eSports, the colloquial and irritating name for organized tournaments with PC games and multiplayer consoles are all the rage these days … among geeks. But due to its decidedly geeky roots, there seems to be limited appeal to the general public – unlikely to tune in. DOTA International if you have never played a round of the game itself.
Blizzard hopes to make the appeal of eSports much broader, and its methods of doing so are interesting … and not because they’re particularly new. The competitive league that is being created for the team shooter. Overwatch leans on the mainstays of mainstream professional sports like baseball, soccer, and soccer, hoping to attract the attention of old-time sports fans and novice players alike. That is how.
City-based teams, not sponsors
Until now, team-based eSports had been completed with teams with names and designs that were supported by the culture of online players (Evil Geniuses, Team EnVyUs, FaZe Clan) or that simply bore the names of their sponsors, such as Samsung Galaxy or SK Telecom. And it’s easy enough for eSports fans to follow their favorite team, but it’s hard to imagine Watercooler talking about Team Virtus.pro’s big win over CDEC last night.
Enter Blizzard’s city-based approach. The Overwatch League currently has twelve teams on the schedule for its inaugural season next year, all new, though some are owned by the owners and managers of the major existing eSports teams. They are:
- The Boston uprising
- Dallas Fuel
- Houston Outlaws
- The Spitfire of London
- The Los Angeles Valliant
- The Excelsior of New York
- The Philadelphia Fusion
- The San Francisco crash
- Seoul dynasty
- The dragons of Shanghai
- Two as yet unnamed teams based in Los Angeles and Florida
Notice how dynamic team names and locations sound like something you’d expect in a conventional sports league. If I told you that the previous teams were AAA baseball teams or women’s rugby teams, you wouldn’t be surprised. That’s part of Blizzard’s overall strategy – to make it as easy as possible for mainstream sports fans to make the transition to watching eSports.
Blizzard isn’t the only one noticing. While most of those teams are owned by the owners and funders of the major existing eSports teams, some of the big players in mainstream sports are getting in on the action. Owners of the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Arsenal Football Club and New York Mets have invested in the Overwatch League with teams in their respective cities.
The teams will have standard partnerships and sponsorships with major brands, but the identity and branding of the teams will be focused on specific cities and regions, much like professional sports teams around the world. That is a big and very intentional difference from the more or less independent organization of eSports as it is now. It’s an important distinction: You’re more likely to take a friend to see “The LA Valiant play Houston Outlaws” than “Counter Logic Gaming versus Newbee.” Associating teams with cities also gives people a reason to cheer up. the other, even if they are not completely familiar with the players (or even the game itself).
Graphics and design based on conventional sports
We’re still months away from the first preseason Overwatch League games, but Blizzard has begun posting initial graphics and logos for some of the teams on their official site. Check it:
Once again, we can see that Blizzard and its partners are turning to mainstream sports themes to give the League a massive new appeal. The logos and typography match the style of modern sports logos, with dynamic lines and contrasting colors. Even the names are tied to your city’s history and culture wherever possible – the London Spitfire is named after the iconic RAF fighter jet flown in WWII.
The appeal of the sports team doesn’t stop there. Blizzard is creating custom skins for each team, applying them to all playable Overwatch characters. This has two purposes. One, it will make individual games easier to watch with players who are easily distinguished between teams, just like true professional sports. Compare this to the relative chaos of the average MOBA competition, and it’s easy to see why Blizzard wants even its digital characters to match the virtual team colors. The games will even follow the NFL guidelines for home and away uniforms: “Home” city teams will be in primarily black or dark variants with “away” teams in bright or white colors. Even special effects, bullet tracers, and weapon effects will be color-coded for teams. “We want it to be super obvious that you know what team you’re watching and what player you’re watching at all times,” said Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan.
The second purpose is, of course, marketing. You can bet that Blizzard and its team partners will use those uniforms to sell jerseys and other real-world merchandise, and possibly even team-branded skins for normal players to wear to casual matches. With twelve teams, each with home and away color schemes, Blizzard will make no less than six hundred Hero skins for your Overwatch characters. You can bet that there is already a plan to monetize each and every one. The potential for brand sales, both in the real and digital world, goes far beyond the clunky eSports and “professional gamer” labeling we’ve seen so far.
Contract rules for teams and players
While owners get a fair amount of leeway in recruiting and keeping their teams, Blizzard has put in some admiral lows for competitors in their official league. These include a minimum age of 18, an annual minimum wage of $ 50,000 USD (or the equivalent in foreign currency), full medical insurance, and free accommodation during the season. That’s a serious mass just for being on a team’s roster – most eSports competitors play almost exclusively for profit, with the best teams offering a lower salary. (Winners in the Overwatch League will also keep at least half of the prize money from the $ 3.5 million prize pool.)
To put it bluntly, you can play hard, practice, secure your spot on a pro Overwatch team, and treat it like a real job. Hell, by any reasonable definition, it is a real job: $ 50,000 is about 40% higher than the median individual income in the United States. Include insurance, package travel, and additional revenue from earnings, and Blizzard’s organized approach to eSports makes it seem more like mainstream sports leagues and less like the winner approach of anything we’ve seen thus far.
Feeder Leagues Incorporated into Main Game
Professional sports have minor league, independent, and sponsored teams made up of less talented and promising players who aren’t quite ready for the majors yet, but can be called up at any time. Overwatch is getting something similar. In addition to the leaderboard mode on the PC and console game (which has no stakes except bragging rights on the leaderboard), there is a minor league called Overwatch Contenders that plays on a smaller stage. Sixteen teams play the opening round of the tournament online, opening up the competition to more or less everyone (at least everyone who meets the 18+ eligibility requirements). The final two stages, featuring the top four teams, will happen in offline events, with a price bracket of $ 100,000.
Contenders allows players who want to go pro a chance to get into the action with little or no investment, and owners and recruiters in the big league to easily find players with the skills and teamwork to rise to the top. .
Dedicated eSports venues
Everyone knows you can’t be a true sport without ridiculously exorbitant dedicated venues. Blizzard has that covered: it opened Blizzard Arena Los Angeles last month. While the building’s capacity isn’t even close to the smallest stadiums, the old stage used by The Tonight Show has been renovated from the ground up to meet the unique needs of eSports. For example, the two teams are flanked by the giant movie screens where the main action takes place, and the announcer and commentator in color sit on an illuminated soundstage visible to the crowd.
Blizzard isn’t the only one investing in dedicated spaces for professional gaming. eSports Arena is an independent corporation that runs contests at custom locations in California and Las Vegas. With city-based teams appearing in the United States, United Kingdom, China, and South Korea, you can bet that Blizzard will encourage them to build their own “local stadiums” or rent similar spaces for a reliable viewing experience.
With investment from traditional sports moguls, interest from giants like ESPN, and ever-larger jackpots, eSports is poised for a huge opportunity in mainstream entertainment. Whether or not you can truly gain that control, especially in the crucial years ahead, will likely determine how you treat yourself in the future. Blizzard is betting big on eSports, and as the owner and organizer of your own league, you’re ready for a massive payoff, they can make it work.
Image Credit: Rolling Stone, Blizzard