Blizzard’s vision for the future of esports Blizzard’s Overwatch League is ending its inaugural season this month with the playoﬀs scheduled to kickoﬀ next month. The grueling seven-month long competition started in January this year and sees 12 professional teams battling it out to win a share of its US$3.5 million prize pool. But while league viewership figures have been promising, the whole thing remains a massive gamble. Initially announced way back at Blizzcon 2016, the League is the most ambitious attempt at turning esports into a legitimate sports league to date. If it succeeds, Blizzard will set a new standard in esports that other games will look to follow, but if it fails, over three hundred million dollars will have been sunk into a venture that many said was doomed to fail right from the start.
The cost of starting your own sports league
Blizzard’s entire approach to the Overwatch League has been diﬀerent from other esports ventures. “We wanted to look at what made some of the things that make traditional sports so successful and apply that to our new league,” says Blizzard President Mike Morhaime. “We noticed there were a lot of endemic issues with the way organic esports would form that really didn't provide very much opportunity for team owners to really build a business around their teams. So we kind of want to address all of that and get ahead of the curve and do it right out of the gate with Overwatch.”
As a result, the Overwatch League more closely resembles American sports leagues like the NBA and NFL, with a closed franchise system that requires a hefty buy-in and approval from Blizzard itself. Blizzard was asking a rumored US$20 million buy-in to own an Overwatch League team, and with each team tied to a specific geographic location (New York, London, Seoul etc.) some owners reportedly paid much more to secure lucrative cities. When Blizzard’s terms were first disclosed, many mocked them as outrageous – only the most successful esports organizations could put together the kind of money that Blizzard was asking. But these weren’t the organizations Blizzard was targeting. Instead, Blizzard went to corporations like Comcast, owners of the Philadelphia Fusion, and the billionaire owners of actual sports teams, like Robert Kraft, owner of the Boston Uprising and the NFL’s New England Patriots, and Stan Kroenke owner of the LA Gladiators, Arsenal F.C., and the NFL’s LA Rams.
Blizzard hasn’t just asked its partners to invest money, it’s put a lot of its own money into the competition too, which included building a state of the art multi-million dollar Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California to host the first season of the league.
Blizzard has been on a hiring spree too, picking up some of the best (and most expensive) talent from esports, traditional sports and broadcast media to make the league a success. The league’s on-air casting talent is a veritable all-star list of greats from the past decade of esports, including League of Legends’ Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik “DoA” Lonnquist, Call of Duty and Halo’s Chris Puckett and Matt "Mr X" Morello, and CS:GO’s Mitch "Uber" Leslie and Auguste "Semmler" Massonnat.
It’s taking a diﬀerent approach to how players are treated too. All 131 players in the league have guaranteed 1-year contracts from their teams with a player option for a second year, and a minimum salary of at least US$50,000, with many earning much more (Philadelphia Fusion star player, Lee "Carpe" Jae Hyeok, reportedly earns US$180,000) – a far cry from the win big or go home empty-handed lifestyle of most pro-gamers.
Ultimately, the drive behind all of this is Blizzard’s vision to turn the Overwatch League into, not just the biggest esports league, but the world’s first truly global sports league, something that not even traditional sports have achieved.
Blizzard’s global ambitions
When Blizzard started selling franchises for the League, one of its rules were that previous team names, including those of established esports giants like Cloud9 and EnVyUs would have to go. Forcing teams to ditch their established branding and identity to take part in a completely untested league may seem like a risky decision, but the intent here is to once again follow the lead of traditional sports and tie teams to cities rather than organizations. A team with a name like the London Spitfire is more likely to appeal to a casual viewer from the UK, than one called Cloud9.
While all teams are currently based in LA, with all games played at the Blizzard Arena, Blizzard’s plan is that starting in Season 2, teams will be based in their home city, with other teams visiting to play them, just like a traditional sports league. With this in place, teams will have a true local market and will be able to generate revenue from their home venue. They'll be able to sell tickets to come watch the team, they’ll be able to sell food and beverage, and merchandise at a team store just like a traditional sports team. Which again, is why Blizzard wanted traditional sports owners to buy-in to the league: many of them already own arenas that could be easily converted to esports arenas on game days.
While Blizzard’s eventual vision for the Overwatch League is still years away, the immediate payoﬀs have been much better than expected. Skeptics that doubted whether there would be enough investors to even get the league oﬀ the ground were silenced when Blizzard sold all twelve Season 1 franchise spots by December 2017. And there are already rumors of organizations waiting in the wings for a league expansion in Season 2, despite Blizzard’s buy-in price reportedly jumping to US$60 million for the next wave of franchises.
Right before the league commenced, Blizzard also signed the biggest contract in esports history with Twitch, worth US$90 million for the rights to stream the Overwatch League for two years. The deal makes Twitch the sole broadcaster for half of the league’s 12 weekly matches, while the other half are simultaneously streamed on Major League Gaming, the streaming platform owned by Activision-Blizzard. It’s the most amount of money ever paid for the rights to stream an esport, but so far it’s paying oﬀ : over a million viewers tune in to watch the League on Twitch each week, far more than any other esport or channel.
