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Volume 22 No. 35
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Forty Under 40: Nate Nanzer

Photo: blizzard entertainment

The Overwatch League might not exist if Nate Nanzer had followed traditional professional norms.

He first applied for a rank-and-file marketing job at Blizzard Entertainment in 2014 even though he was “ridiculously overqualified” — a phrase he actually used in a two-line cover letter. Improbably, he got the job. Once he came aboard, he developed a vision for “Overwatch” esports in his free time, when he wasn’t doing his actual job in audience analytics. 

Commissioner, Overwatch League, Activision Blizzard

Age: 39

Born: San Diego

Education: George Washington University 

Family: Wife, Susan; children, Harrison (8) and Keilani (6)

What gets you fired up: Big ideas. 

You wish you knew 10 years ago: Having kids is awesome.

Profession you’d most like to attempt: Chef.

Guilty pleasure: Scotch whisky. 

Something your friends would consider “so you”: Ridiculing their taste in music.

Could not go a day without: Cold brew coffee.

esports or video games Played: Always playing “Hearthstone” and “Overwatch.” Also playing a ton of “Fortnite” and “Madden” with my kids

Gamer name: Dad.

Cause supported: Planned Parenthood. 

Person in the industry you’d most like to meet: Dana White. 

Sports industry needs to do a better job of … : Evolving their products.

Ideal day off: Playing golf near an ocean.

Five years later, he’s commissioner of OWL, a 20-team global esports league that’s taken the corporate sports world by storm. By hewing closely to the business framework created over the last century by traditional major North American sports, OWL resonated with investors and marketing spenders in a way more established esports properties are still chasing.

Copying the big four might seem pedestrian to an outsider, but it counted as innovative in the video game world, where publishers struggle at times with how to structure competitive communities that were born in the grassroots. But Nanzer relied on his love of sports and his work in audience insights to see the solution: Esports fans are like other sports fans.

“The reason people follow esports is the same reason they follow traditional sports: Community, and a shared passion around the game,” he said. “I was amazed. Why is esports constantly trying to reinvent the wheel?”

He shared his perspective with Jeff Kaplan, lead game designer of “Overwatch,” and Nanzer worked alongside the developers before the game launched at retail in 2016, a move that tied the league to the game itself strategically.

“It’s a huge credit to the culture here,” he said. “Nobody cared that it wasn’t my job to come up with a vision for Overwatch esports, but people thought it was cool that we did. It would not have worked a lot of other places.”