Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at email@example.com, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
Did you watch the Overwatch League in its first-ever games last week? Or did you overlook Overwatch amid other distractions, such as the glittering gaggle of goofy gadgets streaming out of CES (how about that power outage, BTW)?
If you did overlook Overwatch, stop. Look again. The league’s own promos claim it’s “a truly global league” that represents “a new direction” from any e-sports league in the past. So far, they’re right. This one is worth watching, even if only from afar, for what it says about the maturation of e-sports, a 15-years-in-the-making overnight sensation.
Activision-Blizzard built the league around one of its recent big hits, a cartoony first-person shooter game that hit $1 billion in revenues less than a year after its 2016 launch. Since announcing the league last summer, Those in the Know have eagerly awaited the result. Here’s why they care they about this one:
- Location, location, location. Most leagues in the past have been disconnected from any actual physical location, unlike traditional sports teams that are tied to a base of fans in a specific city, college or region. Overwatch League has 12 franchises based in actual cities, including two in Los Angeles, where Activision is headquartered. It can lead to some amusing commentary, however. A play-by-play announcer likened the potential rivalry between the Boston Uprising and New York Excelsior to baseball’s Yankees and Red Sox, who have been playing each other under these names for 105 years. So, no, not that.
- International reach. Though most teams are based in the United States, the league has franchises in Shanghai, Seoul, and London. With games every week through the first half of the year, that international connection links players, fans and sponsors across a significant part of the globe, creating a much bigger potential market. As NBC can attest from broadcasting Olympics all over the planet, there are challenges. Broadcasting live across 15 time zones will leave some viewers in the dark. For instance, a 6PM webcast in Los Angeles is showing at 10AM in Shanghai.
- Bigger owners. The owners of the Los Angeles Gladiators franchise are Stan Kroenke and his son, Josh. Blessed with a share of the Wal-Mart family fortune and the senior Kroenke’s real estate success, they are billionaire sports franchise owners, including the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, and the English Premier League’s Arsenal. Each Overwatch owner paid a $20 million franchise fee to buy in.
- Big compensation. Unusually for a fractured sport featuring no central authority, lots of very young stars and little regulation, every player is guaranteed a substantial compensation package with a minimum $50,000 salary, health benefits, and much else. And winning teams can scoop up bonus payments through each quarter of the season. The overall championship team, to be crowned in July, splits a $1 million bonus.
- Big sponsors. This first week, it’s no surprise the sponsors include gamer endemics such as Intel (they make the chips in many gaming rigs) and HP’s high-end gaming computer line, Omen. But webcasts also have featured ads from companies such as Old Spice, long an adventurous online advertiser.
- Big rights. Twitch.TV paid a reported $90 million for two years of exclusive rights to broadcast the weekly games, plus plenty of ancillary content. It’s not NBA or NFL billions, but that’s serious money. Good news for Twitch then that it’s execs said the Day One audience peaked at 415,000 simultaneous, far beyond internal estimates and outstripping heavily viewed show focused on other big titles.
- Lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle. The league is a huge “lifestyle” play, helped by smart companies such as Big Block Media that already handle commercial production, motion graphics, marketing and more for ESPN, Toyota, General Motors, and other big clients. The global market for licensed sports merchandise hit $27 billion in 2016, according to Transparency Market Research, and is projected to top $48 billion by 2024. Overwatch wants a big piece of that action. To start, the league is offering digital “skins” for each team that fans can use when they’re playing Overwatch themselves. The company also has created a digital currency, league tokens, that fans can earn or buy to acquire more merch. In a separate initiative, London Spitfire owner Cloud9 said it plans to open a dedicated venue for fans to watch the league, play their own games, get equipment recommendations, and partake year-round of a “social component” (in London, that presumably involves plenty of alcohol).
At this level of skill, the games themselves can be frenetic, even chaotic, teams of six wildly designed animated “hero” characters squaring off in a series of matches across four of the game’s maps.The MLG Network producers do a good job spotlighting hot players and big plays, while somehow the fast-talking announcers keep up with the action while explaining strategy.
There are some ancillary pleasures, like watching some of the planet’s least threatening-looking humans adopt scary screen names and talk smack worthy of an NFL wide receiver. But the experiment as a whole is worth watching closely.
So give it a peek, if for no other reason than to see what major players (not the kids on each team) like the Kroenkes, Intel, HP, Amazon/Twitch, and Activision-Blizzard think may be the future of sports TV. They could be right.