And as the league grows, its sponsors grow too. Blizzard has also signed two year deals with HP Omen for US$17 million and Intel for US$10 million to supply equipment for the league. This is in addition to brand deals with Toyota, T-Mobile, and Sour Patch Kids, whose values haven’t been revealed but are expected to be in the same region. Individual teams have also reaped the benefits of sponsorship, with London signing with Logitech, and Seoul signing with Razer and Netgear, among others.
WHAT MAKES A SPORT?
Physical activity, or something more?
Two days before the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn pulled oﬀ a thrilling upset over Kim “sOs” Yoojin, a heavy favorite with five major championships under his belt.
Instead of stunning feats of endurance or dexterity on the field, both players were battling it out in Starcraft II. Scarlett used the famed “Zerg rush” of lore to crush her opponent, and the final result was a 4-1 rout.
The match took place in Gangneum, a seaside city not far from the Olympic Stadium. The competition was the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang, and Scarlett had not only become the first woman to win a major international esports tournament, but also the first person to win an esports event with oﬃcial links to the Olympics.
Unfortunately, esports isn’t an Olympic event yet. Despite encouraging signs elsewhere – esports is slated to be a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China – proper Olympic recognition hasn’t arrived yet.
However, IEM Pyeongchang oﬀered reason to be hopeful. The competition was broadcast on the Olympic Channel and was partially supported by the International Olympic Committee. Five Korean League of Legend players also bore the Olympic torch on its journey through South Korea, another first for competitive esports.
Late last year, the IOC released a statement saying that “competitive esports could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports”.
Still, the obstacles to inclusion as an Olympic event are immense. Despite the IOC’s acknowledgement of esports as a sporting activity, the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has explicitly stated that video games are not in line with its values. “We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people. This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing,” said Bach in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
Nevertheless, Bach conceded that sports simulators like FIFA could one day be an exception.
More importantly, esports suﬀers from a pernicious problem with perception. Athletes are understandably wary of video games being placed on the same level as conventional sporting events. After all, when you put your body through backbreaking routines on a daily basis, you’re naturally skeptical of a sedentary activity that at first glance involves nothing more than huddling over your computer screen.
Alpine skier Ted Ligety summed it up when he told Reuters that only physical sports belong in the Olympics. “The mental side of esports can be tough I’m guessing for those guys, but the Olympics is where you have to do some sort of physical exertion,” Ligety said. FEATURE
Other critics agree as well, which is why the lack of physical action has often been cited as the reason chess and other games involving intellect have never been accepted.
Team Seoul Dynasty
"I think this is a defining moment in esports”
The big pieces of the puzzle are in place for the Overwatch League, and so far it’s completely silenced its naysayers. "I think this is more than a stepping-stone," says Kent Wakeford, COO of the Seoul Dynasty. "I think this is a defining moment in esports. People will look back at Overwatch League and compare it to the formation of the NHL or the MLB. The amount of eﬀort, the sophistication, and the resources that have gotten behind the Overwatch League are phenomenal. It's only comparable to one of the traditional sports leagues. I think you'll see this catch on just like one of these traditional sports, if not bigger."
What’s next for Blizzard could be turning its success with the Overwatch League to other games. ActivisionBlizzard President, Coddy Johnson, said in the company’s Q1 fiscal report, “building the Overwatch League allowed us to develop a unique set of capabilities and infrastructure, and we plan to begin applying them to other franchises in the near future, including Call of Duty.” So while it's still early days for the Overwatch League, it might not be too long until it’s just one of many global esports leagues.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT PHYSICAL ACTION
The common emphasis on physical exertion is not diﬃcult to understand, but the rapid growth of esports means that it is not something that can be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon anymore.
The success of the Overwatch League aside, esports is projected to become a US$1.5 billion market by 2020, according to Newzoo’s Peter Warman. That’s a huge leap from a modest US$362 million in 2017.
To put things in perspective, the century-old NFL made US$14 billion in 2017, while the NBA pulled in just over US$7 billion.
However, it might be time to re-evaluate our definition of physical action, or even reconsider whether it’s a criteria that can still be justified in the current milieu. As the IOC said last year, competitive esports players train with a regularity and intensity that rival their counterparts in traditional sports.
In talks with Singapore-based Overwatch team Chaos Theory, Benjamin “Zest” Seet speaks of a training schedule that lasts from six to seven hours a day. “This includes scrims and some ranked games, in addition to reviews of previous gameplay,” says Zest.
Zest is also quick to dispel the notion that esports players have it easy. “Everyone wants a job that lets them play games all day, but it’s actually quite diﬀerent when games become your job. You need to train in order to continually improve, and it’s no longer about playing the game in your spare time for fun,” explains Zest.
“Most people also don’t see the eﬀort behind every win, so they seldom understand the hardship that accompanies the glory. They only see what is shown at the competitions. Unless they are informed otherwise or have the opportunity to experience it for themselves, the masses will always think that it’s easy to play games for a living.”
Chaos Theory is Singapore’s first professional esports team, which means its players receive salaries, CPF, and medical benefits, much like any other employee.
