The Overwatch League is making a play for world domination

Inside the boldest effort yet to make competitive gaming a mainstream sport.

The Overwatch League is making a play for world domination

Inside the boldest effort yet to make competitive gaming a mainstream sport.

Ryan Musselman’s voice soars as he envisions the possibilities.

He sees a cavernous arena, its stands a sea of neon green and gunmetal. A plush locker room, which connects to the coaching offices, which in turn are attached to the management wing; a sprawling amoeba of a sports complex. And, most of all, fans – hundreds of them, maybe even thousands someday, all of them cheering cacophonously for their home team, the Houston Outlaws.

“My hair is going to be standing up on the back of my arms, the back of my neck,” says Musselman, the president of OpTic Gaming, the Outlaws’ parent company, by phone. “The chills will be so real.”

Musselman is describing the standard trappings of a major North American sporting event, so boilerplate as to be nondescript. Only, the Outlaws do not compete in any mainstream sport. They are one of a dozen franchises involved in the inaugural season of The Overwatch League (OWL), the newest and most ambitious esports league in the world.

The Outlaws don’t even play in Houston. For now, and at least the immediate future, all 12 teams compete at Burbank Studios in Burbank, California, where Johnny Carson and Jay Leno once filmed The Tonight Show. Games are held Wednesday through Saturday, and while the arena seats around 530 people, early afternoon games can easily draw fewer than 100 fans in house. The NBA, this is not.

Or, at least, not yet. What makes OWL unique isn’t so much its title property, Overwatch, a sprightly first-person shooter engineered by video game monolith Blizzard Entertainment. Rather, it’s the cavalcade of all-star investors, brand-name partners, and familiar infrastructure that have created the closest approximation of a traditional sports league within the surging, often chaotic world of esports.

It all amounts to a calculated gamble that The Overwatch League will not only be a financial success but a cultural one, too. That, one day, fans across the globe will pour into mega arenas to watch the Outlaws and their ilk compete on PCs the same way they funnel into football stadiums and basketball arenas. That The Overwatch League will be the vehicle to thrust esports firmly into the mainstream.

The stakes here are relative. Already, just two months into its existence, OWL appears too big to fail. Rather, the debate concerns scope. The Overwatch League represents some kind of future. The question is, what does that future look like?

The crowd at the Blizzard Arena awaits a game.

The crowd at the Blizzard Arena awaits a game.

Pete Vlastelica felt the sea change coming.

Today, he is the president and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues, and helps oversee Blizzard's competitive gaming properties. Two years ago, however, he was a FOX Sports executive working in digital operations. His job at the network was, as he puts it, “to sprint out ahead of the rest of the team and come back and tell them what threats are on the horizon.”

He discovered one that superseded all others. In many ways, it seemed like the holy grail: a live sports product, with a core audience in its early 20s, that was also built to withstand the cord-cutting slowly gnawing away at cable television.

“Esports looked so much more like the future than anything we were doing,” he says.

According to a report commissioned by Morgan Stanley, esports will balloon into a $1.5 billion industry by 2020 – triple its 2017 valuation of $696 million. It’s a pittance compared to Major League Baseball, for instance, where the average value of one franchise alone is $1.54 billion. Yet in 2016, the League of Legends world championship drew 43 million viewers, almost double the total of that year’s World Series. It was only the sixth year the event was even held.

There is a chasm between the established audience and unrealized revenue, which makes esports prime real estate for outside investment. Beginning in late 2015, the sport has experienced a cash influx from brands, corporations, even celebrities. Jennifer Lopez has a stake in an esports team. So does Shaq. His former Laker teammate and occasional actor, Rick Fox, owns one outright. Traditional broadcast entities like ESPN and Turner Sports ponied up for rights packages, too, in a bid to keep pace with the likes of Twitch, the digital streaming site that broadcasts all of OWL’s games.

They’re betting on potential, which doesn’t make esports all that different from other venture capital investments. No one has figured out, yet, how to bridge the gap from the hardcore fans on the ground floor to the video game agnostics. No one’s certain when that will happen, either, or which property is capable of doing so. Every wave of investment amounts to laying out more chips on the felt and waiting for the right dice roll to pay dividends.

