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Volume 24 No. 68
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Will Traditional Sports Ownership Groups Give Overwatch League Long Enough Leash?

When the Overwatch League officially begins preseason play next month, it will mark the first foray for some traditional sports ownership groups into the realm of esports. Longtime stick-and-ball owners like the Krafts, Wilpons and Kroenkes, among others, will field teams, and experts at the inaugural Lagardere Sports esports Rising conference are keeping a close eye on how it plays out. Foundry IV co-Founder & CEO Tobias Sherman, IMG’s former head of esports, said that, depending on appetite and patience, it “could go either way. You’ve got a large conglomerate of professional sports organizations making Overwatch their first foray for a considerable amount of money.” Sherman: “It could be a negative experience because they’re too impatient … or they could give it a long enough runway.” Sherman said that, in his view, the most important barometer for Overwatch will be whether teams “can sell out stadiums.” Sherman: “Not just for Overwatch, for any title, that should be the goal, because not only are people watching at home, they want to go celebrate that experience with others. I think we all have to root for Overwatch to get there, because it’s very important that the [owners] that came in are not just willing but excited to help grow this industry.” Catalyst Sports & Media Exec VP Bryce Blum said there is a “period of transition” with Overwatch because the game itself has been around for nearly a year, but there has “never really been a full, tier 1 ecosystem around the game.” Blum: “There were questions about: Are we prepared to make that kind of investment in a game that hasn’t had the opportunity to prove itself? … The biggest point of differentiation between the teams that got in and the ones that didn’t were the ones that were prepared to bet on the kind of collective brain power of Blizzard Activision.” ESL North America CEO Craig Levine: “Lots of innovation happens when you create the right environment and incentives for other stakeholders to apply their expertise to that ecosystem.”

PLEASANT SURPRISE: Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne, who owns the Overwatch team London Spitfire, said he was “really surprised” at the early enthusiasm from fans about the league. Deviating from the traditional esports model, each Overwatch team will have a home city. Etienne said Chicago, Toronto and Seattle came up in discussions as possibilities for his team, but he eventually settled on London because of its strong esports fan base. Etienne: “There are few cities that are really set up correctly to bring in tons of fans to a venue. London has fantastic transportation to be able to get those fans into the location. The U.K. in general was just really strong on esports.”

ONE MODEL TO RULE THEM ALL? With the Overwatch League forming under a franchise model, Intel Client Compute Group Global Dir, Strategy & Planning, VR, esports & Gaming Jeffrey Clark said many brands and esports organizations are “at an inflection point.” Clark: “It takes time and history before you can go back and say, that was an inflection point. But I think we certainly could be now.” Clark, whose company just signed as an Overwatch sponsor last week, said Intel views the change as a positive, as esports now has become a “major, global, cultural phenomenon.” Clark: “You’re seeing different models thought about and employed. I don’t know that there’s going to be one model that rules them all. Ultimately, the ones that stick are going to be the ones that bring the most value.”

ESPORTS ON LINEAR TV: Turner’s Eleague airs on linear television, but other esports leagues have yet to make the move, and that could be because of the average age of the television viewer, said Major League Gaming President & CEO Pete Vlastelica. He said the average age of NFL and MLB fans is over 40, while the average age of esports fans is likely in the 20s. Vlastelica: “So literally half the age of the next youngest traditional professional sport. … The reason those ages are so high is because kids don’t watch TV. All of that content is trapped behind a pay-TV ecosystem that people don’t subscribe to. So if your content is trapped in an environment that young people don’t have access to, your content is becoming less and less relevant every day.”

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.