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Overwatch_League_Logo

Creative Commons | Blizzard Entertainment 

Overwatch League Seeks Mainstream Status

This past weekend, the longest-running fighting game tournament the Evolution Championship Series came to a spectacular close. Over the course of three days, thousands of competitors from across the globe flocked to Las Vegas, Nevada in hopes of earning fame, glory, and perhaps most enticing, a lucrative cash prize. Despite the fervor, the largest game tournament of its kind may not have been the biggest news to hit the esports world last week. Arguably, Blizzard stole at least a sliver of the spotlight with its announcement: the Overwatch League is official, and it’s backed by some seriously high-profile figures from within the video game industry and beyond.

 

In a move that will undoubtedly thrust the team-based shooter onto the mainstream stage, Blizzard’s Overwatch League is already blurring the boundaries of esports and conventional sports franchises. Seven city-based teams fill the league’s roster, a framework we haven’t yet seen in the esports industry. And that similarity is not accidental. By mirroring the team-city relationships of traditional sports leagues, Nate Nanzer—commissioner of the Overwatch League—hopes the connection will appeal to fans by tugging on their local pride and hometown allegiances. Andy Miller, owner of the San Francisco team offered a similar sentiment when he expressed that a city-centered esports league is not just a good idea, it’s “the biggest selling point” of joining the league.

 

The idea of expanding esports with new leagues and lucrative contracts is not about creating a niche club catered to video game fans, no, the big bucks come from showing non-gamers and traditional sports fans the holy splendor of esports by borrowing tactics of traditional leagues—in this case city-centered teams—to attract new viewership. By emulating the current industry leaders while maintaining its own flair, esports can become both more accessible to prospective fans and readily available to the masses; a killer combination. It’s no mistake that ESPN is now the third most popular medium to consume gaming content.

 

Several of the city-based teams in the Overwatch League’s catalog will be shepherded by big-name partners from the conventional sports arena. For example, owner of the New England Patriots—Robert Kraft—can add another notch to his sporting belt as the owner of the Overwatch League’s Boston team. Not to mention, Jeff Wilpon, COO of the New York Mets will captain the New York City franchise.

 

In addition, the league is set to solidify its presence in a number of other U.S. cities such as Los Angeles run by CEO of the Immortals Noah Whinston, Miami-Orlando heralded by Ben Spoont CEO and co-founder of Misfits Gaming, and San Francisco which as mentioned earlier, will be in the hands of NRG Esports founder Andy Miller. Balancing out the national grouping, the last two teams hail from overseas, Blizzard’s Chinese partner NetEase nabbed the rights to the Shanghai branch, and Kevin Chou co-founder of Kabam is set to claim the Seoul team.

 

Blizzard plans to expand the league over time, adding additional teams and cities to its competitive collection. It’s a huge undertaking and an even bigger opportunity for esports. If the whirlwind of enthusiastic investors doesn’t showcase the Overwatch League and by extension esport’s promising outlook, perhaps the rumor mill surrounding Blizzard’s partnership requirements will.

 

According to an ESPN document, Blizzard wants prospective team-owners to fork over $20 million per team buy-in with no revenue sharing until 2021. Even though they declined to comment on whether the report was accurate, it certainly illustrates Blizzard’s confidence that the Overwatch League has explosive potential. In an industry that is expected to reach revenues of $1.5 billion by 2020, I can believe it. But it begs the question, with such rapid growth, what new milestones will esports reach in the near future?

 ESL_One_Cologne_2014

Creative Commons | Tim Bartel 

What’s next for esports?

A quick glance at Sin City’s most notable icon, the Las Vegas Strip shows the gambling city is focused on expanding its reach into a different kind of entertainment. Not only is Nevada’s crown jewel finally getting its own football team and fancy new stadium, Vegas like many other cities is opening its first cutting-edge global esports destination, an arena conceived through a massive partnership with the Luxor Hotel and Casino and Allied Esports.

 

In the words of Allied Esports International CEO Jud Hannigan, “Just as Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium are considered their sports’ most aspirational venues by players and fans alike, Esports Arena Las Vegas will be the iconic destination in esports and complement the city’s incredible appeal, attracting video gaming competitors and fans from around the world.” The company is planning to announce 10-15 new Esports Arena locations in North America over the next few years, just one example of esports exponential growth.

 

Thanks to greater media attention like ESPN’s dedicated esports coverage, new lofty partnerships between gaming companies and well-known sports leagues, the prevalence of broadcasting media such as Twitch and YouTube Gaming, esports signifies a convergence between established industries and an opportunity to target markets that were previously out of reach. While studies show the majority of longtime esports enthusiasts were initially drawn to the pastime by a previous interest in video games, new fans are getting acquainted with esports though friends and family, regardless of any personal gaming background.

 

So what does esports look like in the near future? Experts have attempted to speculate the industry’s trajectory with some conflicting conclusions. But we do know a few things about the future of esports. For one, North America is already poised as the leader of the esports market. This trend will not only continue but intensify in the coming years. The number of esports enthusiasts versus occasional viewers will drastically increase as well, some estimate a 50% increase in regular viewers by 2020. Three years ago, a dedicated sports-betting company declared esports was its 7th biggest sport in terms of betting volume, that rank is sure to rise, if it hasn’t already.

 

The reality is, esports as a business is in its infancy. MOBAs, the gaming genre most associated with competitive esports is only about 10 years old. DOTA, League of Legends, Starcraft II, Call of Duty, and Overwatch are just the beginning. As game developers continue to explore the arena of online competitive gaming, as the games themselves become more diverse and technology growth makes room for more player-spectator interactivity, esports will continue to evolve, and as the mountain of data suggests, thrive.

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