Blizzard announced OWL in November 2016, with designs on becoming the biggest high roller at the table. It’s what the Orange County-based developer has accomplished just about everywhere else in the gaming world. It takes an unbelievable amount of financial muscle, imagination, savvy, and marketing to assemble a conveyor belt of mainstream hit franchises including Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. It takes even more to do all of that and still remain beloved enough among fickle gamers to successfully stage its very own convention, BlizzCon, which is equal parts concert, carnival, and advertising spectacle.

“We are going to hit snags. It’s the first pitch of the first inning of a nine-inning game.”
Peter Levin, chairman of the Los Angeles Valiant

Given that cachet, Blizzard would be excused for rooting the league firmly in familiar soil. Instead, it went the opposite direction, barreling toward the very leagues that so many expect esports to one day surpass. More than ever before, Blizzard decided to put the sports in esports.

“One of the first thoughts we sort of had to begin the process was, ‘Let’s not reinvent the wheel,’” says Nate Nanzer, the league’s commissioner. “Let’s look at traditional sports and see what works well there and what can we apply to watching esports. But within esports, it's a pretty radical idea.”

Which is why, rather than adhere to the standard esports model of hosting semi-regular tournaments, OWL opted to establish a fully-franchised 12-team league. It’s a bid for stability in a landscape that multiple people interviewed for this story likened to the Wild West. That includes a guaranteed minimum salary of $50,000 and health benefits for every player, unheard of in a sport where many recognizable stars have no stable income and countless more struggle to scrape by.

“The stability is the best part of it,” says Brandon “Seagull” Larned, who plays for the Dallas Fuel. “Overwatch League represents structure, where you know where you’re going to be for the next six months. You can make a life a little better.”

“[They want] players and teams to come in and really grow and not necessarily have to worry about things like relegation, ‘Am I going to get paid?’ ‘When am I going to get paid?’ All the troubles that the esports scene has kind of seen,” says Josh Kocurek, senior global marketing manager at HP, one of The Overwatch League’s largest brand partners.

The endgame is an international, city-based model that will one day feature on-the-ground matchups not only between the likes of San Francisco and Los Angeles, but also New York at Shanghai and Seoul at Dallas. It’s an ambition even beyond what traditional sports leagues have achieved, one that can only be realized through cultivating massive local audiences on par with what Musselman imagines.

Hence OWL’s star-studded cast of owners. While teams like Houston (OpTic Gaming), Dallas (Team EnVyUs), and Florida (Misfits) are backed by established esports brands, the flash comes by way of familiar names who have elevated other properties to the heights OWL intends to reach.

Robert Kraft, the patriarch of the New England Patriots, owns the league’s Boston franchise. Jeff Wilpon, the COO of the New York Mets, bought the New York imprint. Stan Kroenke, who already had a half-dozen pro sports teams to his name, established the Los Angeles Gladiators. Their crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Valiant, have partnered with Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which owns the Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, and Kings ply their trade. The Philadelphia Fusion are under the umbrella of Comcast Spectacor, the current owner of the Philadelphia Flyers and former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Our strategy from the beginning has been to partner with the organizations that are the best in the world at building the whole fanbases,” Vlastelica says. “If you think about an organization like the Kraft Group... they’ve got the venues, they’ve got the ticket sales organization, they’ve got the sponsorship organization, they’ve got retail touch points, they’ve got marketing and the local marketing organization. They know how to make fans and they know how to create value once they’ve made fans.”

“What they’re doing is taking esports, which has been often described as this niche that gamers like... Blizzard is making it more accessible and broadening the audience,” adds Kent Wakeford, co-owner of the Seoul Dynasty.

The ethos begins with the game itself. Consider its foremost competitors in the marketplace. League of Legends and Dota 2 are esoteric, with a bouquet of intricate and ever-changing characters that regularly do battle in as many as four points of the screen at once. Halo overwhelmingly features one character, a jacked-up space marine who profiles as arguably the least relatable video game protagonist in history. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was expressly designed to be a hyper-realistic military shooter, the sort of property that makes parents squeamish.

