It’s a big day for Overwatch and competitive gaming overall. Blizzard Entertainment today announced the owners of the first seven Overwatch League teams, and included among them are some very big games in traditional sports, gaming, and other industries.
As rumored New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is a billionaire, will own the Boston-based Overwatch League team. Additionally, Jeff Wilpon, who is the co-founder and partner at Sterling VC, which owns the New York Mets, will operate the New York team. There will also be Overwatch League teams in Los Angeles (Immortals), Miami-Orlando (Misfits Gaming), San Francisco (NRG Esports), Shanghai (NetEase), and Seoul (Kevin Chou, Kabam).
"We looked at major cities around the world and came up with a list of cities that wasn’t just based on population size but really the concentration of Overwatch players," Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer told GameSpot. "And once we had our cities identified, we set out and were talking to who we thought would be great owners. We wanted to make sure we were partnering with partners who, first and foremost, had a proven track record of building and growing a fan base."
With today’s announcement, the Overwatch League becomes the first major international pro esports league with a city-based structure. This is a big step for competitive gaming, as it brings it more in line with traditional sports leagues, though Overwatch League is unique in that teams from different countries will compete in certain events.
Here is a rundown of the first seven Overwatch League team owners.
- Robert Kraft, Chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group and the New England Patriots (Boston)
- Jeff Wilpon, Co-Founder and Partner of Sterling.VC and COO of the New York Mets (New York)
- Noah Whinston, CEO of Immortals (Los Angeles)
- Ben Spoont, CEO and Co-Founder of Misfits Gaming (Miami-Orlando)
- Andy Miller, Chairman and Founder of NRG Esports (San Francisco)
- NetEase (Shanghai)
- Kevin Chou, Co-founder of Kabam (Seoul)
Kraft, who is the chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group, said in a statement that his company has been looking at the esports market "for a number of years."
"The incredible global success of Overwatch since its launch, coupled with the League’s meticulous focus on a structure and strategy that clearly represents the future of esports made this the obvious entry point for the Kraft Group," he said.
The seven teams announced for the Overwatch League today are just the start. By comparison, MLB has 30 teams and the NFL has 32. You can expect Blizzard to expand the Overwatch League’s roster of teams in due course, as good partners are found.
"We don’t have a set number in our mind right now," Nanzer said. "We want to grow this over time. We want to make sure that we get great owners in big markets around the world. We expect this to be the first of many announcements. And over time, I think you can expect that the size of the Overwatch League will be similar to the size of the traditional sports leagues."
While competitive gaming is undoubtedly on the rise in terms of profile and prominence, the debate around esports being "real" sports will never end. Nanzer isn’t losing any sleep over it.
"It doesn’t really matter," he told us. "At the end of the day, it’s competition, and people love to see competition. People have hobbies like golf and tennis and if you have hobbies like that, you want to go watch and see who is the best in the world at those hobbies–and it’s no different for games."
"This is not something that we’re doing for a short-term gain. We’re taking a very long-term view of this."
Announced at Blizzcon last year, the Overwatch League will kick off later this year. For the league’s first season, matches will take place at a venue in the Los Angeles area, as the local squads take the time they need to create their own local venues. There will eventually be home and away matchups, just as with traditional sports. Full details on the schedule and ticket sales opportunities will be announced later this year.
Overwatch League teams will make money through ticket sales, advertising, and broadcast rights revenue. According to Blizzard, this money will be shared evenly, though local teams get to keep all the revenue from their home territory and venue up to "a certain amount." If/when this figure is eclipsed, a percentage will be given to a shared league revenue pool. Another element here is that franchises can operate and make money from five non-professional events in their home region every year.
Additionally, there will be league- and team-based Overwatch content sold in the game, with 50 percent of revenue going to a shared revenue pool for all teams.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about the Overwatch League, but what’s clear is this is a massive step forward for competitive gaming. Kraft and Wilpon, titans of business, getting on board is clear indicator that competitive gaming is no passing fad.
GameSpot spoke with Nanzer about today’s news, and you can see some of the big takeaways from our talk listed out below.
- The announcement of the seven teams today is just the start, Nanzer says. More will be announced in due time. By comparison, the NFL has 32 teams and MLB has 30.
- The version of Overwatch played in Overwatch League matches is mostly the same as the public version. However, Overwatch League will hold back new heroes, maps, and balance changes until they are properly tested.
- There is a minimum base salary for Overwatch League players, though this figure was not disclosed.
- Blizzard will support Overwatch League teams with support and benefits, though there are no plans for a player’s union. However, Nanzer says Blizzard would be open to having a discussion about that if players want one.
- Nanzer envisions Overwatch League as a "forever league" that kicks off this year and never ends, similar to how the NFL and MLB started and have never stopped and never plan to.
- Blizzard will announce details on the Overwatch League prize pools later. They are holding back for now because the prize pool isn’t always what’s most important, Nanzer said, mentioning that people rarely talk about the prize pool for the Super Bowl.
- However, Nanzer did say the Overwatch League prize pool will be "meaningful."
- There were reports about franchise fees of $20 million for the Overwatch League, but Nanzer declined to share any specifics on this.