Kevin Chou is a freshman among the owners of esports teams. But so far, so good for the CEO of KSV Esports, which owns the Seoul Dynasty team in the Overwatch League. Seoul Dynasty is up 4-0 in its matches so far in Blizzard Entertainment’s brand new esports league, which drew more than 10 million viewers in its debut week.
Chou, former CEO of mobile game company Kabam, acquired a franchise for an official regional Overwatch esports team in Seoul, South Korea, for an estimated $20 million. He believes that the company is poised to take advantage of the dawn of a new league that could one day be as important as the NFL or NBA. He scored a sponsorship deal with networking company Netgear just in time for his team’s debut.
After a week into the league, Chou is optimistic. Market researcher Newzoo estimates that esports will become a $1.5 billion business by 2020. We talked with Chou about his impressions of the first week of the new league.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Have you been to the Overwatch League down in Los Angeles?
Kevin Chou: Yeah, I just got back to San Francisco. I was in Los Angeles last night for our third game of the season.
GamesBeat: How has it been?
Chou: Really good. I’d say right now, Overwatch League is going above every single owner’s expectations. We’re all super excited. The viewership numbers, the sponsorships that are coming in, there’s a lot of interest around it. On the viewership side, I think a lot of people were hoping that we’d just get above 50,000, and we’re blowing that number away right now.
GamesBeat: What has the in-person experience been like, the crowd sizes there?
Chou: I’ve only been to two games so far. My understanding is that the Friday and Saturday games are generally sold out. When I was there yesterday, there were probably about 400, with 50 to 70 open seats. It’s not bad for a Wednesday. It’s been pretty good. Overall, the arena size — it’s not that big. What they did at Blizzcon, they had a 5,000-person capacity, and that just felt amazing. The Blizzard arena definitely feels a bit more like an arena. But the energy is really good. The matchups, like today — I was watching Dallas versus Houston, and that’s a really good matchup. The crowd looks like it’s at capacity today.
GamesBeat: Your team’s doing pretty well so far.
Chou: Yeah, we won 4-0 last night. That was our third straight win. We’re 3-0 in the regular season, and we were 3-0 in the preseason. We’ve gone six games undefeated now.
GamesBeat: How did the spectating experience feel to you, in person or on broadcast?
Chou: As an owner, one of my responsibilities right now is getting sponsorship partners to the table. I had a couple of sponsors that I took to the game last night, and I was mostly talking to them. I wasn’t able to as intently watch the game. But the owners have access to a skybox for VIPs and so on, and it’s a great experience in terms of — I’ve never had a box at another sporting event, unless you count the Kabam stadium. It has a really premium feel to it. They have a waiter there, food service, wine and drinks. It’s a really nice venue to be able to bring partners and talk business. That was my primary goal yesterday.
In the preseason, when I went to those games, I actually like sitting out in the open because the energy is much better. The skybox is soundproofed or almost. In the arena, you get a real sense of what the energy is like. I’ve been reading a lot, hanging out on Reddit and other communities, and anybody who visits the Blizzard arena, their reports have all been really good.
GamesBeat: When you guys got Netgear, did that make you more optimistic about the sponsorship side?
Chou: Absolutely. We had hoped to announce something this week, which is why I set up the opportunity to give some interviews. But we’re still in the very final stages of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. We’ll hopefully very soon be announcing some other sponsors we’re bringing to the table. Also, the league announced Toyota yesterday, and a couple more for the league are about to be announced soon. It’s been good.
The ecosystem is growing around Overwatch League very nicely, more so than I’ve seen for any other esport because of how everything has been set up as far as what the teams are able to do, what the league is able to do. It’s very clearly spelled out, what sponsors the teams can work with and what sponsors the league can work with. That’s been fantastic as far as creating clear lanes for the league and the teams to operate in.
GamesBeat: Going forward, do you have expectations for viewership, how that’s going to evolve?
Chou: I’m a little bit newer to esports, so I haven’t tracked audience numbers across the years. But I’m tracking them this year very closely. We’re in week two right now, the very beginning of week two, and we’re seeing numbers on Twitch where, just for the English stream, it was hovering around 180,000 fans. Korea generally adds another 50,000, so we’re in the low-to-mid 200,000-plus concurrent viewers. That’s a really good number.
If you were to ask the owners, opening week is always big, so for opening week, most of the owners, including myself, were thinking that 100,000 would be pretty good. That would be a success. For opening week on Twitch alone, if you looked at the English stream, it peaked at about 450,000. Blizzard just announced today that more than 10 million uniques viewed the games and all the other content that went around week one. So, 10 million unique viewers and 450,000 peak concurrent.
Week two, we’re getting 220,000 to 225,000 concurrents, maybe half that original peak. I’m not sure how the China numbers are coming out. But I think that if you were to ask the owners who have more experience, consistent regular season viewership of 50,000 would be incredibly successful. That would put it at the League of Legends level. Right now, we’re averaging well above that, and it’s getting all the owners pretty excited right now.
GamesBeat: Have you seen a lot of interest from South Korea in your team in particular?
Chou: Yeah, it’s fantastic. The really nice thing in season one, being the only South Korean team, we have a lot of fans in South Korea who are tuning in and supporting our team. I feel very lucky that we’re doing as well as we’re doing, giving all of South Korea a reason to cheer for us. That’s been a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: Have you completed your training facility?
Chou: We’re still actively working on it. We’re targeting late summer to open it up.
GamesBeat: That’s going to be pretty elaborate, then?
Chou: I don’t know if I would call it elaborate [laughs]? It’s certainly going to be world class, but world class means — a lot of the best teams in the world will have a really nice team house and some offices maybe. We’re looking to put together maybe a 20,000-square-foot training facility and have that be world class in terms of equipment and design and so forth. I’m pumped about it. We haven’t seen the designs yet. We’re still in the initial stages of finalizing the design. But I’m excited to see what the designs are going to look like. It’ll be one of the largest training facilities in the world, I think. I know Team Liquid is building out a 9,000-square-foot facility.
GamesBeat: Team Liquid had Alienware deck out a lot of it for them. Do you have something similar, where Netgear might help you with setting up the facility?
Chou: The Netgear sponsorship is a little more specific. We’ll definitely have Netgear networking equipment, but networking equipment is just one piece. It’s a fun conversation to have with our partners as far as how we build out a world-class facility and bring our partners into that. We’re in the midst of those discussions. Hopefully, we’ll also be able to achieve what Team Liquid achieved. That would be a huge success for us.