Blizzard Entertainment unveiled plans Friday for a worldwide professional league in its five-month-old game “Overwatch,” which execs bill as the first major e-sports league crafted from the start to maximize marketing, ticketing, merchandise and media revenue. The “Overwatch” league's basic structure will closely mimic conventional U.S. sports leagues, with independently owned franchises that will be located and branded by city or region. All competitions will be played in person with live audiences, and teams will have permanent spots in the league, eschewing the promotion and relegation system in some e-sports that have given investors pause.
Blizzard Global Dir of Overwatch E-sports Nate Nanzer said the goal is to replicate the revenue picture of the NBA or MLB, where the teams control home-game ticketing, merchandise and local sponsorship sales, and as a group, outpace central league revenue. Currently, e-sports teams lack any geographic identity and play in tournaments hosted by third-party organizers on neutral sites. “We think by localizing e-sports in this way, we’re going to be able to unlock a lot of value,” Nanzer said. Teams will also share in league income, Nanzer added.
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Blizzard, a division of Activision Blizzard Inc., invited current e-sports franchise owners and prospective owners – including major league team sports ownership groups – to its annual BlizzCon convention starting Friday in Anaheim to hear more details. In the coming three to four months, “Overwatch” league execs will conduct a road show around the world evaluating the potential for teams. They have no set number of team slots or precise plan for the geographic distribution, but do intend to have teams across multiple continents. “The goal is to find the best operators we can,” Nanzer said.
Blizzard will host a combine for players to try out for new teams before the first season begins, and any player picked up by a team during the signing period will be given a contract that includes a guaranteed salary and benefits package.
Blizzard execs believe “Overwatch,” launched in May, is uniquely suited to a successful e-sports business. Unlike many popular games that were originally released as pure diversions and saw competitions develop organically among fans, Blizzard has had designs on a league from the beginning. Fan response has been strong; 20 million people now play the game, Blizzard says. “We’re able to think about scheduling in a really smart way, and where we’re placing the league, and the international component,” said Major League Gaming Chair Steve Bornstein. "And we weren’t stepping on anybody’s toes when we’re doing it, because the game is relatively new and was designed with e-sports in mind."