Overwatch League: Here's How Blizzard Can Make It Work

Overwatch League: Here's How Blizzard Can Make It Work
Overwatch League is officially upon us.

Seven teams have entered the fray, including Immortals, representing Los Angeles, NRG, representing San Francisco, and Misfits, representing Miami-Orlando. There’s renewed hype surrounding Overwatch esports, and a swell of tournaments to keep fans and players happy for the moment. With the Overwatch Beat Invitational having come and gone, the Overwatch World Cup in full swing,  the ASUS ROG Summer 2017 Overwatch tournament set to start in early August, and Overwatch Contenders season one rounding out the heart of the summer tournament schedule, Blizzard’s shooter has taken a step out of its esports grave. However, there are still some problems that need to be resolved before Overwatch fights its way to the throne it believes it deserves.

Overwatch League needs a European team

While it’s great that the initial teams have been announced, the empty space over Europe left many fans upset. Know that this wasn’t an omission. Blizzard wants as many teams as possible, so what this tells us is that either there weren’t any investors willing to take the plunge just yet, or that announcing a European team wasn’t part of their rollout strategy. While the latter seems unlikely, the former is in line with Overwatch’s recent esports struggles.

[caption id="attachment_72690" align="aligncenter" width="598"]Movistar Riders Ill-fated Spanish team Movistar Riders[/caption] Of the European teams that dropped their Overwatch rosters recently, Spain’s Movistar Riders presents the most troubling scenario. To begin with, they had just secured a spot at Overwatch Contenders season one when the organisation announced that they were parting ways with their Overwatch team. Not only does Contenders represent an extension of Overwatch League, but it’s one of the only tournaments offering a LAN event down the line. Next, they had plenty of funding; so much so that buying an Overwatch League spot wouldn’t have been a problem. Movistar is a brand owned by Telefonica, one of Spain’s oldest and wealthiest telecommunications providers, having generated over €52 billion in revenue in 2016. Telefonica also partnered with ESL to develop a Spanish esports television station, and went so far as to create an esports center for its various Movistar Riders esports rosters. If other endemic organisations were able to afford Overwatch League spots with similar backing, why Movistar Riders not only chose to not purchase a spot, but to dissolve its team entirely has left Overwatch esports fans concerned. While there will be more cities added to Overwatch League as it develops, or even before season one starts, providing no news about a European team should have been avoided. Though Misfits is fielding a European roster, assuming that they will pull in the European fanbase from Miami goes against the whole point of Overwatch League’s localisation strategy. At this point, some transparency might do Blizzard well. It’s a continent, after all. Letting fans know that there are interested parties somewhere within the geographical boundaries of Europe would keep them interested and excited.

Transcending the traditional esports model

Over the last few months, the lack of information surrounding Overwatch League has been a source of disappointment for endemic esports organizations. Red Reserve also cited low growth and a small European following as reasons for their Overwatch hiatus. According to Blizzard’s Mike Sespo, founder of MLG, this is all part of the natural progression of Overwatch League as it moves toward emulating a traditional sports framework. Sports teams have set league schedules, have local fans that cheer them on, and exist in local business ecosystems. Esports teams have long existed independently of a local market, having to rely on social media and endemic gaming sponsors to stay afloat. Blizzard aims to bridge that gap and make esports teams local, tangible entities that interact with their respective communities. “Organic activity will inevitably dry up as the projected Q3 2017 launch date approaches,” Sespo suggested at the Gamelab conference last month. Regarding the globalised nature of esports fandom to this point, Sespo said that’s, “the history of esports, not necessarily the future.”Kent Wakeford, former COO of mobile game developer, Kabam, and board member of mobile esports developer, Skillz, is the co-owner of the Seoul Overwatch League team. I was recently able to ask Wakeford about Overwatch League and his thoughts on what it could mean for the esports industry. “I have a strong belief in Activision Blizzard’s vision for creating an Overwatch League,” Wakeford said. “Their approach is to create a truly international esports league that will lay the foundation for teams to grow global fan bases, attract sponsorships, and have financially strong franchises.”I asked Kent if he’s ready to dive into the heart of competitive gaming with his new Overwatch Team, and this was his response:“I’m absolutely ready to embrace it! I’m currently in Seoul, deeply immersing myself in the Overwatch culture, and will be attending the Apex Season 3 Finals at the end of July. With South Korea being the birthplace of esports, some of the world’s greatest Overwatch players are in this region. Our plan is to pull together an all South Korean team roster containing many of the best players in the league, and to set them up for success.”Owners are ready to field local teams and take advantage of everything Blizzard is offering. They’re optimistic that it will be a success, and if it is, it will change the way people look at esports.

Non-endemic sponsors and franchising

When you hear people discussing the importance of “non-endemic” or “outside” sponsors for Overwatch League, they’re referring to money coming in from companies or organisations that aren’t already involved in the gaming industry somehow. For example, Riot’s non-endemic sponsors for the North American LCS are insurance company Geico, automobile manufacturer, Nissan, and men’s soap and deodorant company, Axe, according to AdvertisingAge. The idea is that these types of sponsors would be able to reach an audience that otherwise might not know about esports, leading to new fans, and, hopefully, more money spent on gaming and esports products.In theory, franchising makes Overwatch League attractive to sponsors because it gives teams security and a local market, two things that would create a mutually beneficial arrangement. However, a report by Richard Lewis paints us a different picture. A source told him that a sponsor, “said that for the money Blizzard was asking they could have bought into the NFL, and Blizzard told them that this league will be bigger than the NFL. At that point they pulled out.” Lewis Ward, Research Director for the International Data Corporation, told the BBC that, "I think it’s a bunch of rubbish that it will approach anything like pro-sports revenues.”

If Blizzard is asking for pro-sport prices on a product that can’t deliver pro-sport revenues, it’s understandable that sponsors would be reluctant to invest. Only in this situation, Overwatch League hasn’t even been tested, further complicating potential relationships with sponsors. [caption id="attachment_72687" align="aligncenter" width="599"]Junkrat "Get ready for a shock!"[/caption] Blizzard has taken very careful steps with Overwatch in 2017, and they’ve done a good job of building around Overwatch League. Its two introductory tournaments, Overwatch Contenders and Overwatch Open Division, are designed to give the best players a platform to show team owners what they’ve got. They’ve sent out self-scouting reports to top players based on SR, and, though it might have upset some people, they took their time announcing the first cities to join Overwatch League. Should Blizzard break down old esports paradigms and emerge victorious, the world should, in the words of Junkrat, “get ready for a shock.”