The 22,000 fans packing the Barclays Center on a late July evening were a lot like any other sell-out crowd: hyped, cheering themselves hoarse, and, in many cases, dressed head-to-toe like the idols they were here to see. But it wasn’t a pop phenom or NBA team that was packing the Brooklyn, New York area—it was the two e-sports teams squaring off in the Overwatch League finals.
And the rowdy IRL crowd weren’t the only ones glued to the action. Factor in the viewers on Twitch and the national broadcast airing live on ESPN, and nearly 11 million people watched the gamers battle it out.
Overwatch, a first-person shooter launched by Blizzard in 2016, quickly became a sensation, racking up 30 million players in its first 12 months on the market (becoming the company’s the fastest-growing game ever) and spawning its own pro league in 2017. And just a year in, Overwatch League is changing the face of what a successful pro e-sports organization can be. Overwatch is one of the first leagues in the industry run by its own developer and publisher. It’s also bucked the trend of non-geographic teams, instead following the playbook of more traditional sports by creating teams that represent specific cities.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to see the league carve out its own lane—the game itself is a bit of an anomaly among its peers. Unlike other first-person shooters, like Call of Duty or Halo, Overwatch bypasses the hyper-realistic war games for a colorful and cartoonish style. Rather than being limited to playing as a soldier or assassin, players can choose from a frequently updated range of male and female heroes and animal characters—you can even play as a hamster. Despite the violence of the gameplay, Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer describes it as “a game that takes a very bright and hopeful view of the future.”
That seems to have stuck a cord for gamers. “There are around 40 million people around the world playing the game,” says Pete Vlastelica, Overwatch League president and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues. “And the best of the best, the best 130 players in the world participate in our Overwatch League.”
The league has moved quickly to establish itself as a legit place for players to build a career. London Spitfire, the winner of the first Overwatch League finals, took home a $1 million prize pool to be split amongst the team. Runners-up Philadelphia Fusion received $400,000. All players, meanwhile, receive a minimum $50,000 salary, as well as a benefits package that includes health insurance and a 401(k). That’s a dramatic shift in the e-sports economy.
“I still never thought it would reach a level where you’re going to have a city backing you, all these potential investors, a lot of real money, and getting a salary and be able to do it for a living,” says Overwatch League player Andrej “Babybay” Francisty. “I thought that making money off of video games for a living would have been a YouTube-only thing.”
Overwatch runs much like a traditional sports league in terms of setting matches and monetizing those games with broadcasting and streaming rights, sponsorships, merchandise, and ticket sales. And even though it just wrapped its first season this summer, there’s already a plan in place to make way for new talent. League commissioner Nanzer noted that Overwatch includes an entry-level Open Division where players of any level can compete and a “minor league” counterpart, the Contenders Division.
“For a generation of 12- to 35-year-olds, this is sport. This is competition,” says Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard. “They are getting a sense of purpose and meaning and belonging from and so I think when you look out 10 to 20 years from now, what we do will be just as important as traditional sport today.”
A week after the July 28 finals, Overwatch announced it will bring on another two teams for its second season: Atlanta and Guangzhou, China. They will join the existing 12 teams already representing Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Shanghai among other cities. The league has also signed a multiyear deal with Twitter to bring highlights and livestreaming content to the social media platform. In addition, Twitter will host a live weekly Overwatch preview show called Watchpoint. In the future, Nanzer and Vlastelica said, the league hopes to expand by performing at local arenas in each of teams’ home cities. They’ve so far performed only in Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif. and Barclays Center for the finals.
Wrapping its inaugural season, Overwatch is chalking up 2018 as a win, not just for London Spitfire but for the league as a whole—and a hard fought one at that. Despite all the success the game itself, the professional e-sports world is still in its infancy and a strong first year was in no way a sure bet. Closing with a match watched by 11 million fans—and a $1 million purse—exceeded the league organizers’ hopes.
“We always sort of expected it to get big,” Vlastelica says. “We didn’t expect it get big as quickly as it did.”