Overwatch, on the other hand, is a pleasant swirl of vibrant colors and cartoonish designs. The action is conveyed from a direct first-person perspective and manages to isolate violence from any semblance of gore. It is meted out by a cast that includes but is hardly limited to: a lesbian time traveler, a pair of samurai brothers, an ape scientist, a Mexican street gang member-turned-hacker and a seven-foot-three biker straight out of Mad Max central casting. The game makes a very deliberate appeal to the widest possible audience. Dig in deep enough, and you’ll uncover something for everyone.

On a recent dreary Wednesday afternoon, I watched a crowd of about 100 filter into the self-styled Blizzard Arena for the first match of the day. There was plenty of the expected pallor — young, single white males — but they were interspersed with boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, and friends of all races. A grandmother clutched the hand of her grandson. A father popped in with his kindergarten-aged son. One enterprising couple arrived midway through the first match carrying an infant.

It was a spectrum that would fit in at most any other sporting event, give or take a decade in average age and a few multichromatic hairstyles. Which, for The Overwatch League, amounts to a glimpse of how its world may someday look on a far grander scale: Diverse, inclusive, and enormous. That gloomy Wednesday is a sliver, but a start.

“This is going to change esports,” Wakeford says. “This is going to put it on the map.”

The New York Excelsior enter the arena.

The New York Excelsior enter the arena.

The Florida Mayhem enter the arena.

The Florida Mayhem enter the arena.

The New York Excelsior enter the arena.

The Florida Mayhem enter the arena.

Before he became the most controversial Overwatch player on the planet, Felix “xQc” Lengyel went door to door in his hometown of Quebec offering his services as a landscaper.

“It taught me a little bit how to talk to people and be comfortable with it,” says the 22-year-old.

In person, Lengyel is shy but affable, his speech glazed with a moderate French-Canadian accent. On the Internet, however, he is bombastic and often inflammatory. Lengyel is the first player to date to be released from an OWL contract, after the Dallas Fuel let him go following two incidents in the span of a month that caused him to be suspended for 10 total matches and accrue $6,000 in fines for offensive behavior on his personal Twitch stream.

After the second incident, in which Lengyel used a racially-insensitive emote and referred to OWL shoutcasters as “cancer,” OWL put out a statement partly attributing his latest suspension to making “disparaging language against Overwatch League casters and fellow players.” Later that week, two casters on an official OWL broadcast performed a skit in which one, playing a doctor, diagnosed the other with “xQc” — Xtremely Questionable Conduct.

The incident and subsequent fallout is endemic of OWL’s growing pains. Transparency is an ongoing concern. There’s no delineating what constitutes “disparaging language” in the first place, and a promise by Nanzer to post a code of conduct to the league’s website has so far gone unfulfilled. (The code of conduct is now public after it was leaked in late March by an esports broadcaster.)

The irony of the xQc fiasco wasn’t lost on the esports media: OWL punished a player for violating a nebulous rule in his time outside of work, only to then plausibly do a version of same thing in response and package it as a form of in-house entertainment.

That inconsistency spills over into discipline, both on the league and individual team levels. After Lengyel accrued his first league suspension for using homophobic language, the Fuel immediately suspended him for the rest of the first stage. Yet when one of his teammates, Timo “Taimou” Kettunen was found to have used gay slurs on his own Twitch stream, Kettunen started the very next match and ultimately was not suspended by the league nor the team despite a history of similar behavior. That same week, Houston Outlaws coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim posted a meme making light of the United States’ nuclear bombing of Japan in World War II. The league decided only to issue a formal warning, in part due to Kim promising to make a charitable donation — the same gesture Lengyel made following his first suspension.

