If reports are to be believed, this was always the plan. The release of Overwatch last year was planned to be Blizzard’s biggest foray into the growing eSports community. Nine owners have so far signed up for The Overwatch League which will see teams from across the world face off against one another in a model which resembles current American athletic sports. Some of the best players in the world have already signed up for the promise of guaranteed salaries but the game is facing problems worldwide. Popularity is dwindling slightly, especially in Asia with League of Legends still reigning supreme. The question remains: can The Overwatch League become eSport’s first mainstream success story?
The growth of eSports has been widely reported. It may still draw smug responses from more many traditional sports fans but it’s also drawing a whole load of money. Total revenue from the field is expected to almost double between 2015 and 2017 to an incredible $696 million. Experts estimate that within just a few years, eSports will be a billion dollar industry. This is thanks to huge sponsorship deals and a growing hungry fan base. Fans have favorite teams and players, massive arenas are sold-out, and supporters can even bet on matches with most major companies like Betway open for business.
Needless to say, things are going well but eSports is still a long way off the most popular sports in the world. It’s easy to see that eSports hasn’t really cracked mainstream popularity with most competitive video game fans coming from the video gaming community itself. The result is a fiercely loyal fan base but, unfortunately for teams and players alike, not a great deal of money when compared to other sports.
The widespread popularity of League of Legends is proof of that. The League of Legends World Championship is the annual competition which attracts huge crowds both in person and online. In fact, more people watched the 2016 League of Legends World Championship Finals than the 2016 NBA Finals. 2017 is expected to be even bigger but it still isn’t exactly a mainstream event. Fans of the tournament are usually fans of the game with an estimated 100 million players worldwide.
The 2016 release of Overwatch was meant to change that. Blizzard’s foray into the first person shooter genre has been a resounding success with an estimated 30 million players worldwide. First person shooters are certainly more mainstream with casual gamers often drawn to games like the Call of Duty series. The Overwatch World Cup and Overwatch Contenders have been popular with fans and similar in many ways to what eSports traditionally look like. However, Blizzard is shaking things up with The Overwatch League.
The Overwatch League will resemble the franchise model of American sports and feature city-based teams from across the world. Prospective owners, usually coming from other eSports or even other sports, bid for a team to be held in their chosen city and entered into the league. To date, nine teams across the United States, the United Kingdom, China and South Korea have joined up.
“Stability is a key factor in making this happen,” Blizzard argued in the league’s announcement video last year.
“So once prospective team owners have bid for their location and successfully joined teams will have a guaranteed place in the league.”
Stability is certainly the key word here. Sponsors will know that the teams they back will always have a place in the biggest Overwatch competition on the planet which reduces risk. Owners have certainly been seduced with teams being bought out by the chairman of multi-billionaire dollar Kraft Corporation as well as Stan Kroenke, owner of Arsenal FC.
It’s attractive for players, too. The Overwatch League has a guaranteed salary of at least $50,000, something which the world’s best gamers have struggled to get in the past. Just recently, the San Francisco team owned by NRG eSports secured the signature of 17-year-old Jay “sinatraa” Won and handed him a yearly salary of $150,000. The Seoul franchise features the majority of the South Korean World Cup team, considered to be among the best players in the world.
One thing which goes against The Overwatch League is the slight loss of popularity in recent months, particularly in Korea. Blizzard’s game actually overtook League of Legends in terms of popularity in South Korea’s communal gaming centers known as ‘PC Bang’. That has since changed with Legends regaining the lead and Overwatch dropping below a 20% share for the first time since release. Many players have switched off in recent months with a growing frustration over toxicity and cheating in the community. To their credit, Blizzard has taken measures to remedy this like the improved reporting function but there’s a concern that it could be too little, too late.
Blizzard is going all-in on The Overwatch League. Competitive eSports are certainly growing to become quite lucrative and that only looks to be increasing. Competitive League of Legends is the benchmark for eSports gaming but Blizzard looks to have stepped things up for The Overwatch League. The infrastructure is all there to let the league flourish but there is still more than a little uncertainty about whether it can be a success. Simply put, it will not flourish at competitive eSports level if grassroots players are falling out of love with the game. Blizzard needs to make Overwatch playable and enjoyable for all if it is to really grow into a mainstream success at the highest level.