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The future of esports arrives with Overwatch League launch

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — In the soundstage where Johnny Carson and
Jay Leno spent four decades filming “The Tonight Show,” a former
Washington State computer science student named Seagull is
pursuing a South Korean teenager with a very big gun.

Their characters’ exploits inside “Overwatch,” the wildly popular
multiplayer game not yet 2 years old, flicker above their heads
on an enormous high-definition screen. Hundreds of mostly
millennial fans in the renamed, sold-out Blizzard Arena put down
their Doritos and roar for the combat between these six-player
teams, eventually rising in ecstasy when the Dallas Fuel earn an
unexpected point against the powerhouse Seoul Dynasty.

Here’s the new Johnny. He plays video games for a minimum $50,000
salary, health benefits, a retirement savings plan and a chunk of
$3.5 million in prize money.

Esports history was made Wednesday night with the debut of the
Overwatch League, the first attempt to present elite computer
gaming within a traditional North American sports structure
comparable to the NBA or NFL. The league’s 12 franchises
represent cities from Shanghai to London, and they build teamwork
and stress player development while competing on a weekly
schedule stretching into summer.

If the esports industry is still in its adolescence, this
well-funded venture is a significant milestone in its maturation.
The Overwatch League is about to find out whether fans will grow
along with it.

“It’s a new frontier,” said Ari Segal, president and chief
operating officer of the Los Angeles Valiant. “It is the biggest,
boldest bet in sports and entertainment maybe since the NFL and
AFL merged. Maybe since baseball introduced the designated
hitter. I don’t even know what it stacks up against, because it
is so different.”

Segal had a career as a hockey executive before he moved into
esports last year. He is one of many seasoned professionals from
traditional sports and business who couldn’t resist the
opportunity to shape the future of professional gaming, which has
expanded with all the cohesion of a pipe bomb.

Shortly after Blizzard Entertainment published this hero-based,
first-person PC shooter to acclaim in 2016, the game developer
announced plans for a league backed by deep-pocketed investors
ranging from NFL owners Stan Kroenke and Robert Kraft to current
giants of the esports scene.

They might not all know their way around a mouse, but they know a
growing industry when they see it.

“I come from traditional sports, and from the outside, it seemed
like esports had grown up as this exciting, massive, organic,
somewhat unstructured ecosystem that benefited from that fact,
but was also held back by it,” said Pete Vlastelica, president
and CEO of Major League Gaming, which operates the league for
Blizzard’s parent company.

“It felt to me a lot like boxing,” added Vlastelica, a former
executive at Fox Sports. “Anybody can create a circuit. Anybody
be a trainer. Anybody can sign a fighter. Anybody can win a belt.
But what’s the belt? I think boxing suffers from an ambiguity
about whether any particular competition means anything, and it
felt like that was really similar in esports.”

The Overwatch League aims to end that ambiguity with traditional
sports touchstones, and it made sense to the luminaries from
sports, tech and business who dominate the list of investors.

Kroenke, the billionaire owner of Arsenal and the Los Angeles
Rams, also owns the Los Angeles Gladiators, who plan to be based
within the vast entertainment complex around his Inglewood
football stadium after it is completed in 2020. The Boston
Uprising are owned by Kraft’s investment group, and they might
end up based in Foxborough, Massachusetts, to share some training
facilities with the New England Patriots.

The San Francisco Shock’s investor group includes Jennifer Lopez,
Shaquille O’Neal and Marshawn Lynch. The Philadelphia Fusion are
owned by Comcast Spectacor, and the New York Excelsior are the
property of a venture capital fund sponsored by the Wilpon family
of New York Mets fame.

Many of the Overwatch League’s owners might not be gamers, but
they understand the visceral importance of going to a good event.
League commissioner Nate Nanzer is confident it will eventually
harness income from ticket sales and concessions and other areas
that haven’t meant much in esports so far.

“Why do people go to a Dodger game? You go because it’s more fun
to sit with 40,000 other fans and cheer for a home run than it is
to do it at home,” Nanzer said. “Video games are so incredibly
mainstream right now. It’s such a big part of our fans’ lives.
When people play ‘Overwatch,’ they play a lot of ‘Overwatch.’
It’s a special moment to go share that with people who have the
same passion as you.”

Although the geographical specificity of the teams is an
important part of their future business plans, those home cities
are largely theoretical at this point.

For this season and the near future, every team will live in the
Los Angeles area and play all its matches in Burbank. Nanzer said
the logistics of staging the competition around the globe were
too enormous to be solved immediately.

That’s not the only geographical dissonance: The Overwatch
League’s only “European” team, the London Spitfire, are owned by
an American esports organization, and its roster consists
entirely of South Korean players living in Los Angeles.

But the Overwatch League has bought itself time to find its
footing. The league has sponsorship deals with blue-chip
companies including HP Inc. and Intel Corp., and the Dallas Fuel
wear jersey sponsor patches from Jack in the Box restaurants.

On Tuesday, the league announced a two-year agreement to stream
its matches on Twitch, the streaming video platform owned by
Amazon. Sports Business Journal reported the deal is worth at
least $90 million, which would be an esports record.

Blizzard Arena was filled to its modest capacity for the first
day of three matches, with fans admiring the sharp merchandise in
the lobby before sitting in plush seats to watch six hours of
action. After the Seoul Dynasty won the day’s final match,
players on the all-South Korean team in matching uniforms removed
their headsets and acknowledged the cheers from behind their

“Watching the best people in the world compete at something is
just exciting,” said Rob Moore, a former Paramount Pictures vice
chairman now working with Kroenke’s LA Gladiators. “There’s a
real opportunity here for something to develop and grow.”

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