Then there are the more benign challenges, beginning with the game itself, which for all its accessibility is still dazzlingly quick. The camera darts from player to player without warning, and there’s no permanent overhead map to anchor the viewer to her surroundings, which makes watching the game’s more frenetic moments feel like tracking sparks in a microwave. Nanzer is quick to point out that traditional sports have their own esoterica — “I think esports never really get the benefit of the doubt,” he says — but, still, a hockey puck battered around by human beings moves at a fraction of the speed as computer-generated pixels.

And, like all of their contemporaries in esports, OWL grapples with ingrained attitudes. The game’s core audience is firmly established: According to Twitch’s metrics, the game ranks firmly in the top five in both peak viewership as well as average viewers. The league has plenty of capital, too, starting with the institutional backing of its ownership plus a record-setting two-year, $90 million contract with Twitch to air the league’s games. Expansion is already on the docket for season two, with a rumored buy-in fee ranging from $35 to $60 million per team. But the only way to amass the necessary large-scale audience is by converting a slew of skeptics conditioned to dismiss the physicality of esports, no matter what reaction times and hand-eye coordination say to the contrary.

“I don’t think that necessarily stems from the format of other esports but rather the fact that they just don’t view video games as, I don’t know, competitive enough or difficult enough,” says Christian Norris, a Los Angeles Valiant fan who entered the arena that Wednesday afternoon clad in the team’s hunter green jersey. “Maybe even physically demanding enough to constitute itself as a real sport. I think that’s generally the issue they have with it... how they view sports in their subjective view.”

Some of these issues are inevitable in what amounts to a startup culture, the sorts of potholes that get paved over as the product matures. “We are going to hit snags,” Peter Levin, the Valiant’s chairman, promised at OWL’s preseason media availability. “It's the first pitch of the first inning of a nine-inning game.”

Not every snag gets untangled, however, and the wrong ones could prove damning. Some might even be out of the league’s control entirely. No mainstream sports league has to walk a tightrope quite like OWL’s relationship with Twitch, in which its exclusive broadcast partner has a long-standing harassment issue that could prove too deep-seated to snuff out. To wit, instead of making a pariah out of Lengyel following his release, the Twitch community swarmed to his defense. His response included a polite, almost weary request to “please don’t send people fucking death threats, again.”

Barring major change, it’s hard to envision The Overwatch League riding that partnership into mainstream scrutiny in a social climate that is more diligent than ever about exposing and ostracizing harassers. It may be even harder to imagine OWL arriving there without it.

It’s a next-generation dilemma, the sort that OWL must confront as it trades on promises of a groundbreaking future. No one said revolutionizing professional sports would be easy.

The London Spitfire celebrate a win.

The London Spitfire celebrate a win.

The first step toward the arena experience of Musselman’s dreams came at a co-working space near Houston’s Shadow Oaks neighborhood.

The inaugural Houston Outlaws watch party was a last-minute affair. In lieu of a stadium, there was a warehouse, one the organization was renting out instead of owning outright. The spectators were more than 1,500 miles away from the action in Burbank. There was no telling how many would turn out.

Musselman was racked with anxiety. As the organization scrambled to pin down final logistics, he found himself asking the sort of questions that could have mirrored those of the league at large at its onset.

“How many people are going to show up?” he wondered. “What if this is a flop? What if no one cares?”

Those fears abated when the first wave of spectators lined up, only to be replaced by fresh concerns. He fretted about the internet connection and the stream quality, and whether the fans would even enjoy such a detached viewing experience enough. So it went for a couple of hours. The line kept swelling, and so did Musselman’s anxieties.

“One thing goes well and you’re wondering if the next thing goes bad,” he says.

The day wound up a success: More people crammed into the warehouse than were at the match itself, and they came away happy. The event begat a second watch party, which the organization in turn hopes will inspire even more.

Musselman was awed. He now has new questions, the sort that the Overwatch League can ask itself as it continues to cement its place in the sports landscape.

“When you get 600 screaming fans come out, you start getting a taste of 'Oh my gosh, what exactly are we in and where is this going to go?'” Musselman says.

Musselman know they’re a long way from figuring out the answer. But his best guess is up.

Mike Piellucci is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is a former staff writer at Vice Sports, and his freelance work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Magazine, The Ringer, and Deadspin.