E-Sports Expansion: City Teams Worldwide Compete In 'Overwatch' League

Published: Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - 12:53pm
Updated: Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - 8:43am
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Blizzard Entertainment
Je-hong Ryujehong celebrates his team's close win with the crowd.

Even if we’ve played sports in the past, many of us who watch games now are strictly spectators. We may go the stadium or just check it out from the living room. But those are traditional sports like basketball or baseball.

One realm that’s greatly expanded its reach and popularity is e-sports. To simplify, fans are watching people play video games.

Now the Overwatch League is getting started. It’s a gaming initiative that wants to make e-sports a live gaming event beginning next month, with teams from major cities across the globe. And some of the league’s investors are very connected.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is involved, as is Steve Bornstein, ABC Sports’ former President.

Here to talk about it is Jacob Wolf, an e-sports reporter for ESPN.

STEVE: Jacob, let's start with what the Overwatch League is and what it could become.

JACOB: Overwatch is a 6-on-6 arena first-person shooter game that is made by Blizzard Entertainment, a company based in Irvine California. The Overwatch League is their professional league. Several game developers and the game development sites have created e-sports leagues and the Overwatch League is theirs, and kind of their take on what they want it to be.

The Overwatch League itself is a 12-team league with the first season played in Los Angeles, with future seasons hopefully played in arenas around the world, everywhere from Boston to New York to Seoul, South Korea, Shanghai, China. Ownerships in the league include people like the Kraft Group of the New England Patriots the Wilpon family of the New York Mets and several others. 

STEVE: What does the expansion of e-sports leagues really mean? Does this mean that people are less excited about the traditional sports or is this going be more than a niche?

JACOB: Definitely going to be more than a niche. I think that this is something that a lot of these people understand and are starting to warn about because this is what they see as the audience. E-sports skews significantly younger than even basketball, which in my opinion is one of the more significant younger sports. I think that this is an opportunity for them to be invested in something that they see as the future of sports.

STEVE: Why has this become or why is it growing into a really popular spectator sport. In essence we're watching people play video games? I mean intensely, but that's what we're watching, right? 

JACOB: Yeah. For the exact same reason that traditional sports have become such a spectator sport. Like you probably are, or at least I did, I played football and I wrestled in high school and so I really like seeing people who are much better than me and much more athletically gifted than I was, play that at a high level. So I like watching professional and college football. That's the same thing here. It takes a lot to be a really good gamer at that level. 

Overwatch League
Blizzard Entertainment
A playoffs match in the Overwatch League.

STEVE: So is this a synergy of sports and technology like we've never seen before?

JACOB: I would say so, yes. The investment over the last 24 to 36 months definitely shows that. There are a lot of technology investors. There are a lot of sports investors. There's people who are invested together where one side is tech, one side is sports, so this is definitely a marriage of both technology and sports that never happened before.

STEVE: So in the big picture what is the best outcome for Overwatch League and what are some of the pitfalls it could face?

JACOB: The best outcome is the game currently as it stands has around 35 million players worldwide and those people don't necessarily watch Overwatch e-sports yet. But the best outcome is that they are able to convert almost all of those people to watch Overwatch e-sports, which is a big task and requires a lot of marketing. And that would create really good revenue streams because then you would have fans that would buy merchandise, tickets, and you would be able to sell advertisers based off the numbers that you're pulling in on one of your television streams. And that would create a really good outcome where everyone makes money and that's fantastic for everyone involved.

The pitfall is that Overwatch has been out for about 18 months. It's not necessarily a brand new game. It's had a little bit of time and it under-performed compared to some of the bigger games in the e-sports space, like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Dota 2. And those games have done really well, but they also have some monetary issues as well. So this different structure that Blizzard is applying to their league and that they've come up with is the hope to make everyone buy into this. So that's kind of the experiment right now, is can they do it?

STEVE: Now every sport and really every business is looking for that younger audience. This seems to fit that profile perfectly. 

JACOB: Yeah, 18 to 35 demographic is not very easy to hit. And there is research that shows that the e-sports audience in particular buys more merchandise and products than your sports fans. So they're buying keyboards and processors and all these peripherals that you buy because you want to play it at the top level and that is very different than sports where you just buy a hoodie or toboggan or whatever it is themed with your sports team. So yeah, I think there's definitely an area that needs to be capitalized on. I think that's kind of everyone e-sports' goal right now, at least at the top level e-sports, is to capitalize on that market.

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