A shower of confetti marked not only the crowning moment for the Overwatch League’s first-ever Grand Finals champions, the London Spitfire, but also the end of a successful inaugural season for Activision Blizzard‘s latest foray into the esports realm.
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More than 22,000 fans packed the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, over two days to watch the Spitfire and the Philadelphia Fusion take one another on in the gaming giant’s latest mega-franchise, “Overwatch.” The futuristic team-based shooter game became Activision Blizzard’s eighth billion-dollar franchise less than a year after its May 2016 release, following the likes of “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft.”
But that was initially thanks to sales and in-game micro-transactions before the Overwatch League (abbreviated as OWL) was launched. The inaugural season officially kicked off on Jan. 10, with the Fusion and Spitfire being just two of 12 city-based teams in the league, each of whom paid about $20 million to secure their spot.
And many believe the fanfare of the first championships are a sign of bigger things to come.
“Some, mostly folks outside the core esports and OWL community, see this weekend as somehow legitimizing all the work, effort, and accomplishment that preceded it; to me, that’s flatly untrue. Esports, and OWL, in particular, have no need to be legitimized by third parties,” wrote Ari Segal, president of Immortals, to CNBC. Immortals is an esports company that owns the Overwatch League’s Los Angeles Valiant team.
“Like it or not, the market, particularly the segment of the market most interesting to advertisers, has spoken,” he added. “Esports are sports, OWL is a professional sports league, and it has the potential to quickly become the most globally connected league in the history of mankind.”
A big part of that vision includes viewership. This past weekend’s Grand Finals and the OWL playoff games leading up to the event were broadcast on ESPN and Disney XD, part of a multiyear broadcast deal that will also include the Overwatch World Cup and the league’s entire second season when it kicks off in 2019. While ESPN had previously broadcast several esports events, this weekend’s Grand Finals was the first time the network broadcast an esports tournament live during a prime time slot.
This deal is seen as just one component of Activision Blizzard’s dedication to evolving OWL, which many also believe will shape the esports industry as a whole.
“I don’t think any company has made this commitment in resources, talent, people and capital that we’ve made to ensure something really incredible that will allow us to get the full benefit and the recognition that our players and our fans deserve,” Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick told CNBC from the event. “So I don’t think anybody else has elevated esports quite the way that we have.”
Even prior to Overwatch, the company was no stranger to the esports world. The release of “StarCraft II” back in 2010 brought about what many believed to be a new era of esports as it became the most-watched game in the world.
But Kotick emphasizes that the Overwatch League, at least for the time being, will be the company’s main focus as it continues toward its goal of reshaping the esports space.
“We started the esports industry with ‘StarCraft,’ and I think when you look at ‘Overwatch,’ when you look at ‘Call of Duty,’ … there are so many franchises that we have that lend well,” he said. “But right now, we are laser-focused on making sure the Overwatch professional league is the most successful [in the esports industry] that we’ve ever had.”
Over the tournament weekend, word of the first confirmed team expansions came to light with reports that Activision Blizzard sold a spot to Georgia-based Cox Enterprises for the Overwatch League’s second season. Prior to the tournament, there were also reports that the company was finalizing agreements for two other expansion slots that would see Paris and Guangzhou, China, secure their city teams’ spots in Season 2 as well.