When the last Philadelphia hero had been eliminated and left motionless on the animated map, the players removed their hands from the controls, confetti fluttered through the air and triumphant music blasted through the public-address system at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Fans were on their feet cheering, hoisting their smart phones to record the moment: the first championship of the Overwatch League.
The London Spitfire toppled the underdog Philadelphia Fusion on Saturday afternoon, an important mile-marker for a first-year league that began play in January with designs on revolutionizing the way esports is played, structured and consumed. The confetti, the costumed fans, the raucous atmosphere – it was as much part of the OWL dream as it was the league’s blueprint.
Saturday marked the culmination of the inaugural season, and while the upstart league has touted it as a huge success, it was only a step. The looming transition to the local markets will ultimately define the success of not just the league but also whether its ambitious model can truly reshape the esports landscape.
“The city-based format has really taken off in a faster and in a bigger way than I had expected,” said Nate Nanzer, the league commissioner, “and, frankly, like I knew it would work — for all the reasons that work in traditional sports. I just thought it would maybe take more time.”
The league (OWL) wasn’t built to be a get-rich-quick scheme. It aims to have the staying power and popularity of traditional sports leagues like the NBA or NFL, connecting with communities the way the New York Yankees or New England Patriots do, and producing revenues that blur the line between games and sports.
“I think it is still a long-term play. One year in a sports league is immaterial,” said Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group, which owns the OWL’s Boston Uprising franchise and also the New England Patriots. “We did this with an eye towards building long-term asset value.”
Long before Saturday’s championship formally brought the inaugural season to a close, OWL officials had been busy plotting out Season 2 and beyond. ESPN reported recently that the league is finalizing agreements with three expansion franchises – one in Atlanta, one in Paris and another in Guangzhou, China – and as many as three more could be on the way, each selling for $30-60 million. And while the league’s most fervent fans are accustomed to following OWL games via the live-streaming video service Twitch, the league also signed a broadcast deal this month that will put future matches on ESPN and Disney channels.
While the league’s online numbers exceeded expectations for many team executives – the broadcasts averaged anywhere from 80,000 to 170,000 concurrent viewers — team and league officials feel certain their Year 1 successes are only a preview of what’s to come. They think the league is still rolling down the runway, and though there are some potential obstacles ahead, they feel they’re following a blueprint that will revolutionize esports.
“If Overwatch League is successful, it’s inherently changed the model for every publisher, for every league and for every team that exists in the world,” said Noah Whinston, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Valiant franchise. “Having a localized model at this scale has never been attempted before. If this league is successful, I think it throws a lot of conventional wisdom about esports completely off the table.”
A global league’s local vision
The two squads of players sat on a stage at one end of the arena, dwarfed by the giant video scoreboard overhead. The favored London Spitfire squad consisted of six Korean gamers, all of whom would be carded by any bartender in Brooklyn, and the Philadelphia Fusion featured six players from five different countries. None of the players on the stage was American and none had any tangible connection to the city he’d been representing these past four months.
The novelty of OWL is its geolocating model in which the 12 franchises are tied to specific cities, just like traditional sports leagues. It’s a novel formula and based on the early returns, Blizzard, the game’s publisher, could eventually use the same approach with other titles, most notably Call of Duty, a popular esports title for the past dozen years.
But in Year 1 of OWL, all the teams were actually located in the Los Angeles area, playing their matches at the same 450-seat Burbank, Calif., studio that formerly hosted “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” That will be the Year 2 arrangement too.
But owners are hopeful that in Year 3 – 2020 – the teams will relocate to their actual cities, which will open up new revenue streams. A report from the market research company Newzoo earlier this year suggested global esports revenues will top $900 million this year and will nearly double in the next three years. The OWL teams know that money is out there, which is why franchise rights for the initial 12 teams sold for $20 million apiece.
“Ultimately, to really be a force — to create the types of monetization that you’d like to have on a local basis, the team has to be in-market more regularly,” Kraft said.
Estimates suggest as many as 150 million people watch esports globally, a figure that is expected to only grow in coming years. But the league wants a particularly avid following to bloom in the league’s hand-picked cities. They can then leverage that fandom and create revenue streams: ticket sales, merchandising, local sponsorships, community partnerships.
“I think monetization is the core issue in esports,” Whinston said. “We all know how big the audience is. … We’re still a long way away from generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue on an annual basis, but I think we’ve made the right steps to start proving out the different pieces to the model.”
Kraft likens the league’s Season 1 core audience to low-hanging fruit, largely gamers who didn’t need much arm-twisting. The challenge down the road will be growing beyond that.
“I think to start to attract and educate casual fans and bring the geographic connection in — I think of people who don’t love hockey but say, ‘The Bruins are my team because they live in Boston,’” he said. “I think you have to be in-market to fully take advantage of that.”
“Once it comes into the market, those less-than-avid fans then have a reason to start paying attention. That’s when we’ll really have to kick it into high gear,” he continued. “Look, the league launched very successfully, no one can dispute that. … And we’ll just get stronger next year. But the next real big test will be when we go in-market in 2020.”
Can a game become a pastime?
Overwatch, barely two years old, already has a loyal following. The fans who flooded Brooklyn – many of whom lined up hours before the Barclay Center doors opened — wore gear representing all 12 of the league’s teams, many featuring the names of specific players across their shoulders. Many others came dressed in costume as the game’s heroes – Sombra, Zarya, Widowmaker and even Wrecking Ball, a new hamster character introduced last month, among them — and seemed to connect with the characters in the game as much as the players using them.
