With hype for the Overwatch League slowly building, we now have two concrete pieces of information: first, that the preseason will begin on December 6th at the new Blizzard Arena in Burbank, and two: we now know every founding member of the Overwatch League.
The final three teams have been signed for the inaugural season, and Blizzard is welcoming aboard the final founding owners.
Philadelphia will host Comcast Spectacor, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Dallas will be home to Team Envy, a team that has not only earned experience across multiple games but has already made a massive mark on the Overwatch scene.
Houston has been claimed by OpTic Gaming, another established esports brand with its roots in content creation and shooters.
The stage is now set for the first season, which is set to begin before the end of the year. Heroes Never Die had the chance to sit down with Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer, Mike Rufail, the owner and directing manager of Team Envy, and Ryan Musselman, the COO of OpTic Gaming. After months of the Overwatch League being largely hyped from the shadows, we now have solid details and a starting date on the calendar. Speaking to these key players gives us a clearer idea of what the best-case Overwatch League could look like.
The decision for each team to enter the Overwatch League with a new brand and identity has been a controversial one, but it also makes sense when viewed from a traditional sports angle. First, it gives Blizzard an array of new brands and narratives to showcase.
Nanzer is optimistic about how these new teams will look. “I think everybody should reserve judgement until you see the new brands - I think they’re going to be pretty amazing.”
In addition, there’s a financial aspect to things that can massively benefit owners. “This is a totally different format than we’ve seen in esports before, with these franchise slots. One of the reasons to do this is to create an asset that has value that’s going to appreciate over time.” He cites the recent sale of the Houston Rockets for 2.2 billion dollars, and notes that this deal wouldn’t necessarily be possible if the Rockets had an overarching brand spread across multiple sports.
When I spoke to Mike “Hastr0” Rufail of Team Envy, he isn’t deterred by the challenge of building a new brand. He described it as a “welcome opportunity” and “clean slate”. As always seems to be the case with Overwatch owners, he returns to the idea of the pros of a city based team: “We really wanted to make the fans in the Dallas area and Texas feel like they were getting something that is theirs. We want to make sure it feels like it’s authentic.”
He notes that Dallas has a rich tradition in esports, with some of the oldest esports events held in the city, and the fans are always amazing. On a more personal note, Dallas is his home. Of course, this gives Rufail a leg up. “There’s always a bit of a challenge when you’re upstarting a brand new team in any city. But for us, we understand the people who live in Texas, we understand the history of the state and the Dallas area, and understand what the moral and values of the people who live there are, and the things they enjoy doing.”
Talking to team owners is striking; they are confident and prepared to back a traditional sports approach to the Overwatch League, even as the community expresses doubt.
Rufail explains one way that a Dallas based team could strongly stand out from the other eleven cities on the roster: “We want things unique to Dallas. We want the fans to come out and tailgate, spending time grilling and barbecuing and spending time with their families outside of the arena before the match.”
Musselman explains why local teams make sense to him. “Any location is an opportunity. The Activision Blizzard community in terms of Overwatch and esports in general is global. Any opportunity that we have to build and support a local team and provide local opportunities we’re all for.”
With Blizzard working with team owners every step of the way, they have the opportunity to build local fanbases and physical presences in ways that a LA based ecosystem or largely digital playing field wouldn’t allow.
Musselman is also eager to face off against the other Texas-based team. “We have a great history with Envy. What originally started in Call of Duty has been dubbed in the community as eClasico. We’re excited to go up against them, we know they have a great roster. We’re absolutely excited to continue that rivalry. Hastr0 is a friend of ours, but when we see him out on the Overwatch field, it’s competition time.”
Relaunches and rebuilding
There’s a reason that Nanzer keeps stressing that Blizzard sought out “best-in-class” owners: each team is going to have to rebuild their brand presence and capture fans. This is a daunting prospect, but Nanzer and team owners both seem confident its not only attainable, but possibly even a better start. The Overwatch League is aimed at capturing huge swathes of gamers who will be getting into esports for the first time; it will be one part of a global ecosystem that can potentially include everyone.
