The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is a host site for the Overwatch League's East vs. West tournament this week. This is the first time a mainstream international esports tournament is being held in the state, and it could help launch a major economic opportunity for Hawaiʻi.
Overwatch is one of the more popular video games in the world. And its league is just as popular for gamers and fans.
"Overwatch is a team-based game," said Corey Smith, broadcast director of Overwatch League. "Each of the maps that are played within the competition have different objectives. And those teams compete against those objectives to win and score points."
This is esports.
In the last five years, it became a billion-dollar global industry, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Game developers don't only create and sell video games, but they also host online competitions, oversee leagues, teams and in-person tournaments, merchandising, broadcasting, and much, much more.
The Overwatch League uses some of the same concepts as traditional professional sports. There are teams based in major cities all around the world, and each of them competes within their region. There are playoffs and even a championship match.
Winners of a tournament or championship event could win thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
However, unlike most traditional professional sports playing in Hawaiʻi, the Overwatch League is not playing an exhibition match or series. Instead, they are holding a major tournament within its season.
The winner of this tournament will go home with $100,000.
'Flipping The Script' On Hawaiʻi's Lag Issue
The top two teams from the Overwatch League's west region are in town this week to compete against the top teams in Asia, using a central game server in Tokyo, Japan. Instead of holding the tournament in a central location, it's being held at two sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While one of the sites could be easily held in a city on the continental U.S., there are complications. One is the safety of the players and staff. Another is addressing the lag the west region teams would face – mainly the speed information and data can be sent to and from the Tokyo server.
"Hawaiʻi allows us to kind of reduce the speed of light problem that we currently have," Smith said.
"If a team is playing from LA, playing against a team in Asia, the team in LA – depending on where the game servers [are] – could be at 120 plus milliseconds. And for the team in Asia, could be no more than 40 milliseconds."
That difference in milliseconds is enough to create a competitive mismatch. Smith likens it to a video delay during a sports event.
"When your team makes that touchdown, you hear your neighbors yelling and screaming, but you're just now seeing the play kickoff – so to speak."
Tournament organizers have stated last month Hawaiʻi is the "silver bullet" to their technical issues. For local gamers, that came as a shock.
Sky Kauweloa, a coordinator for UH's esports task force, says local gamers have long believed they played at a disadvantage online, because of the time it took information from the islands to reach servers across the Pacific Ocean.
"We've always talked about the fact that we've always sort of laggard under the difficulty of distance between servers – whether that could be in East Asia or North America," Kauweloa said.
"And for [Overwatch League] to come here, really does sort of flip the script on that narrative, when it comes to discussing Hawaiʻi's view of itself."
Kauweloa says Overwatch League choosing UH as a tournament site goes beyond changing the perceptions of local gamers. It sends a signal to the rest of the world that Hawaiʻi can be an esports destination, and puts a big spotlight on the University of Hawaiʻi.
"This is unprecedented," he said. "No developer has ever used a college's facilities to hold an event like this."
Kaweloa says this also provides an opportunity for UH students to learn and gain hands-on experience from a major game developer on how an esports tournament is run.
While the league choosing Hawaiʻi as a location does open a door of economic opportunity, there is still a lot that needs to be done in order to make esports in the state more sustainable.
Improving Broadband For The Future
Internet connectivity and speeds are a major hurdle for the future of esports in the islands. The state connects to the internet through underwater cables – laying on the ocean floor.
State broadband strategy officer, and host of HPR's Bytemarks Café, Burt Lum says while there is still a lot of capacity with the current cables, it will eventually age out. A solution to improving broadband capacity in the state is by laying more transpacific fiber optic cables. But that is easier said than done.
"It still takes a fair amount of investment by those companies that are running transpacific cables to land here," he said. "And that involves land acquisition, and doing the permitting and surveys and engineering."
Lum says if facilities for cable landings were developed in the state, and were carrier-neutral, then it may attract consortiums laying the cables to come to the islands.
And the state is taking its first steps in addressing that issue. The state legislature approved HB 200, outlining the state budget, which contains a line item for $10 million to start the process to create a cable landing facility. Lum says that funding is coming from the federal government, but is nonetheless a major step.
"I've been working on this for the last four years," he said.
While transpacific cables are one part of improving the state's broadband infrastructure, there are still many issues surrounding broadband infrastructure in the islands – especially internet connectivity in rural communities.
Another priority is creating a more resilient network between the islands.
"We need to look at how do we build diverse routes, and create rings that allow redundancy and resilience," Lum said. "If you have a path, and the path somehow gets broken, you want to have an alternate path."
Lum cites a 2019 cable break incident that disconnected Kauaʻi from telephone and internet service for several days.
"Is that how we should look at living in the 21st century? If there was route diversity, then that could be brought back up quite quickly. But if you're dependent on these old systems, and you don't build the capacity for new systems to have route diversity and resilience, then you could find yourself being pretty vulnerable."
But for now, Kauweloa says the summer-long Overwatch League tournament can be a major milestone for the university and the state – and could be a major economic opportunity.
"Hawaiʻi is deemed by a major publisher like Overwatch as a possible location for future events as well," he said. "So they're looking to this not only for this year, but possibly for future events if this goes well."