Esports Overwatch

Saving Overwatch: A Conversation with Tay Zonday, the Chocolate Rainmaker

Tay Zonday Interview

There are several celebrities and entertainers that are involved with Overwatch and the Overwatch League. However, few are more involved in the league, the game itself, and the conversations currently surrounding the state of the game than Tay Zonday. While he went viral with his 2007 video Chocolate Rain, Tay Zonday has continued making music, acting, podcasting and regularly streaming Overwatch since the video was released.

In this in-depth interview for The Game Haus, Tay Zonday tells the story of his entry into Overwatch, explains his passion for the Overwatch League (and the Los Angeles Valiant in particular) and weighs in on the current conversation centered around the state of the game. Just as there is much more to Gallagher than smashing objects on stage, there is absolutely much more to Tay Zonday than Chocolate Rain.

 

First of all, it’s an honor to get an interview with the Chocolate Rainmaker − I’m personally a huge fan. However, what I didn’t know about you until recently is that you’re a fan of Overwatch. When and how did you get into the game?

I started PC gaming in the 1990s with games like Descent, Quake, Mechwarrior, Tribes, and their successors. I paid for Team Fortress 2 soon after its release. This was back when Valve released new titles and before they evolved TF2 into an RPG with crafting elements, a digital apparel store, and numerous other things.

When Overwatch was unveiled, it seemed like a spiritual evolution of Team Fortress 2. It seemed like the Team Fortress 3 that an ambitious, hungry Valve would have made if DOTA, Steam, and other ventures weren’t so immensely successful. I had already been streaming Hearthstone and Heroes Of The Storm on Twitch, so I was a part of the Blizzard ecosystem. Overwatch seemed like the new franchise to “hang my hat” on and I went all-in.

I’ve heard legends about your D.Va play and have seen it firsthand a few times on your stream. Is she still your go-to Hero? If so, why do you love playing D.Va?

I comfortably play D.Va, Winston, Reinhardt, Orisa, Junkrat, Soldier 76, Mei, Bastion, Mercy, Moira, Lucio, and Zenyatta, with adequate moments as Reaper, Tracer, Torbjorn, and Symmetra depending on the situation. These are my “go-to” picks and I try not to inflict other characters on my competitive Overwatch teammates.

Tay Zonday Interview
Image Courtesy of PlayOverwatch

Obviously, D.Va has numerous synergies and counterpicks. I usually want to have someone who can access and control the high ground in a team comp, so I’m more likely to pick D.Va if there isn’t a Genji, Hanzo, Junkrat, Pharah, or other vertically-gifted DPS. As a former Tribes player, I also spent a lot of FPS time in highly vertical combat, albeit in more open-world environments than Overwatch. D.Va partly mimics this mobility.

How often and seriously do you play Overwatch? What do you think of the game as a whole?

Overwatch is at a crossroads now. PC games in 2018 are under much more pressure to be mainstream, mass-appeal products than they were twenty years ago. In 1998, if a game sold a million copies and recouped its development budget with a surplus, it was considered a success. Now you have franchises like Fortnite that make nine figures monthly. As a result, everybody is hopping on the battle royale craze. Overwatch has figuratively become the Babylon 5 of first-person shooters – the genre’s last, best hope for peace with the global scale and monetary demands of today’s games.

That said, Overwatch is a very difficult product to appeal to all types of players with. You have players like me who are serious, passionate amateurs who enjoy competitive play – at a Gold and Platinum ability level — taken seriously. From that perspective, I want to make all Overwatch stats public, especially comparative performance stats in all competitive games, just like Overwatch League commentators have access to. I want to make the exact skill-rating calculation public. I don’t want a game that “babies” anybody to try to validate their individual participation in poor choices or poor results.

Tay Zonday Interview
Example of the Private Profile Screen in Overwatch.

On the other hand, you have players who want to play “competitive” Overwatch in a casual way. They want to hide their stats. They don’t want their competitive game performance subject to scrutiny. They don’t want to be forced to monitor voice chat. They don’t want any accountability to team consensus on what their role ought to be. They often have their own incorrect self-assessment or way of thinking about the game, and they don’t want any hard data that contradicts this.

Blizzard’s job is to put these diametrically opposite types of players together on teams and make them enjoy the product enough that they continue to spend money. These very different players need to find and enjoy Overwatch League and feel validated by the franchise as a whole.

In some ways, I miss the 1990s because it felt like multiplayer PC games were more of a niche for bona fide nerds. Back then, none of us needed medals, XP, or achievements to motivate us to play multiplayer on Unreal. We didn’t need a queue system to group us into similar ability levels. You played a match and you got killed by people better than you. You tried really hard to become as good as them. You died a lot, eked out a few tricks to survive longer and longer, and eventually learned to play if you were motivated – or you quit. This is the multiplayer FPS world I came from and it doesn’t exist anymore.

