Blizzard launches shoot-to-thrill Overwatch League, but there is a risk of overkill
The constantly evolving realm of eSports is taking another big leap forward this week with the January 10th launch of Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s seven-month long Overwatch League.
The American video game publisher – maker of the massively successful competitive first-person shooter Overwatch, which had a player base of more than 35 million players as of last October – has decided to double down on the game’s popularity by running a season-based competition similar to what one might find in traditional sports.
The inaugural season of the Overwatch League features ten city-based teams from around the world divided into Pacific and Atlantic divisions. The squads range in size up to a dozen players, with teammates assigned roles (think of them as positions) including offence, tank, support, and flex.
They’re as professional as any traditional sports team, with uniforms and merchandise, big name backers – Jennifer Lopez, Shaq, and Marshawn Lynch are behind the NRG Sports-owned San Francisco Shock – and a commitment to train and live with each other year-round. The players receive salaries of a minimum of $50,000 each (plus housing and benefits) while vying for a chunk of the league’s million-dollar prize pool, handed out at year’s end.
Also akin to traditional sports, these teams will be battling it out over a gruelling regular season and postseason schedule. Teams will spend six months going up against others in their division trying to achieve the best record. The teams that rise to the top in their respective groups will then enter playoff-style competition aiming to be crowned league champions.
And, just like traditional sports, fans can watch live broadcasts of every game – in a variety of languages – via the Overwatch League website, official app, or on Twitch. Millions of people are expected to watch.
Blizzard, which is among the most profitable game companies in the world thanks to a roster of blockbuster games that includes World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, and other popular series, has a lot riding on the first season of its new league. It may have money to spare – its parent company, Activision Blizzard, Inc., earned $6.61 billion in 2016 – but it doesn’t have a lot of experience running professional game tournaments. Investors will be watching closely to see how the company manages this new enterprise. And they may be concerned about the unusual model Blizzard has chosen for its league.
While city-based teams are standard in traditional sports leagues, they aren’t the norm for eSports, where teams typically run under their own banners or those of the companies that sponsor them. Playing for a city might help teams to develop local fan bases more rapidly, but it may discourage interest in global viewers who don’t feel represented. And with franchise buyers reportedly spending millions of dollars for their teams, they’ll want to see high viewership.
Then there’s the risk of Overwatch overkill. Blizzard’s acclaimed shooter is a relatively young game compared to others in the eSports arena, and Blizzard already sponsors the Overwatch World Cup (which pits countries against each other) while third parties are running their own Overwatch events. With the league focused on just this one game, Overwatch oversaturation is real a possibility.
Still, if Blizzard can pull off its goal “to create the world’s premier eSports league, where teams and players thrive for years to come,” then professional video gaming might be a big step closer to achieving mainstream acceptance.