According to Drew Holt-Kentwell, the Co-Founder and owner of Chaos Theory, professional esports teams also share many similarities with regular athletic teams. “Players in esports can be scouted, drafted through a combine or academy, then signed to a team, much as in regular sports. Esports teams also rely on many of the same resources as the latter, with access to coaches, analysts, team managers, psychologists, and even physiotherapists,” Holt-Kentwell explains.
Furthermore, anyone who follows the professional esports scene will know that the scene isn’t exactly injury-free either. The intensive practice and repetitive movements take their toll, and wrist injuries are common.
Benjamin “Zest” Seet
How much skill do games really require?
But for all the talk about structured leagues and grueling training schedules, it’s diﬃcult to shake the notion that esports require less skill than traditional sports. After all, when you’re comparing the impeccable execution of a complex series of gymnastics moves to hitting a target on-screen, it’s not diﬃcult to see why this view exists.
Except there are people who claim otherwise. At a talk at this year’s Games Developers Conference, Yauheni Hladki told his audience that “esports far surpass traditional sports in terms of skill”. Hladki isn’t entirely making this up, and this claim is based on statistical analysis. He also boasts impressive credentials and experience, with a background in theoretical physics and political science and previous experience as the StarSeries commissioner at StarLadder.
That said, this is a bold statement to make, and one that will attract immense skepticism and scrutiny. According to Hladki, luck and skill are the two components that determine the outcome of any competitive game. This is an idea inspired by the work of Michael J. Maboussin, whose book The Success Equation sought to place conventional sports on a spectrum between pure luck and skill.
Obviously, some games involve more luck than others. For example, luck factors more heavily in ice hockey than chess, and Hladki says the former is actually one of the most random professional sports. This also calls to mind a game like Hearthstone, which has received some flak for how random it can be.
WHEN YOU STREAM FOR 12 HOURS A DAY…
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins spends half his day streaming. The former Halo pro turned Twitch streamer is probably the most-watched user on the platform, with over 7 million followers.
Ninja plays Fortnite, Epic Games’ free-to-play battle royale shooter, and he’s made a reputation for himself as one of the best players in the game. His schedule starts at 9.30am in the morning, and he plays still 4pm in the afternoon. This is followed up by a three- to fourhour break before he goes back online at around 7pm and plays till 3am.
It’s an unforgiving schedule, and Ninja says 12-hour days are the bare minimum. Is it worth it? Ninja has gone on record saying that he makes over US$500,000 a month, most of which comes from his Amazon Prime subscribers.
However, while Ninja seems to be coping pretty well, other streamers haven’t been as lucky. Lirik, another hugely popular Twitch streamer, took a break from streaming in January to focus on himself.
Put simply, he was burnout, tweeting that he did not “feel entertaining anymore” and was puzzled why people still continued to watch him play. More tellingly, he added that he needed time oﬀ the internet to figure out the next steps in life, change his habits, and ultimately “find what the point is.”
AMING THE NEW COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIP?
Believe it or not, esports is also gaining increased acceptance at post-secondary institutions and universities. According to Michael Brooks, the executive director of the National Association of Collegiate eSports in the US, the number of institutions oﬀering esports scholarships has nearly quintupled in the last year.
Robert Morris University kickstarted the idea of varsity esports scholarships in 2014 with its scholarship-sponsored League of Legends team. Since then, more schools have gotten on board, including the University of Utah.
The latter’s participation is significant because it is the first school from the Power Five athletic conferences to do so. The Power Five are athletic conferences at the highest level of collegiate football in the US, making Utah one of the largest, and also the first major sports school, to oﬀer a scholarship for competitive video gaming.
In April 2018, Ohio’s Ashland University announced a scholarship for Fortnite, making it the first school in the US to jump on the new phenomenon.
These varsity esports programs provide students with many of the same benefits as more conventional sport scholarships, including things like personalized coaching, structured guidance, and a focus on physical fitness.
Hladki thinks the larger sample size in esports means that the luck factor becomes a lot less significant. “By the sheer amount of games, the sample size becomes so big that the possibility for randomness almost goes to infinity,” he explains. It’s not entirely clear how he arrived at this conclusion, given that the number of matches played at an esports tournament doesn’t seem to be a lot more than that played in a regular football season.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that he was including online ranking systems in this metric, where it’s more feasible for players to play a ton of matches a day in pursuit of the top ranks.
Furthermore, anyone who has invested any significant amount of time trying to get good at a game will tell you that it isn’t as good as it looks. In any game, the gulf between the best players and the merely average is huge, and success depends on a rare combination of mechanical skills, decision-making, and game awareness.
Games may not be as physically taxing as traditional sports, but they do still require huge amounts of talent and skill. The burgeoning esports scene is also becoming too big to ignore. As developers such as Riot and Blizzard continue to build out pro leagues for their games and governments set up regulatory bodies, the infrastructure for truly mainstream acceptance is starting to fall into place.
The reach of esports is immense. It’s also capable of transcending geographical and cultural boundaries in a way that traditional sports cannot, so it seems only a matter of time before it becomes fully accepted as a proper sport.
By James Lu and Wanzi Koh Art Direction by Orland Punzalan