Blizzard’s expertise has always been taking an existing, niche idea and re-inventing it in a way that welcomes more human beings. I often vehemently disagree with the compromises they make to achieve this, but I also acknowledge and respect their goal.

I also have found that, outside of the game itself, you’re a pretty big fan of the Overwatch League, and the Los Angeles Valiant in particular. So, I have to ask, why the Valiant? Was it SPACE’s good looks or Custa’s charm that got you?

Noah Whinston is a man who wants to make the world a better place, first and foremost. Building the best competitive esports teams happens to flow nicely from that goal. The team’s Mr. Whinston has created (Immortals and their Overwatch team, LA Valiant) treat gaming as a means to an end – to make human beings and humanity better.

From the outset, when I tweeted both LA teams and the LA Valiant reached out to me – it seemed like a good and growing organization whose values aligned with my own.

In my opinion, Overwatch League is the only game context where Overwatch is played correctly. If the entire game made players play with the statistical and analytical transparency of Overwatch League, my playing experience would be better. Unfortunately, Blizzard can’t give me that while accommodating diverse gaming experiences, including casual and novice players. Watching Overwatch League is the next best thing.

Last February, the Valiant “officially” signed you to their team. What is your role within the organization, exactly?

There may have been a “tongue in cheek” Instagram caption indicating I was signed to Valiant, and I have enjoyed many Valiant events. However, I never officially signed with the team. As an organization, they are doing exciting things. I would love to continue to involve myself in their activities.

Shifting gears a bit, have you ever considered using your musical/Chocolate Rainmaking talents for the Valiant or the Overwatch League? Possibly something for the upcoming second season?

This is a very broad question. Whether any parties want to pursue music projects, including the LA Valiant or Overwatch League, is obviously not determined by me. It’s plausible that great things could happen and my inbox is certainly open.

Blizzard, of course, has a fantastic music composition team. I’ll play the Overwatch League theme in my head during unrelated tasks and it makes mundane experiences more epic. Lucio’s new album is also great.

Recently there has been a lot of talk from Slasher, Seagull, and others about the state of Overwatch. What do you think needs to be done to improve the quality of the playing experience?

Ultimately, Blizzard’s end goal is making Overwatch a global esports phenomenon on the scale of a traditional sport like baseball.

The more Blizzard appeals to pro players in designing competitive queue, the more they’ll alienate sensitive, casual players. Right now, that’s the impasse. Like a nasty Mei ultimate, the progress of the game’s community is frozen by this tension. What are the solutions?

I strongly support public career profiles for all players, but Blizzard won’t force people to do that. A good design compromise is to allow groups to be formed in the “find a group” tool that exposes the career profiles of all who join. The game would inform those who have set their career profile to “private” that it will become public for the purpose of queuing with that group. They’d also be given the option to filter out groups that expose their career profiles.

Beyond this, Overwatch’s community features need to make it easier to sort both group members and friends by their career profile stats. Why can’t I sort my friends list by players who have more than 50 hours on a healer? Why can’t I sort them by skill rating, the most basic stat? Why can’t I sort my friends list by people who have, for example, the highest win percentage with Reinhardt?

I realize that Overwatch’s game interface is not an Excel spreadsheet for player stats. However, a stats spreadsheet is exactly what some serious players want. Not a third party service with incomplete API access like Overbuff, but a community tool that allows drafting of players and deep-diving into a rich data set.

Tay Zonday Interview
Example of statistics provided by Overbuff. Image Courtesy of Overbuff.

Without rich stats, it’s impossible to plug into Overwatch’s “fantasy football” thrill potential. The thrill and banter of going to a bar or Las Vegas casino and arguing about a boxer or basketball player’s stats is totally missing from Overwatch because Blizzard has consciously scrubbed deep, comparative stats from being a central product experience. It’s fun to brag to your friends that you’re a better pick because you have 8% better Soldier 76 accuracy in a constructed game draft.

Speaking of friends, why is the 200-friend limit per Blizzard account still a thing? Wouldn’t it benefit the community if celebrities and Overwatch League players could add thousands of friends? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a “follow” feature in-game? Blizzard has largely outsourced community-building for Overwatch players to other platforms like Twitch and Twitter. Instead, Blizzard should encourage expanded game-related social activity in the Overwatch client. It’s not rocket science. Isn’t the amount of people who play the game directly related to the number of people who are performing ANY activity in the game client?

Above all, Overwatch needs immediate comparative stats for every competitive game played – not just comparing you to teammates, but comparing you to a hypothetical person at your SR who would have had a higher probability of winning if your team lost.

So, for example, if your team loses and you died 0.35 times per minute as Junkrat, Blizzard can see that a Junkrat that only dies 0.25 times per minute would have been more likely to win the match. They can then tell you where your personal gameplay is deviating from a more successful statistical norm.

