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Volume 24 No. 156
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Overwatch League Season Debut Seen As Milestone For Young Esports Industry

The first attempt to present esports "within a traditional North American sports structure" debuted last night with the inaugural season of the Overwatch League (OWL), and if the esports industry is "still in its adolescence, this well-funded venture is a significant milestone in its maturation," according to Greg Beacham of the AP. The league is "about to find out whether fans will grow along with it." Immortals President & COO Ari Segal, who runs OWL franchise L.A. Valiant, said, "It's a new frontier. It is the biggest, boldest bet in sports and entertainment maybe since the NFL and AFL merged." Overwatch's developer, Blizzard Entertainment, in the fall of '16 announced plans for a league "backed by deep-pocketed investors" including Rams Owner Stan Kroenke and Patriots Owner Robert Kraft. Blizzard was able to land team owners because the traditional sports owners "know a growing industry when they see it." Many of OWL team owners "might not be gamers, but they understand the visceral importance of going to a good event." OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer is "confident it will eventually harness income from ticket sales and concessions and other areas that haven’t meant much in esports so far" (AP, 1/11). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Sarah Needleman noted the league is a "crucial test of whether esports can join their traditional counterparts in the quest for eyeballs and advertising dollars." If the closely watched league "fizzles, it could rattle other esports endeavors" (WSJ.com, 1/10).

EMBRACE CHAOS: The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER's Patrick Shanley wrote watching the OWL, even being played by the best players in the world, is an "exercise in organized chaos." Shanley: "To put it simply: A buncha crap flies across the screen constantly while commentators scream words you probably don’t understand. I felt lost watching it, and I’ve played the game." However, that "quickly became the fun of the experience." Shanley wrote he found himself pulling for the Valiant last night during their match against the S.F. Shock "because a competitive spirit was clearly on display." These players "cared about the game they were playing," and they "cared about this league" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.com, 1/10).

FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITIES APLENTY: Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged it would be some time before the OWL will "see certain revenue streams," the league is "already seeing a lot of traction and enthusiasm from fans." He said all the "commercial opportunities that exist in professional sports are opportunities that are available to us." Kotick: "Plus you have virtual items. You have over-the-top advertising opportunities that wouldn't exist in traditional sports. So we have the best of all words.” He said the "most important thing for us is that this is the opportunity to celebrate the very best players in the world.” Kotick: "When you see the production values of the events themselves, they are the very, very best production values in sport. I think you're going to see a lot of audience enthusiasm" ("Fast Money," CNBC, 1/10). 

DRAWING EYEBALLS: The HUFFINGTON POST's Alicia Jessop noted a TV deal is not yet in place for the OWL and wondered if the league can "grow its fan base and meet the needs of owners and corporate sponsors without one." Nanzer said, "We are taking a long-term view. I want to make sure we are growing the audience across all content areas from live matches, preview shows, web and mobile. Viewership is the one publicly available metric and the key number for us in unique viewers, which we want to grow over the course of the year." HP Senior Manager of Global Marketing for PC Gaming Josh Kocurek said, "Although we do want people to watch and know who we are as a partner, when you look at the audience we’re trying to hit, it’s a digital audience" (HUFFINGTONPOST.com, 1/10). 

BUILDING A BRAND: In Philadelphia, Bob Fernandez profiled Tucker Roberts, the son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and the President of the OWL Philadelphia Fusion. Tucker Roberts said esports are the "future of sports for millennials." After he heard Comcast Spectacor secured a spot in the OWL, he "wanted to be part of it." Roberts "joined the Fusion project as a 'strategic adviser'" in late September. He has "managed the team's day-to-day operations since then, signing players, negotiating initial marketing deals and launching the brand" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 1/10).

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