Blizzard’s new Overwatch League has seven teams, with homegrown esports team Immortals in Los Angeles on on side and another from the Boston’s Robert Kraft, the owner of the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
The competition will pit young executives like Noah Whinston, CEO of the Immortals, against owners from established sports teams. And Whinston said in an interview with GamesBeat that he relishes the chance to kick the ass of Kraft’s team. Each group had to come up with an estimated $20 million to join Activision Blizzard’s official esports league for its hit team-based shooter Overwatch, which has more than 30 million users. Other rivals include Kevin Chou and Kent Wakeford, owners of KSV eSports International, which bought the Overwatch franchise for Seoul, South Korea.
The odds don’t look like they’re in anyone’s favor, as each group has a lot of heft and had to come up with an estimated $20 million to buy a franchise. I talked with Whinston as well as Clinton Foy, chairman of the Immortals and managing director of Crosscut Ventures, about the opportunity. The esports economy will grow 41.3 percent to $696 million in 2017, and it could hit $1.5 billion by 2020, according to market researcher Newzoo.
There’s a big contrast betweeen Kraft and upstarts like Whinston, a 22-year-old who founded the Immortals in 2015. But Foy said the Immortals have important allies among Los Angeles heavyweights like Peter Levin, president of Lionsgate Interactive Ventures; investors Michael and Gregory Milken; and AEG, the owner of the LA. Live entertainment venue that includes Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers play. That collection of allies will make the Los Angeles franchise a formidable force in the league, Foy said. Beyond the Overwatch team, the Immortals also have teams playing League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Smash Bros., and Vainglory.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Whinston.
GamesBeat: Why you are joining the Overwatch league?
Noah Whinston: For us, the crucial part of it overall was the localization aspect — being able to have a local territory that we have control over and build deeper ties with a fan base than the current model really allows us to do. Even though digital platforms give us a really wide access to fans — all over the world — it doesn’t allow you to build as deep a connection as you can between a local sports team and their fan base.
That localization element, in addition the revenue sharing elements, and the stability and the strong competitive future of the game, all of those were important aspects for us when it came to making the decision.
GamesBeat: When you formed as an esports organization, it seems like you ran into a lot of pain points that made it obvious you needed a better model.
Whinston: Every esports team has kind of been waiting for the day when these large, top-down structures would come into play and provide the kind of stability that hasn’t really existed before. When those structures come in, they can provide the growth structure that we need for esports to really explode — to not just keep Overwatch at the same level we’re at right now. We need to keep growing the fan base in order to support the overall ecosystem.
GamesBeat: How are you going to run Immortals now? Do you still have a lot of other teams that you’re going to keep supporting on other leagues? How much focus do you put on the Overwatch League relative to other games?
Whinston: Oh, a huge amount of focus, obviously. Those teams represent a huge investment of resources and energy on our part. It’s not as if we’re planning to drop any of our other teams. We’re still very dedicated to our participation in League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Smash, and Vainglory. These are all great games and we have great players involved with them. But of course now that there’s more of a structure around Overwatch, that’s going to take higher precedence on our list of priorities.
GamesBeat: Have you been working on this for a long time now, or was it a relatively quick deal to put together?
Whinston: No, it’s been tough to get done. It always is, building something like this from the ground up. We’ve been talking to Blizzard for a while now, almost a year. What we’re looking at today is different from what we’d planned originally, which was different from the first ideas that were floated to us by the Overwatch team. It’s been a long process on our end, but even more so at Blizzard. We’ve been fortunate that the process was so open and we got so much help from their side that made our job easier when it comes to expressing what we need, what’s essential to us.
GamesBeat: As far as where you guys were in making the deal, did you have to amass more capital from investors to make this happen, or were you already set up for this kind of thing?
Whinston: There’s certainly a significant capital requirement, but part of that was covered by AEG just a few weeks ago, an additional investor in Immortals. AEG also provides additional structure that’s very important to eventually running our own Overwatch events. As far as additional investment in Immortals, we may have some announcements around that in the future.
GamesBeat: Is it the Los Angeles territory that you’re setting up?
Whinston: Right. Our territory encompasses Los Angeles and San Diego.
GamesBeat: It seems nice that you have Blizzard’s home turf in your area.
Whinston: Absolutely. That was almost non-negotiable for us. Los Angeles is an incredibly important market for both myself and our investors.