwatch League player’s salary (Chui 2018a, b). The uncertainty and fragility of labor conditions produced by the above naturally impact the team’s competitive focus as they are at risk of their players being bought out. Notably, there were also no compulsory or planned practice schedules in the “professional” teams. Organizations with written contracts keep a percentage of the prize earnings, however.Footnote 13
An open letterFootnote 14 signed by all the teams officially included in the first SA tournament made it clear that they were all amateurs and students, and none of the players in the SA plays for a living, which made it difficult for them to play in the tournament. The matches were scheduled to take place during the day, which for many players collided with their work or study schedule. The local tournament organizers did not consider this a problem: “We appreciate your suggestions regarding the schedule for the upcoming Overwatch Contenders South America, and we will definitely take it into consideration for future seasons.” The response attracted the attention of the esports media, however, and the organizers agreed that matches would be pre-recorded in the SA to make it possible for all of them to participate from their own homes.Footnote 15 No public comments were allowed (to prevent the results from leaking) (Viana 2018a).
Such events relate to the labor difficulties discussed in Peuter and Young (2019). According to them, digital gaming labor can be “a formidable source of financial value generation in contemporary capitalism” (p. 748), particularly in a country where the level of youth unemployment (18–24) reached a worrying 27.1% in the first term of 2020 (Fraga 2020), becoming one of the worst years in historical records.Footnote 16 Likewise, according to Woodcock and Johnson (2019), gaming opportunities (despite their problems) have been “an important element of contemporary youth employment dynamics, especially for those disaffected by, or unsuccessful in, traditional education or career paths” (p. 814). Playing is an unregulated labor activity in Brazil, but people are willing to pursue their professional aspirations presented by Contenders as a “path to pro”—or, as jokily referred to as in the data, “path to poverty.”
The Brazilian Overwatch Community Around the Competitive Scene
According to the findings
of Freeman and Wohn (2018), players start teams with friends because they have already proven to be trustworthy. This pattern was followed when Overwatch was launched in Brazil. Here, soft skills, which are related to personality and nationality, are more important than competitive abilities (pp. 107–108, 110). Players thus benefit from their existing social connections, creating an endogenous environment that may dissuade people outside the founding groups.
According to the data analyzed in this chapter, and in line with the above, already-popular players acted as gatekeepers, joined the most stable teams, had better working and playing conditions compared to their peers, performed on the international stage, and did not suffer the consequences of misconduct (Rigon 2017) while playing professionally. In the sentiment coding, the “very positive” attributions were related to this ambience of camaraderie and support, which can balance the eventual burden, stress, and uncertainties of their working position. Social capital was closely related to their longevity and influence.
The sources referenced this group as one that was established and had become popular in other games, from which they moved to Overwatch. This allowed them to make use of their existing personalities and national fame, thus granting them media attention before competitive success. Accordingly, a common explanation that was given for the group’s survival was their popularity on wide-ranging online platforms. Social media presence is an asset, and Blizzard Entertainment, with other related stakeholders, understood the group’s market potential.
The community around the Brazilian competitive scene is also an institution with influence and power (see Chee and Karhulahti 2020). Systematic engagement in online communities can also be a laborious activity with high emotional demands, however (Guarriello 2019). In 2018, the elected Community Leader of the Brazilian Overwatch claimed to have been harassed by members of the Team Brazil delegation in the Overwatch World Cup.Footnote 17 Allegations also arose from the community, as the people allied with the competitive scene (Team Brazil) and did not think the leader was credible enough to fulfill the position. These events reflect the overall instability and conflicting opinions within the community, which was reported as an element that made “liking” Overwatch difficult.
Blom (2018) proposed that Overwatch consists of a universe that is shared in the community: everyone can consume and interact with Overwatch media, and this may connect them to the community. This shared, connected, but not codependent universe finds support in the Brazilian context, with the caveat that accessibility plays an important role. In the podcast (Poligonal, Vice-Brazil, 2017), the hosts and guests discussed the price of the game in the country; one of the guests mentioned that people often engage with the Overwatch universe not by playing, but through comics and animations. While this may have sometimes led them to start playing and participating in other game events, it was often too expensive for the regular Brazilian player. The price of the game was reduced eventually,Footnote 18 but the free weekends remained as the only moment when financially disadvantaged players could participate. In Brazil, the price of global media versus local income is part of a complex historical problem.