Photo: Photo for the Washington Post By David "Dee" Delgado
NEW YORK – When the last Philadelphia hero was eliminated and remained motionless on the animated map, players removed their hands from the controls, confetti fluttered through the air and triumphant music that came in through the sound system at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The fans cheered and raised their smartphones to capture the moment: the first championship of the Overwatch League.
The London Spitfire overturned the outsider Philadelphia Fusion on Saturday afternoon, an important milestone for a premier league That began in January with designs revolutionizing the way Esports is played, structured and consumed. The confetti, the costumed fans, the raw atmosphere – that was as much part of the OWL dream as the blueprint of the league.
Saturday was the highlight of the opening season, and while the upstart league has been promoting it as a huge success, it was only one step. The imminent transition to local markets will ultimately determine the success not only of the league, but also whether the ambitious model can truly redesign the eSports landscape.
"The city format has grown faster and bigger than I expected," said Nate Nanzer, the league commissioner, "and frankly, as if I knew it would work – for all the reasons that exist in traditional sports I just thought it might take more time. "
The League (OWL) was set up to become a high-speed system. It aims to have the stamina and popularity of traditional sports likeNBA orNFL with communities likeNewYorkYankees orNewEnglandPatriots, andreveningimproving the line between play and sport
I think it's still a long-term game. One year in a sports league is unimportant, "said Jonathan Kraft, President of the Kraft Group, which owns the OWL Boston Rebellion franchise and also the New England Patriots." We did this with a view to building long-term investment value. " Long before the championship officially ended Saturday's opening season, OWL officials were busy scheduling Season 2. ESPN recently reported that the league is closing deals with three expansion franchises – one in Atlanta, one in Atlanta Paris and another in Guangzhou, China – and no less than three more could be on their way, each selling for $ 30-60 million, and while the league's most ardent fans are used to playing OWL games over the live Watching Twitch's streaming video service, the league also signed a broadcast deal this month that will put future matches on ESPN and Disney channels.
The league's online numbers exceeded the expectations of many team managers – the broadcasts reached an average of 80,000 to 170,000 spectators – team and league officials are confident that their first-year achievements are just a preview of what's to come. They think the league is still rolling down the track and although there are some possible obstacles, they believe they are following a blueprint that will revolutionize the sport.
"If Overwatch League succeeds, the model will change for every publisher, league and team in the world," said Noah Whinston, managing director of the Valiant franchise in Los Angeles. "A local model of this magnitude has never been tried before, and if this league succeeds, I think it throws off a lot of conventional wisdom about esports."
The two groups of players sat on a stage at One End of the Arena, dwarfed by the huge video scoreboard. The preferred Spitfire team in London consisted of six Korean players, all drawn by a bartender in Brooklyn. The Philadelphia Fusion featured six players from five different countries. None of the players on the stage was American and no one had a tangible connection to the city he had represented in the last four months.
The novelty of OWL is its geolocation model, in which the 12 franchises are tied to specific cities, just like traditional sports leagues. It's a novel formula, and based on the early returns, Blizzard, the publisher of the game, was able to use the same approach with other titles, notably Call of Duty, a popular eSports title over the last twelve years.
But in Year 1 of OWL, all the teams were actually in the Los Angeles area and played their matches in the same 450-seat studio in Burbank, California, where "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" used to be. This will also be the Year 2 arrangement.
But the owners are hoping that by the third year – 2020 – the teams will move to their real cities, which will open up new sources of revenue. Market research firm Newzoo's report earlier this year suggested Esport's worldwide earnings this year will exceed $ 900 million and nearly double in the next three years. The OWL teams know that money is out there, which is why franchise rights for the first 12 teams have been sold for $ 20 million each.
"Ultimately, to truly be a force – to create the kinds of monetization you would like to have on a local basis, the team needs to be more regular on the market," Kraft said.
The League was looking for owners who have experience in traditional sports who know how to cultivate an audience in a local market. OWL owners include the Kraft family, Fred Wilpon, who owns the New York Mets, and Stan Kroenke, who owns Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Rams. But since the squads only represent the cities in their name, there is only so much that they can do with that knowledge. The teams have been holding watch parties and trying to arouse the interest of local media, but opportunities are inherently limited.
It is estimated that up to 150 million people worldwide will watch e-sports, a figure that is expected to grow in the coming years. But the league wants to have a particularly enthusiastic following in the handpicked cities of the league. Then they can tap into this fandom and create revenue streams: ticket sales, merchandising, on-site sponsorship, community partnerships.
"I think monetization is the core issue in e-sports," Whinston said. "We all know how big the audience is … we're still far from earning tens of millions of dollars every year, but I think we've taken the right steps to get the benefits of the different pieces to the model. "
Force compares the season 1 core audience with low-hanging fruits, mostly players who did not need much arm twist. The challenge on the road will grow beyond that.
"I think I'll start attracting and teaching casual fans and connecting geographically – I think of people who do not love hockey but say: The Bruins are my team because they live in Boston," said he. "I think you have to be in the market to take full advantage of that."
"Once the fans hit the market, they have a reason to be attentive. I really have to go at full speed," he continued. "Look, the league has been very successful, nobody can deny that … and we will be stronger next year, but the next really big test will be when we go into the market in 2020."
