Published On: Fri, Sep 14th, 2018

Overwatch Bets Gaming Fans Will Cheer for the Home Team to Save the World

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Jay Goldthwaite had never felt passion for a Boston sports team, no matter how often his neighbors’ cheers pierced the walls of his condo during playoff games for the Red Sox or the Celtics.

But then came the Boston Uprising, a franchise in the Overwatch League whose players shoot it out in a video game to save the world.

Now an autographed team poster is framed on a wall in his home office. During an emergency room visit this year, he used his phone to furtively watch the Uprising in a frenzied match featuring a time-traveling pistoleer, an electricity-wielding scientist and a monk pursuing transcendence.

“I thought it would be sort of a novelty,” Mr. Goldthwaite, 47, said of having a local team to support. “But now I find myself jumping off the couch.”

Competitive e-sports emerged 20 years ago, when a game called StarCraft became an obsession in South Korea and a pillar for Blizzard Entertainment, which also publishes the first-person shooter game Overwatch. Devotion to teams like Evil Geniuses, Team Liquid and Cloud9 developed organically with little regard for geography. But Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, which employs executives who have worked for the N.B.A., the N.F.L., and broadcasters ESPN and Fox Sports, hopes to change that.

“Basketball is not a sport,” said Pete Vlastelica, the chief executive of e-sports at Activision Blizzard. “Basketball is a game. The N.B.A. makes it a sport by wrapping structure and fanfare around it.”

The Overwatch League’s inaugural season this year featured 12 teams, and the finals in July attracted sold-out crowds of more than 20,000 spectators to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, while matches were broadcast on ESPN. Since then, Blizzard has announced expansion franchises in Atlanta, Washington, Paris, Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hangzhou. The league hopes to ultimately add eight more.

By breaking with convention and building local franchises for its game, Blizzard offered a structure that could appeal to professional sports executives able to provide valuable cachet.

The first two franchises, the Boston Uprising and the New York Excelsior, were bought by organizations connected to Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and Jeff Wilpon, chief operating officer of the New York Mets and the son of the team’s principal owner. Executives with the Los Angeles Rams, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Sacramento Kings soon joined the ownership ranks. E-sports stalwarts joined, too: Cloud9 owns the London Spitfire, which won the first championship.

Mr. Kraft’s son Jonathan, president of the Kraft Group, said his organization had been interested in e-sports, but was uncomfortable acquiring what amounted only to player contracts. It was swayed by the pitch for the Overwatch League, which like a professional sports league tracks detailed statistics on teams and players, has a regular broadcast schedule, a postseason, and player transactions. (This off-season, its runner-up for most valuable player was traded to another team.)

“There’s more crossover between younger ball-and-stick sports fans and e-sports than people understand and believe,” Jonathan Kraft said. “It’s not just young people who have been in front of computers their whole lives.”

Overwatch fans might have an easy time coalescing around geographic allegiances, but they’ll have a hard time seeing their team in person. All of the teams, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia — not to mention Shanghai and Seoul — actually play just outside Los Angeles.

Every regular-season match this year was played in a 450-seat e-sports arena in Burbank, Calif. That allows Blizzard to focus on its online broadcast while team owners can develop reliable technological infrastructure, said the league’s commissioner, Nate Nanzer. Teams could move to local arenas in the league’s third season, in 2020.

“There is a huge audience that is out there dying to engage with this content live and connect with other fans,” Mr. Nanzer said.

The local franchise model remains largely untested, however.

Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends, the most popular e-sport, has not yet found a city-franchise system it likes, said Chris Hopper, the company’s head of e-sports for North America. It is closely evaluating its Chinese league, which this year assigned three of its Shanghai-based teams to Chengdu, Chongqing and Hangzhou.

Mr. Hopper oversees a 10-team league based in Los Angeles, and said he believed there were diminishing returns when expanding to other cities.

“We’ve sold out events because of the relative scarcity of presence in that market,” Mr. Hopper said. “So we can sell out Madison Square Garden or Staples Center or Air Canada Centre because we haven’t gone there in a long time.”

In the new N.B.A. 2K League, players live in the cities of their team’s corresponding basketball franchise and travel to New York every weekend to compete. Because the N.B.A. already has city franchises, no other e-sports model was really considered, said Brendan Donohue, the league’s managing director.

Game companies are trying to replicate the long-term audiences found in traditional sports, and regionalism and nationalism have been powerful anchors, said T. L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has written books about e-sports and online gaming.

“Now that e-sports can be seen as a viewable product with audiences that can be marketed and carved up, it’s being fit into modes of industry and entertainment that are resonant,” she said.

Overwatch League is promising its teams something else that mirrors traditional sports: revenue sharing. Franchises will eventually split the money made from broadcast deals and national advertisers — which have included HP, Sour Patch Kids, T-Mobile and Toyota — in addition to keeping all local revenue, according to Blizzard. The players receive minimum $50,000 salaries, and were allocated at least half of the inaugural season’s $3.5 million prize pool.

Market research groups said e-sports last year generated about $700 million in revenue and about 300 million unique viewers — the vast majority of them in a young demographic coveted by advertisers. And more people than ever are watching others play games online because of live-streaming services like Twitch, which is owned by Amazon.

Companies that aggregate streaming data say an average of 100,000 to 150,000 viewers watched regular-season Overwatch League matches on Twitch in English, Korean and French. Even though the Shanghai Dragons finished 0-40, an additional 400,000 to 500,000 people were said to have watched on Chinese streaming sites.

Overwatch players aim to control an area or to escort a vehicle through enemy fire using characters with varying powers: Pharah causes havoc from afar with rockets and a jet pack, Mei freezes opponents and builds ice walls, and Lucio, a rollerblading D.J., heals his teammates with music.

The game play can be difficult for a casual observer to process, but the culture surrounding it is familiar. Several teams have flown in their players for meet-ups to forge real-world connections. An Excelsior player was scheduled to throw a first pitch before a Mets game, and the Philadelphia Fusion hosted open tryouts for a local player to join the roster of their minor-league team. And as in other sports, fans of the Overwatch League watch matches at bars while wearing jerseys of their favorite team.

“Humans,” Mr. Nanzer said, “are tribal in nature.”

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