Built around Blizzard Entertainment’s popular sci-fi shooter game of the same name, the Overwatch League is coming off a successful inaugural season highlighted by strong viewership numbers on streaming giant Twitch, a new broadcast deal with ESPN and its parent company Disney, and a two-day championship event held in front of a near-capacity crowd at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Nets. The league began competitive play in January, generating buzz for a core group of team owners that included traditional sports owners and top brass such as Robert and Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots, Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams and Jeff Wilpon of the New York Mets.
Franchise costs for the first 12 teams were reported at $20 million per team. Team costs for this round of expansion have ranged from $35 million to $60 million, according to reports.
Though the team won’t operate out of Washington for the 2019 season — the league currently holds all regular season matches in Burbank, Calif., and aims to disperse to its local markets in 2020 — the franchise marks another big stride in the District’s continued emphasis on esports. It also anchors one of the video gaming world’s biggest competitive properties to the District, joining the Washington Wizards’ NBA 2K League team, Wizards District Gaming.
“Washington, D.C., is a terrific market for Overwatch,” Pete Vlastelica, CEO of Activision Blizzard’s esports leagues. Vlastelica noted that the league’s list of potential cities for franchises is ranked in part on the number of people who play Overwatch in that region. Washington ranks particularly high by those standards, according to Vlastelica. He also pointed to Ein’s ownership group and the area’s “world-class venues” as a reason the league awarded a franchise to the District.
Ein, who is also invested in aXiomatic Gaming, which operates noted esports franchise Team Liquid, began expansion conversations with the OWL in the spring.
“We were immediately attracted to it,” Ein said. “What Activision Blizzard broadly and [Vlastelica] has done specifically in building out a team at the Overwatch League, he really impressed us, and we believe in what they’re doing and we believe how they were executing on that vision.”
Following the initial discussions, Vlastelica sent a team to the District to meet with Ein’s group and Events DC, which coordinates event logistics for some of the city’s premier venues.
“All of us thought this would be a great opportunity if we could bring it together,” Ein said.
The Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeths, a site constructed in part with esports competition in mind, appears a logical home for the team. The facility is already set to serve as the home to Wizards District Gaming when it opens, and The Post reported in January that Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to bring in another esports team.
Ein, as well as Events DC President and chief executive Gregory O’Dell, said there had been no final agreement for St. Elizabeths to act as the team’s home base and that other sites were under consideration.
“We are certainly hopeful and we’ve certainly talked to the owners about it being a potential site there,” O’Dell said. He later added, “When we built this arena from a technology perspective and the size and scale, this is exactly the sweet spot, and the venue would be perfect for this league.”
Bowser and Events DC have been proactive in positioning Washington as a home for esports and competitive video gaming, a nascent industry enjoying rapid growth that is projected to continue. Market research firm Newzoo projects esports properties to reach a combined value of more than $900 million this year, while Goldman Sachs issued an even more bullish report in June, projecting an audience of 300 million global viewers by 2022.
By investing and supporting an esports infrastructure, the District hopes to attract gaming fans and players as well as competitions. The new Overwatch franchise aligns well with those goals, combining an international city with an international league.
“The thing I find so compelling about this is the global nature of it,” Ein said. “There’s going to be teams in major cities in Asia, major cities in North America and to have our Washington community playing Seoul and Shanghai and Paris and London in a major professional sport. … I think it’s thrilling. Esports has already captured the imagination of so many people in our Washington community, and I think this is going to take that to a completely new level and bring in a huge swath of new people and influence in our region.”