Could Overwatch be the game to take e-sports mainstream?
Its developer Activision Blizzard has just announced the first seven team owners for a forthcoming league. It believes, in time, the tournament could prove more lucrative than the UK’s Premier League – football’s highest-earning competition.
Several of the successful bidders have made their mark with traditional sports teams, and the buy-in price has not been cheap.
The BBC understands the rights cost $20m (£15.5m) per squad. For that, owners get the promise of a 50% revenue split with the Overwatch League itself for future earnings.
The fast-paced cartoon-like shooter was designed to appeal to both players and spectators. It’s low on gore and features a racial mix of male and female heroes, including a gay character – a relative rarity in gaming.
Unlike most e-sports competitions, each team will be based in a different major city to help owners attract home crowds.
And they will pursue the world’s biggest consumer brands as sponsors, rather than the kind of games-related businesses usually associated with e-sports.
“If you want to reach 18-to-35-year-olds, you really need to be where they are, and they are playing games,” Activision Blizzard’s chief executive Bobby Kotick told the BBC.
“The other thing that we offer uniquely is that Overwatch is a very family-friendly game experience. It’s a teen-rated game; it’s super-colourful, super-friendly.
“And if you look at the geographical diversity of the maps or the ethnic and racial diversity of the characters, those are all things that we took into consideration in the construction of what we thought would be a globally appealing experience.”
To start with, teams are expected to make use of existing venues, but in time Activision Blizzard believes owners will build huge dedicated stadiums of their own.
Fixtures will also be streamed online, and be made accessible from within the game itself.
A brief introduction to Overwatch
The first-person shooter features about two dozen characters who engage in team-based battles set across a near-future Earth.
Each character has a distinct personality – including a genetically engineered scientist ape, a cowboy-styled bounty hunter and a nerdy-looking climatologist – and unique abilities.
The heroes divide into four broad categories:
- offence – fast-moving characters that can inflict a lot of damage quickly
- defence – warriors best suited to guarding key parts of the battlefield and repelling attacks
- tank – fighters that can sustain a lot of damage and are therefore well-suited to leading attacks
- support – champions that help other players heal and access their most powerful attack modes more quickly than normal
Squads of six characters are pitched against each other in a range of challenges, including protecting/capturing a location; defending/destroying a vehicle as it is driven across a zone; and being first to wipe out the enemy team.
Overwatch launched more than a year ago. Numerous awards and a thriving community of about 30 million players prove it has appeal.
Even so, the new league is not guaranteed to succeed on the scale Activision Blizzard hopes.
Critics suggest some potential investors have been put off by a demand that the firm gets a reported 25% cut of any team sale.
And there is concern that ticket and sponsorship sales could be hit by plans to launch a similar venture based on its Call of Duty titles.
Moreover, existing e-sports competitions have yet to collectively make more than £1bn a year – by contrast Premier League clubs jointly earned £3.6bn in the 2015-16 season, according to a recent study.
“I think it’s a bunch of rubbish that it will approach anything like pro-sports revenues,” commented Lewis Ward from the consultancy IDC.
“The size of the gamer base, demand for video content and all the rest will drive its sponsorship deals.
“But the second-biggest e-sport at present [in terms of prize money] – League of Legends – only sold its global media broadcast rights in December for $50m [£38.9m] a year through to 2023, which is the biggest deal of its kind as far as I am aware.
“So, I think the people who are investing tens of millions to buy an Overwatch team are likely to lose money.”
To help make the league a less risky investment, Activision Blizzard has opted not to relegate or promote teams at the end of each season.
Players will also need to sign full-time contracts, and in return be guaranteed a baseline wage and other benefits.
The first seven team owners:
Robert Kraft – billionaire chief executive of the Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots American football team and the New England Revolution soccer club.
Jeff Wilpon – chief operating officer of the New York Mets baseball team and vice-president of the property investment firm Sterling Equities, which operates the Mets’ home stadium.
Andy Miller – chairman of NRG eSports, which already maintains an Overwatch team, and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team. Mr Miller was previously vice-president of mobile advertising at Apple.
Ben Spoont – chief executive of Misfits Gaming, an e-sports organisation formed last year, with teams competing in Overwatch among other games. The National Basketball Association’s Miami Heats owns part of the business and shares its team colours with the gamers.
Noah Whinston – chief executive of Immortals, a multi-game e-sports organisation that already has an Overwatch squad.
Kevin Chou – chief executive of a new venture, KSV eSports. He was previously chief executive of the mobile games publisher Kabam.
NetEase – a Chinese tech company, which publishes several Blizzard titles, including World of Warcraft, in mainland China as well as distributing its own games. The firm also operates social media, email and e-commerce businesses in the country.
Talent-spotters will monitor smaller third-party Overwatch competitions to identify new talent.
Activision Blizzard acknowledges that existing squads tend to be male-dominated, but has “zero desire” to set up a separate female league or enforce a form of “positive discrimination” to address this.
“Right now most of the pro players are male,” Nate Nanzer, the league’s commissioner, acknowledged.
“But there’s no reason that women cannot play Overwatch at the same level as men, and our intention is absolutely to have the two genders mixed.
“The demographics of people who play video games in the year 2017 tend to be more male than female… but I think that’s changing and it’s much more commonplace for young girls today to play video games right alongside their brothers.”
He added that some competitions his firm had hosted in South Korea had attracted more women than men to their audiences, suggesting the current gender imbalance need not limit interest.
Harrison Pond, professional Overwatch player for eUnited
“I’m still quite young – 20 years old – and I had been concentrating on my studies, but dropped all that when Overwatch came out.
“I was in top teams from pretty much the beginning.
“Until recently, we practised seven days a week and up to eight hours a day. But we’ve toned it down a bit if there’s not a tournament coming up.
“It’s like a normal job to me.
“There’s a lot of depth to the game that new players might not understand, like making sure you use your Ultimates [special powers] at the correct time instead of wasting them.
“It also appeals to more people than e-sports games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which involves playing as terrorists – some people have problems with that.
“About 96% of my YouTube subscribers are Korean and they are amazing fans. They want photos and bring you gifts.
“I think we will eventually see a similar reaction in the West, but I think it will take a long time to get to Korea’s level.
“I’m excited by the new league – it seems they want to shift e-sports into a new era, shaping it into something more professional like the NFL.
“I also like the idea of being an employee with job security and the possibility of funding for college when your career ends.
“I have faith that Activision Blizzard will pull this off but I understand the scepticism from other people based on how it has handled e-sports in the past.”
Another issue the league will inevitably have to face is the influence it has over young minds.
Parents might be more relaxed about their children watching a traditional sport that spurs them on to exercise afterwards than one that encourages even more screen time.
But the league’s creators still believe their “athletes” can act as role models.
“Our players generally need to be well conditioned and they need to be physically fit,” said Mr Kotick.
“A big part of the mental acuity that they have comes from their training regimens, their diet, their exercise.
“It’s not the same as having the same physical requirements that you might see in football or basketball. But our players take care of themselves.”