The Overwatch League’s expansion plans are taking shape as the league welcomed its 13th and 14th teams to the fold Thursday, announcing new franchises in Atlanta and Guangzhou, China. The additions are the first two in what is believed to be a total of six new teams that will begin play in the 2019 season.
The additional franchises continue the rapid growth of the budding esports league, based off the first-person, sci-fi shooter game Overwatch, and expansion signals that investors are not deterred by what was reportedly a high-stakes buy-in. Terms of the franchise sales were not disclosed, but the reported asking price during this round of expansion has been between $30 million and $60 million, according to ESPN.
Cox Enterprises, in partnership with Province Inc., will operate the Atlanta franchise under the name of Atlanta Esports Ventures. Nenking Group, which owns the Guangzhou Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association, will take control of the other new addition. The league’s first 12 teams were sold for a reported $20 million each, attracting established sports owners such as Robert and Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots, Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets, and Jeff Wilpon of the New York Mets, among others.
Expansion plans have long been anticipated for the league. ESPN, which previously reported the additions of the Atlanta and Guangzhou franchises, also reported that a third new franchise, purchased by McCourt Global and former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, would be anchored in Paris.
The OWL is the first major esports league to base its teams in specific cities, though all teams played this past season and will play next season’s matches from an esports arena in Burbank, Calif. The league plans for its franchises to operate from their assigned homes as early as the 2020 season.
Such a format will generate new revenue opportunities for the franchises, including ticket sales and local partnerships, but also will present significant logistical questions given that the league’s footprint already stretches from Shanghai to London. In an interview with The Washington Post ahead of the league’s first Grand Finals last week, OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer said the league would prioritize expansion around the outlying franchises — specifically Asia and Europe — in hopes of mitigating the problems of intercontinental travel.
“As we add more teams, you can see additional divisions being added [to the current two divisions], and you could see a world where teams play most of their games within their division,” Nanzer said. “I think one of our guiding principles, and I think this is a very unique thing about our league, is it is global. So, Shanghai will play San Francisco at least once a year. That’s a cool thing. … But Shanghai will probably play more games against Seoul in the region than they would against San Francisco. … That’s how we will sort of lessen, I guess, the travel burden.”
The addition of a Paris franchise would certainly fit that desire, as would additional franchises in Asia.
Nanzer also said the presence of facilities suitable to host matches would be a factor in the expansion process, just as the availability of a stadium or arena has played an important role in the relocation of teams or expansion into new markets by traditional sports like the NFL, NHL or MLB.
“I think when we announce the new owners, it’s all really impressive groups that have a lot of complementary capabilities,” Nanzer said. “It’s definitely a key thing we look for in potential team owners. You know [Overwatch game publisher Blizzard is] really great, I think, at making games and making compelling esports content. But … we’re not a company that runs local sporting events. That’s where we are looking for owners to bring that capability and bring that expertise on running a venue and a local market and selling tickets and local sponsorships and building a brand. And that’s why we’re really proud of the ownership groups we have. They all have experience doing that in one way or the other, and it’s something we will continue to look for in expansion teams.”
There will be no expansion draft, as seen with the NHL’s recent addition of its Las Vegas-based franchise, the Golden Knights. However, the new teams will have a four-week head start on the existing teams to sign free agents, according to Nanzer. Existing teams were allowed to begin contract extension talks with their players beginning Aug. 1. Any players not extended by Sept. 9 will become free agents and available to the expansion teams only until Oct. 7. The first 12 franchises can begin signing free agents Oct. 8.
“We think the format we have for player selection this year makes a lot of sense and will give new teams first crack at free agents and then go from there,” Nanzer said.
Given the free agency timeline, it is expected any additional expansion franchises will be announced before Sept. 9.
The OWL recently wrapped up its first season with its two-day Grand Finals, won by the London Spitfire. According to an OWL spokesperson, the finals attracted an estimated global average minute audience across both days of 861,205 across all platforms, including live streams and linear broadcasts on ESPN. Of that, 605,013 fell in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, according to the spokesperson.
While the league will resume regular season play in January, Paris will act as one of four host cities for the upcoming Overwatch World Cup, along with Incheon, Los Angeles and Bangkok.
The World Cup begins Aug. 17 with the first of four group stages and culminate Nov. 3 during BlizzCon in Anaheim, Calif.