“The goal is to create an experience around Overwatch.” Nanzer says. “The goal of the city based teams is to get fans around the world an opportunity to engage in this content.” He draws a comparison to NBA games, which are filled with spectacle and crowd engagement. “Even if you’re not a fan of NBA, it’s a fun night out, even if you don’t care about Overwatch.”
With no roster locks, teams are going to be focused on creating the best teams they can that will both 1) win and 2) represent their brand. Rufail looks for skill and character in his players, as well as personality. Musselman cites his past in building a digital network and marketing esports stars at Machinima, and he’s confident that he can translate those skills into promoting his players and brand. Not only is he walking into the League with passion, but he says that storytelling will be one of his top focuses.
Nanzer thinks the Overwatch League may break new ground in content creation and player marketing. “I don’t think anyone has done a great job of [content around esports] yet.” he says.
Mixing endemic esports teams with traditional sports investors may be the formula epsorts needs. “The traditional sports owners in the league have a lot to learn from the [esports teams], not just how to build a roster but how to build a digital brand among young gamers.” Nanzer explains. “I think the flip side of that is that the esports brands have a lot to learn on how to build a local fanbase and build sponsorships, a venue, and location.”
The Overwatch League also represents a massive opportunity to convert the game’s fanbase, which is partially made up of passionate female players and creators, into esports fans. Rufail is comfortable that Envy’s approach will help ease this along: “For us, I think we’ve always treated female fans equally. I think that’s something we’ve never had any instance where we treated female fans any differently than male fans. Everyone is welcome. I think one of the great aspects of esports is that it’s so diverse, with people from every walk of life.”
We’ve seen content around esports grow and change massively over the past few years. ELEAGUE has brought CS:GO to television, with slick production and player focused content. Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, have released mini-documentaries on players and written features. The Overwatch League aims to expand on this more, making not only the players a source of aspirational content, but bringing in fans through the larger ecosystem. When anyone can compete through the Overwatch Open Division, anyone can enter the community... and that naturally branches out to visiting games in person.
There’s risk to this approach, as it requires Overwatch to succeed on multiple axes. One of the defining values of the Overwatch League seems to be ambition: bringing in new markets, cementing new loyalties, spreading esports’ reach even further.
Of course, before this grand vision is realized, the stage must be set. The first season of the Overwatch League will take place in Los Angeles, and teams will be building up their individual venues and cities to accommodate the needs of fans.
“We’re very prepared to bring on the new additional staff that will be hyper focused on the Overwatch League.” Musselman says. He’s not ready to make any big announcements, but there are certainly preparations happening behind the scenes. “We’ve made a few hires since then that are dedicated to this specific part of the organization. We’re very confident and excited in building an infrastructure that can support this team.”
Activision Blizzard is working with teams through “every step of the way” to help them achieve this goal. Rufail notes that he believes Blizzard are “taking the absolute, exact right steps, and despite the long wait for fans, its all been worth it for the scale and scope of a League that Blizzard are preparing. “I’m very impressed at how quickly it took to get the OWL off the ground. I think the fans have been waiting to see a different product in Overwatch, something to differentiate itself from other esports. It’s been a bit of a wait, but at the end of the day it takes time to create something great.”
“We’re absolutely taking a long term view. The goal is not to build a sports league for a year or two, it’s to build a sports league forever.” Nanzer says. “That’s the view that we’re taking. All across the company, everyone is aligned that we’re taking a long term view of this.”
With all of the pieces in play, the starting dates finalized, and everyone on board, it’s now time for Blizzard to debut the Overwatch League in just a few short weeks.
The preseason kicks off on Wednesday, December 6th, and the first season officially begins on Wednesday, January 10, 2018. The first season will run until June, and playoffs and the first championship will be held in July.