Overwatch League: Building a new model
Walk into the University of California-Berkeley’s esports community center and you’ll see branding from the San Francisco Shock, the only Northern California-based team in the Overwatch League.
Flip through the Houston Insider monthly newsletter published by the Visit Houston tourism group and you’ll see information about upcoming Houston Outlaws games.
In cities across the Pacific Northwest, the Vancouver Titans hold watch parties and meet-and-greets that draw hundreds of fans who gather at bars to watch the team’s games or get autographs from the players.
Overwatch League teams
■ Atlanta Reign
■ Boston Uprising
■ Chengdu (China) Hunters
■ Dallas Fuel
■ Florida Mayhem
■ Guangzhou (China) Charge
■ Hangzhou (China) Spark
■ Houston Outlaws
■ London Spitfire
■ Los Angeles Gladiators
■ Los Angeles Valiant
■ New York Excelsior
■ Paris Eternal
■ Philadelphia Fusion
■ San Francisco Shock
■ Seoul (South Korea) Dynasty
■ Shanghai (China) Dragons
■ Toronto Defiant
■ Vancouver Titans
■ Washington Justice
Throughout North America and a handful of global cities, the OWL’s 20 teams are out in local markets building fan bases ahead of 2020, when the league will transition to a full homestand model for the first time. The OWL, which wrapped up its second season in September, is the first esports league to try a city-based model like traditional sports, and the efforts are being watched across the gaming landscape.
The first two seasons were almost exclusively played at Blizzard Arena near Los Angeles, with the exception of three dry-run events held this year in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The new scheduling is made more complex by international teams based in Europe, China and South Korea.
With the homestand model starting next year, each of the 20 teams has been staffing up, increasing marketing and sales efforts, securing venues, selling tickets and sponsorships, setting up travel plans, and assembling supporter groups. The Activision Blizzard-owned league is also working with teams on marketing efforts and to share best practices. Altogether, it’s a critical moment for the teams as they work toward profitability.
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All teams will host at least two homestand weekends next year; three teams are hosting the maximum number of five. A total of 52 homestands will be played during the 27-week regular season, which runs from February to August. That includes U.S.-based teams occasionally traveling overseas to play events against teams based in Europe and Asia.
Some franchises will play all of their events in one venue while others will play in multiple venues. For example, the Florida Mayhem has territorial rights in multiple cities in the state, so the team is holding one event at the University of Miami and a second at Full Sail University in Orlando. The Philadelphia Fusion will host three homestand weekends, two at The Met Philadelphia in February and May, and one at the Adrian Phillips Theater at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in June.
The size of the venues and ticket prices for the events also vary from club to club. But the teams are largely selling and marketing the tickets digitally to start, as opposed to outbound sales calls, limiting the number of sales staff to be hired. Teams started putting 2020 season tickets on sale in August and have developed their own pricing.
“For 2020, we’re going to go straight digital with it, because our fan base is a digital fan base,” said Joe Marsh, who was formerly chief business officer of the Fusion before taking on a new esports-related role for parent company Comcast Spectacor.
The Titans will play at the roughly 18,000-seat Rogers Arena, but the team is only selling about half of its lower-level seating to start. The cheapest two-day tickets for the first homestand weekend are around $60, while the most expensive VIP package costs closer to $265. The VIP package includes lounge seating, a swag bag, 15% off merchandise, free underground parking, an after-party invitation and in-seat food service.
The Boston Uprising, owned by The Kraft Group, hasn’t yet announced where it will play its homestands in 2020, but it released an initial batch of two-day tickets for its first event in April that range from $118 to $354.
The Los Angeles Valiant will play at The Novo at L.A. Live and has introduced a season-ticket option that includes access to its two homestand weekends, or fans can buy tickets individually. General tickets to the first homestand weekend currently range from $40 to $180, while they are half as much at $20 and $90 for season-ticket holders. In addition to the lower pricing, season-ticket holders will get early access into the venue, access to all watch parties, limited-edition merchandise and access to exclusive player/member-only events.
