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Volume 24 No. 157
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Blizzard Entertainment Unveils Plans For Worldwide "Overwatch" Pro E-Sports League

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 has 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 said. 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 last weekend in Anaheim to hear more details. Over the weekend, Blizzard published a photo of Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, Rams Owner Stan Kroenke and Nuggets President Josh Kroenke all sitting with Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick at the convention. However, Wizards Owner and early e-sports investor Ted Leonsis did not attend.

SPANNING THE GLOBE: 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 wants to create new teams rather than involve existing "Overwatch" teams. The company 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.

PERFECT FIT FOR E-SPORTS: 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 Activision Blizzard Media Networks 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 eSports in mind." "Overwatch," Blizzard’s fourth major franchise, is a multiplayer, first-person shooter game, in which two teams of six compete to secure and defend positions on a map or escort goods from one point to another. Players act as one of several hero characters with different skill sets.

TELEVISION DEAL COMING? Activision Blizzard has not decided how league events will be distributed, but Bornstein hinted at a television deal in the future, though it will probably be viewed primarily online. “I’m not particularly hung up on what the platform is, I just want to make sure we have broad reach. I would not be surprised if there is terrestrial distribution,” he said. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said the “Overwatch” league is expected to make money in its own right, not merely act as a marketing tool for the publisher. A key goal of the league is to turn players into marketable celebrities. “If you’re going to celebrate your players, you’ve got to start by being able to pay them,” he said. “And we want our players to make a real living doing this, and be appropriate compensated for their skills. And also you can’t get owners to invest in infrastructure, in local marketing, and local ticketing capabilities and arenas if there’s not a prospect of profits of those owners." They hope for league play to begin in Q3 ‘17.