Overwatch, barely two years old, already has a loyal following. The fans who flooded Brooklyn – many of them standing in line for hours at the doors of the Barclay Center – carried all 12 teams in the league, many bearing the names of certain players on their shoulders. Many others wore costumes like the heroes of the game – Sombra, Zarya, Widowmaker, and even Wrecking Ball, a new hamster figure introduced last month – and seemed to be as much attached to the characters in the game as the players who used them.
In the arena, most of the players sat quietly on stage, their hands unseen through the work, their heads shielded from the crowd by monitors. Most of the action took place on the gigantic video board. Overwatch is a six-on-six shooter game, a futuristic adventure that is both the reason for the league's immediate success and perhaps a cause for trepidation.
Even as the league started this spring, many players started gravitating to another title this year. Fortnite undoubtedly became the game of the moment, allegedly surpassing 125 million players and earning $ 1 million per day.
"What Fortnite has done is absolutely incredible," said Tucker Roberts, president of the Fusion franchise. "It's attracting fans right now from Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota, Counter-Strike – all the biggest games there's been in years, it's not a joke … but I do not think that will last forever." 19659017] Fortnite and its Battle Royale format are not suitable for a team league, and OWL officials point out that there are always new titles. Even if some players are tapping at times, the good games – think StarCraft, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Warcraft – tend to be endurance.
"In my view, the fears of esports fashion and games are coming and out of favor is a little over the top," Whinston said. "Of course there are casual fans moving from game to game, but I think it's too simple to say:" Well, a new game is coming and Overwatch will fall out of popularity. "
The key is evolution. Updates, new maps, new characters, new technology. And unlike traditional sports, eSports has the ability to change its games at any time, even during one season. Blizzard is doing regular overwatch updates and this year, even a new mid-season character has been introduced, forcing the teams to change strategies and turn the league hierarchy upside down. As a result, the best team in the regular season, the New York Excelsior, was ousted in the semi-final of the OWL. The merger, which sneaked into sixth and final place in the playoffs, found instead this weekend in Brooklyn again. While baseball or football would never fundamentally change its mid-season rulebook, OWL officials seemed to embrace a drastic change in game time that forced players to adapt.
"I think there are a lot of traditional sports that struggle to keep the fans and engage with young fans because they have not developed in 100 years," said Nanzer. "And I think that's an advantage we have over traditional sports."
The League said it sold out the approximately 11,000 seats available for the two-day final. All fans looking for tickets in the secondary market last week paid at least $ 125 to enter the arena. DJ Khaled performed before the main event and for the next 75 minutes all eyes were glued to the video board. Below cameras, the cameras fluttered around and approached the players. It was broadcast live on Twitch worldwide and was scheduled to air on ESPN2 during prime time.
The linear broadcast deal is seen as a big step for the young league. It has not only confirmed the place of the Esport in the North American sports landscape, but also the potential to expand the reach of OWL. Team managers know that players are getting used to Twitch, but there is also a potential audience more accustomed to traditional cables. (Twitch owns Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
"Their regulars might not go there, but their parents and their family and friends might," said the Roberts of the Fusion, the son of Comcast -Chef Brian Roberts
It could help to establish the sport so that discussions are not banished to online portals, student residences or school corridors. It could be discussed on sports talk radio, featured in the SportsCenter and discussed in the office water cooler. His audience would not be just those who play Overwatch themselves.
"I do not necessarily think there's a big non-mainstream, mainstream audience we need to move on to," Whinston said. "Essentially, I think what you need to do is increase your audience by channeling the same passion as the local fan bases for their sports teams, so nobody would say you have to play baseball to become a baseball fan, I think "What we're building is a kind of social and cultural movement."
The way team and league managers see it jump into a store where the market is already hungry with an integrated audience was built up for a engaging product. And the OWL officials expect them to be there for a while.
"Did you recently meet a 12-year-old?" Ask Nanzer. "If you do, then I think they just watch other people playing video games on Twitch and YouTube, and that will not change at the age of 35. It's not like they're going to be 35 and be like," Well "I'm a baseball fan now."
They hope the Barclays Saturday party was just a glimpse into the future: fans filling seats, long lines at merchandise stalls, a captivating contest on stage
That commitment could to intensify for generations to come
"In the distant future – as in 20 years – I do not believe there will be non-gamers," said Roberts. "I think children today, they will have children, and they will play games with their children. It's like you know today that there is no sport? Everyone has at least some familiarity. I think that's where the things are. "" Guided. "
The Barclays crowd sure knew what they were watching. They waved signs, cheered their favorite players and experienced an exciting finale. London won the day with three games won, including a 3-1 victory on Friday. Led by 18-year-old Joon-yeong Park, a damage specialist better known in the Overwatch world than Profit, the Spitfire won the Junkertown card, crossed the Lijiang Tower, and sealed the title by initiating the merger King's Row, a London-inspired card
The Spitfire is already planning to bring the trophy to London with its all-Korean squad in October.
"We are very much looking forward to meeting her," said Spitfire CEO Jack Etienne. "They support us all season and have to get up by 3 or 4 in the morning."
More than 310,000 saw the last minutes on Twitch, and the crowd in the Brooklyn Arena showered the Korean, London-based champions with praise.
"I think it gave us a great foundation to build in 2019," said Commissioner Nanzer. "And you know, I think one of our guiding principles as a league is to make sure every season is better than the last and I think this will be a great event to strengthen us."
The Mike Hume of the Washington Post contributed to this report.