In the arena, the players sat mostly still on the stage, their hands doing all the work unseen, their heads shielded from the crowd by monitors. Most of the action took place on the gigantic videoboard overhead. Overwatch is a six-on-six shooter game, a futuristic adventure that is both the reason for the league’s instant success and perhaps a slight cause for trepidation.
Even as the league took off this spring, many gamers started gravitating this year to another title. Fortnite became undoubtedly the game of the moment, reportedly topping 125 million players and bringing in $1 million a day.
“What Fortnite has done is absolutely incredible,” said Tucker Roberts, president of the Fusion franchise. “It’s pulling fans right now from Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota, Counter-Strike — all the biggest games that have been around for years. It’s no joke. … But I don’t think that will persist forever.”
Fortnite and its battle royale format don’t lend itself to a team-based league, and OWL officials are quick to point out that there are always new titles. Even if some temporarily siphon off players, the good games — think: StarCraft, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Warcraft – tend to have staying power.
“From my perspective, the fears of esports fads and games coming in and out of favor is a little overblown,” said Whinston. “Of course, there are casual fans that will move from game to game, but I think it’s overly simplistic to say, ‘Well, a new game will come along and Overwatch will fall out of popularity.’”
The key is evolution. Updates, new maps, new characters, new technology. And unlike traditional sports, esports has the ability to tweak its games at any time, even during a season. Blizzard makes regular Overwatch updates and this year even introduced a new character midway through the season, which forced teams to change strategies and upended the league hierarchy. As a result, the best regular-season team, the New York Excelsior, was ousted in the OWL semifinals. The Fusion, which sneaked into the playoffs with the sixth and final roster spot, instead found itself in Brooklyn this weekend.
While baseball or football would never fundamentally alter its rule book midway through the season, OWL officials seemed to embrace a drastic midseason change that forced players to adapt.
“I think there’s a lot of traditional sports that are struggling to keep fans engaged and engage with young fans because they haven’t evolved in 100 years,” Nanzer said. “And so I think that’s an advantage that we have over traditional sports.”
Building on the foundation
The league said it sold out the approximately 11,000 available seats for the two-day finals. Any fans searching the secondary market for tickets last week were paying at least $125 to get into the arena. DJ Khaled performed before the day’s main event and for the next 75 minutes, all eyes were glued the videoboard. Down below cameras fluttered about, zooming in tight on the players. It was all broadcast live globally on Twitch and scheduled to re-air during prime time on ESPN2.
The linear broadcast deal is regarded as a big step for the young league. It not only validated esports’ place on the North American sports landscape, but it has the potential to help broaden OWL’s reach. Team executives know gamers are comfortable turning to Twitch but feel there’s also a potential audience that’s more accustomed to traditional cable. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“Your core fan base might not go there, but their parents and their family and friends may,” said the Fusion’s Roberts, who’s the son of Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts.
It could potentially help mainstream the sport in a way where discussion isn’t relegated to online portals, college dorm rooms or school hallways. It could be discussed on sports talk radio, featured on SportsCenter and debated at the office water cooler. Its audience wouldn’t merely be those who play Overwatch themselves.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s some big non-gaming mainstream audience that we have to make inroads to,” said Whinston. “I think essentially what you need to do is grow your audience by channeling the same passion that local fan bases have for their sports teams. Think about it this way, nobody would say you need to play baseball in order to be a baseball fan. I believe what we’re building is kind of a social and cultural movement.”
The way team and league executives see it, they jumped into a business where the market was already in place with a built-in audience that was hungry for an engaging product. And OWL officials are counting on them being around for awhile.
“Have you met a 12-year old recently?” Nanzer asks. “Because if you have, I’m guessing all they do is watch other people play video games on Twitch and YouTube. And that’s not going to magically change when they turn 35. It’s not like they’re going to turn 35 and be like, ‘Well, I’m a baseball fan now.’”
They hope the party inside of Barclays Saturday was just a glimpse at the future: fans filling seats, long lines at merchandise stands, a riveting competition taking place on stage.
“In the far away future — like 20 years from now — I don’t think there will be any non-gamers,” said Roberts. “I think kids today, they’ll have kids, and they’ll play games with their kids. It’s like who today do you know that doesn’t play any sports? Everyone at least has some familiarity. I think that’s where things are headed.”
The Barclays crowd certainly knew what they were watching. They waved signs, cheered on their favorite players and were treated to an exciting finale. London entered the day having won three straight matches, including a 3-1 win on Friday. Led by 18-year old Joon-yeong Park, a damage specialist better known in the Overwatch world as “Profit,” the Spitfire won the Junkertown map, breezed through Lijiang Tower and then sealed the title by battling back and toppling the Fusion on King’s Row, a London-inspired map.
More than 310,000 were viewing the final minutes on Twitch, and the crowd inside the Brooklyn arena showered the Korean-built, London-based champions with praise.
“I think it’s given us a great foundation to build off of in 2019,” said Nanzer, the commissioner. “And you know I think one of our guiding principles as a league is to make sure that every season is better than the last and I think this will be a great event to energize us.”
Mike Hume contributed to this report.