The Shock’s tickets for its two homestands next season range from $60 to $240. The team’s first event at the roughly 8,000-seat Cow Palace will have a carnival atmosphere with music and artists. Its second event will be at the San Jose Civic venue.
The Dallas Fuel plans to hold high school and collegiate tournaments to create a festival feel for its homestand events next year, based on a report in The Esports Observer, an affiliated publication.
Teams are also selling presenting rights to their homestand weekends; Bud Light sponsored two of the three local homestands this year, while Kit Kat took the other.
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To start building fan bases, teams are ramping up local promotional efforts in their markets.
“We’ve done lots of watch parties, lots of events, and we have a partnership that is the first of its kind with the University of California-Berkeley,” said Andy Miller, founder and CEO of NRG, the gaming organization that owns the Shock, which won this year’s championship and has marketing rights in San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. “And we’ve done everything from speaking events for their undergraduate business school to sponsor their esports teams.”
About 400 people stood in line at a Microsoft store and chanted “S.F. Shock!” at a meet-and-greet with the team’s two stars, Jay “Sinatraa” Won and Matthew “Super” DeLisi.
The Philadelphia Fusion team owned by Comcast Spectacor has held watch parties at the Xfinity Live mixed-use development near Wells Fargo Center and Lincoln Financial Field. Marsh said a couple thousand people have attended the events.
The Titans have shared ownership with the NHL’s Canucks in the Aquilini family, and when the team formed its first roster, the players were introduced during an intermission of a Canucks game. The Outlaws held a recent meet-and-greet on the weekend of the Grand Finals at a local H-E-B, as the Texas-based grocer is a corporate backer of the team. The team is also targeting local universities in Texas as fertile ground to find fans.
As a result of these efforts, many teams have seen fan groups form organically, similar to MLS teams. The supporter groups have started organizing events on their own and will provide the foundation for teams to target ticket sales. For example, the Outlaws’ Lone Star Vanguard has branches in Houston, Austin and San Antonio — and the group organizes its own watch parties and has even volunteered to help staff some of the Outlaws’ events.
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While the size and invesment of team-by-team staffing varies, teams have turned to the league for support and guidance. Similar to the NBA’s team marketing and business operations consulting group, the OWL has leaguewide marketing meetings to share everything from best practices to ticket sales and new initiatives, and has recruited staff from other major leagues.
Kristin Connelly, a former NFL team executive who now serves as senior director of marketing for the OWL, said the league holds monthly calls with its franchises. Jon Spector, a former NBA executive who is now senior director of product strategy and business operations for OWL parent Activision Blizzard Esports, talks to team executives on a daily basis to help with their priorities. Another former NFL executive, Eleanor Fortier, will be a liaison for the teams and assist them with marketing or media initiatives.
Connelly formerly worked for the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, and she is one of several executives that underscore Activision’s desire to use pedigreed traditional sports executives to run their esports properties.
Some people in the esports industry remain skeptical over whether the city-based model is the best way to build fandom and make money in competitive gaming. Riot Games’ League of Legends esports league in North America, for example, sells franchises but the teams are not anchored to a city. Advocates of that model believe that is a better way to build fandom.
But OWL Commissioner Pete Vlastelica is confident the local model will work after what league executives saw this year at the three homestands. Vlastelica was particularly struck by the approximately 4,500 fans at the Dallas homestand weekend.
“We wanted to prove this home event thing can work and could work when the teams were doing a lot of the heavy lifting,” Vlastelica said. “[The Dallas homestand] gives me a lot of confidence that teams are going to be able to sell tickets, merch, and bring sponsors in, and we’re already seeing really positive signs in all those areas, but we saw it firsthand.”
First Look podcast, with Overwatch League discussion at the 10:10 mark:
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