What you need to know about Blizzards ambitious project
The esport industry has been steadily growing over the last decade alongside an already booming video game industry. The industry is said to have produced an estimated $493 million dollars in Revenue during 2016 which is up 50% from 2015. The video game industry as a whole is estimated to break over $100 Billion in 2017. For some perspective, the total box office ticket sales in 2016 was around $38.6 billion. The North American Sports market in 2015 was sitting at $63.9 billion. So while esports doesn’t have the big numbers yet, nearly half a billion dollars in revenue in an industry that is exploding ahead is nothing to sneeze at. Esports is also excelling in viewership numbers of it’s major events. League of Legends has been one of the biggest esports in the world both with popularity and revenue. In 2016 43 million people tuned in to watch the world championship, 2nd only to the Intel Extreme Masters topping out at 46 million. With more and more people turning away from TV and focusing more on social media and live streaming platforms like twitch where esports thrives, the popularity of esports will continue to rise.
Enter the gaming behemoth Activision Blizzard. With the revenue from esports increasing steadily, everyone is trying to get a piece of the action. Blizzard already has a proven track record in the gaming industry with an impressively popular library of game titles, some of which are already popular esports. These coupled along side with their recent acquisition of MLG and highly successful Blizzcon event and you have a company that knows what it’s doing. And that brings us to Blizzards recent game, Overwatch.
Winning multiple game of the year awards for 2016, Overwatch has quickly become a massively popular game not just with players and streamers but also within esports. In Korea, Overwatch has even managed to dethrone League of Legends in certain areas and has even seen Korean Pro Overwatch players turn into megastars on a similar level to that of K-pop stars. With the success of Overwatch as a video game and as an esports, Blizzard has decided to double down on the game, creating the Overwatch League.
The Overwatch League is Blizzards attempt at creating an entire sport from scratch, modeled after traditional sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL. In this they are trying to create a long lasting league that can serve as a true and complete professional entity. By bringing in big name team owners and organisations they hope to create franchises that are meant to last and that are fully functioning on every level just the same as a professional sports team. In the creation of these franchises they are hoping to create a stable and consistent environment for the players and to also help create a clear pathway of ascension for future players to move into the esports scene as well. This will also include fostering and nourishing local fan bases and they hope to do this by localizing teams as opposed to the current more fragmented model that esport organisations have taken. Esports has always been fragmented because of its organic nature and its beginnings, but now Blizzard is trying to change that and really bring esports into the mainstream and Overwatch is its mantle piece.
While others have tried before and failed, Blizzard might just have all the pieces it needs to pull this off. 12 teams have signed on for the inaugural season of the OWL with some very big names jumping on board behind some of these teams, some of which carry big reputations of success and extremely deep pockets. Some of those names include the Kraft Group (Owners of the Patriots), the Hersch Family (Big oil and Natural Gas), Miami Heat, Kroenke Sports and VC Sterling (NY Mets). The rumored minimum buy in price of $20 Million per team was at first seen by some as ridiculous but now that the league is a reality it would seem that there is a lot of faith in this venture.
The league itself is split into 2 divisions consisting of 6 teams each. 3 of the teams are based overseas while the rest are centered around the US. Stage 1 starts on the 11th of January while the preseason games happen on the 7th of December. 4 stages hold 6 weeks of matches per stage with a title match rounding off each stage. The playoffs are scheduled to take place during June and July with an all star weekend looking to round off the year to be held during August. The rosters of the 12 teams include most of the top Overwatch Players in the world along with some of the fan favourite teams maintaining most of their rosters. Powerhouse Overwatch teams like Lunatic Hai (Seoul Dynasty) and EnVyUs (Dallas Fuel) are fully represented under their new banners as well as many other popular esport franchises like Cloud 9 (London Spitfire), Optic Gaming (Houston Outlaws) and Misfits (Florida Mayhem)
Of course the formation of the league hasn’t been without its critics and the game of Overwatch itself is far from perfect. As a game it can be extremely hard to follow and understand for the average person with little knowledge of video games. The fast and hectic pace of the game coupled with a meta that can get stagnant before being completely changed will make generating new fans difficult. Even though Blizzard was able to showcase some effective new changes to the spectator experience during this years Overwatch World Cup, there are still some concerns going forward. Blizzard has also seen that all eyes will be on the OWL, with most other Overwatch tournaments having to stand down their activities, they are certainly putting it all on the line here. And while Blizzard still has some chance to polish their product further after the preseason round, the League goes live in January and it will then be up to the fans to decide if it is worth their attention or not.
Marcus Powell has been living and working in South Korea since 2010. Aside from writing for small publications, he is also a popular club DJ, English Teacher, gamer, sports and esports fan and anime enthusiast.