The first major Overwatch League announcement since its introduction at Blizzcon last year came last week, when Blizzard finally introduced the first seven Overwatch League teams. Reactions have been very positive for the most part. Immortals, NRG and Misfits all took to Twitter in celebratory fashion shortly after the announcement, taking a moment to introduce themselves as the Overwatch League team for their respective cities. Owners, players and fans are excited to see what the future holds for Blizzard’s ambitious esports league.
Perhaps the most important change that Overwatch League brings to the industry is localization for teams. Everything else stems from here; the revenue sharing, the sponsors, no relegation, all of it. Immortals CEO, Noah Whinston, has been very vocal about the importance of localization and owning the Los Angeles team. In a video that Immortals released on Twitter, Whinston highlighted the significance of growing a local fanbase that has a tangible connection to the Immortals Overwatch team. Think of the difference between chatting about your favorite baseball team online versus going out to the game, buying a hat, grabbing a hot dog and cheering your team to victory alongside thousands of other fans. That’s the sort of connection that these owners are going for.
Another aspect of esports that Whinston touched on in the video was the development of player narratives. Creating stories for players is an invaluable aspect in every sport. For example, Verbo, a support player for Immortals, struggled with balancing schoolwork and practice time while trying to convince his parents that his esports dreams could become a reality. These narratives give players a deeper personality that fans can identify with, and now that Immortals is the Los Angeles team in Overwatch League, they plan on creating more content around their star players.
Kent Wakeford, former COO of mobile game developer, Kabam, and board member at mobile esports platform, Skillz, is the co-owner of the Seoul Overwatch League team. I recently caught up with Kent to ask him about why he chose to invest in the South Korean market.
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“As the birthplace of esports, South Korea has a passionate community of esports enthusiasts who are actively engaged in events and following teams,” Wakeford said. “Overwatch is extremely popular in South Korea, and having witnessed the consumer excitement around Overwatch in Seoul firsthand, I believe that it’s a great market in which to build a franchise.”
Even though things are looking up for Overwatch, not everyone is convinced. Editor-in-Chief of ESL TV, Joe Miller, posted a poll on Twitter shortly after the first Overwatch League cities were announced, asking followers, “OWL still there after 3 years?”. 60% of the almost 3,000 voters said “no”. His main concern is the “esports bubble”, referring to the hypothetical drop in fans and sponsor money after a game or project launches, causing the bubble to “burst” as things become unsustainable.
Veteran esports commentator, Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, challenged this mindset, asking, “Why would anyone buy into a league that wouldn’t be guaranteed to run for a minimum length of time?”
There are a lot of aspects of Overwatch League that still aren’t being discussed publicly, but the fact that owners are investing millions of dollars into their teams might imply tell fans that there’s a lot more going right than wrong. One suggestion that may hint at weaknesses in the bubble came from a report by Richard Lewis. In regards to a potential Overwatch League sponsor, a source told Lewis that, “the sponsor said that for the money Blizzard were asking they could have bought into the NFL.” Though the monetary figure wasn’t disclosed, it would seem as though non-endemic sponsors (those that aren’t already involved in gaming) might have doubts about investing in an esports league that hasn’t been tested.
Michael Pachter, from the investment firm, Wedbush, thinks it might be irresponsible for sponsors and owners to invest in Overwatch League.
“While we think esports has great revenue potential, we are skeptical that Overwatch League will see much success,” Pachter says, citing the game’s price, unfriendly spectator mode and reliance on Twitch streaming as some of the reasons interested parties might want to sit back for awhile.
One aspect about Blizzard’s Overwatch League announcement that didn’t go unnoticed was the absence of a European team. While it’s true that Blizzard plans on adding more teams down the line, European Overwatch esports fans have had to suffer through a lot of disappointment already. Fnatic, Ninjas in Pyjamas, Red Reserve, LDLC and Movistar Riders are all European teams that have dropped their rosters recently. What makes it even worse is that both Ninjas in Pyjamas and Movistar Riders qualified for Overwatch Contenders season one, after their amazing performances in the introductory season zero before getting released. Furthermore, Misfits has a European roster, but they’re representing Miami-Orlando. It’s doubtful that there won’t be a European Overwatch League team, but not having one in the initial announcement did let quite a few people down.
Blizzard has taken very calculated steps with Overwatch League, and they’ve done so with confidence. Teams are ready, fans are anxious, and the esports industry at large is watching.
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