Right now, the game is tremendously lacking in feedback about what you can personally do better to increase your win probability. Your team loses in situations where you feel like you played extremely well. The game gives you zero performance feedback other than the collective punishment of losing skill-rating. It would be very easy for Blizzard to provide you with five stats that you could personally improve when scoring every loss. “Hey, if your weapon accuracy increased 5%, you’d be 3% more likely to have won this game.”

Tay Zonday Interview
Statistics provided by Overbuff provide players with a Rating and Score that they can use to improve their play. Image Courtesy of Imgur and Overbuff.

The fact that Overwatch just leaves you dangling on the failure vine with zero feedback about specific performance improvements you can make is tremendously alienating. The game’s algorithm is constantly comparing your performance as each character to a statistical bell curve for what others achieve using that same pick. It’s using that data to judge you. As long as it’s doing that, it can share more specifics about what a more successful version of yourself looks like.

Finally, expanding upon what I just said: every aspect of the match-making and skill-rating calculation needs to be public. Blizzard wants an ESPN-class Esports for Overwatch, but guess what? Every sport that is broadcast worldwide, from the Olympics to the World Cup, has stat transparency. Every member of the public can see how the sausage is made.

As long as competitive Overwatch – even as a consumer product – makes key decisions about matchmaking and skill-assessment in a manner that can’t be seen, debated, and audited – then it is fundamentally less credible than traditional sports. You can’t beat the popularity of the Olympics without the statistical depth and process transparency of the Olympics. You can’t tell passionate sports fans “don’t worry about how the sausage is made, just enjoy our delicious sausage”. Serious fans want the recipe.

Last, I’d be curious to know what you are up to generally these days. What does a day in the life of Tay Zonday look like? For those who may only know you from Chocolate Rain, what is the thing you want people to know about you the most?

Thanks for asking! I’m not a vlogger. I’ve never felt a tremendous need to publicly document my personal life. Obviously, if you follow my Twitter, sit long enough in my Discord or watch me on Twitch, aspects of my personal life will emerge. But that’s not the focus of my content.

As for the second part of your question, you chose an interesting way to word it. On one hand, I want to give a Muhammad Ali answer: “They only know me for Chocolate Rain? They should know me as the greatest who ever was!” But it’s a much deeper question than this.

The question is the equivalent of asking Gallagher: “If someone only knows you for smashing objects on stage, what else do you want them to know?” It’s like asking Alfonso Ribeiro: “If someone only knows you for the Carlton dance, what else would you like them to find out?” It’s a great and common question. However, this premise does not in any way match how entertainers live their lives: We don’t look in the mirror and narrate our identity through the public’s experience of us. We appreciate if we have done something that a person remembers, but that doesn’t mean we live our lives as minstrels to their choice to not learn more about us.

Alfonso Ribeiro could easily reply “I’ve worked nonstop for more than two decades since The Fresh Prince of Bel Air went off the air. I’ve written. I’ve acted. I’ve directed. I’ve been on Dancing With The Stars. I’ve hosted America’s Funniest Videos. BUT if you only know me for the Carlton dance, I still love you and that’s fine.”

However, as soon as he’s forced to give that answer, he’s reduced the framing of his life to how some hypothetical strangers perceive him. It might be best to ask him “what are you up to now?” and let him answer as he pleases.

By the same token, if someone only knows me for “Chocolate Rain,” I don’t need to force-feed them a Tay Zonday “catch up” course.

If they HAPPEN to like any of the other songs I have sung that also have millions of views;
if they HAPPEN to listen to my “Chocolate Pains” podcast;
If they HAPPEN to like the cameos I do in numerous other Youtube projects;
If they HAPPEN to join my Discord or subscribe to me on Twitch;
If they HAPPEN to enjoy my Tweets;
If they HAPPEN to remember me from Tosh.0, America’s Got Talent or numerous other national media brands that have featured myself or my likeness;
If they HAPPEN to see my professional activities summarized on LinkedIn or at tayzonday.com;

Then I very much appreciate them in these capacities. But if all they remember is “Chocolate Rain”, then I appreciate that too.

Tay Zonday Interview
Image Courtesy of Twitch.tv/TayZonday

Somewhere, some kid only knows Arnold Schwarzenegger as the guy who says “Hasta La Vista”. I don’t think Arnold wakes up every day worrying “How can I teach this kid about my life?!”

I wake up every day trying to be a better person than I was the day before. I’d love to act more on camera. I’d love to host a game show. There’s still a tremendous amount I’d love to create musically if I get the chance to do so.

More appropriate to this publication, I’m also a lifelong casual gamer and present-day streamer. If good things happen along those trajectories, that’s splendid. In my experience, success tends to be the serendipitous consequence of unrelated plans.

 

The Game Haus would like to thank Tay Zonday for taking the time to participate in this interview. If you want to keep up with Tay, you can find him on Twitter, Youtube, Twitch or on his website.

 


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Featured Image Courtesy of Tay Zonday

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