BURBANK, Calif. — Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Internet hero of a mascot, led a different team — the Philadelphia Fusion — onto the stage at Blizzard Arena Thursday night, marking the start of the Overwatch League’s second season in front of a youthful, diverse, boisterous crowd.
The traditional sports-influenced league learned last year that it can draw fans to this 500-seat venue for regular season games that feature all of its teams — they sold 85 percent of them, according to a league spokesman — and can fill more than 20,000 seats for big-ticket events, such as its multiday finals at the Barclays Center in New York.
But a bigger question looms: Will OWL teams be able to build fan bases in their home cities?
The OWL will continue its efforts to see just how much of an audience, both online and in person, it can attract to follow its professional video game league. The league is pushing ahead boldly, with eight new teams spread around the world as well as three “home stands” across the United States, moving games out of Burbank’s Blizzard Arena.
Overwatch League’s city-affiliation franchise model has since been copied by other esports leagues, including the NBA2K League, which has attached franchises to existing NBA teams. But unlike the NBA’s esports offering, Overwatch does not benefit from existing fan bases and will need to build them organically.
“I think it’s super key, but we also have to be thoughtful about the total global audience,” OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer told The Post last week at media day.
Nanzer minimized the importance of drawing local fans, at least initially, noting that venues will likely be relatively small — think hundreds of seats, not thousands — and that fans will begin supporting teams for reasons beyond geography.
“There’s many million more Overwatch fans around the world that won’t live in one of those cities,” Nanzer said.
Still, several teams have held events in their home markets, and there is a general sense of optimism regarding their ability to attract a local following.
“In the first 90 seconds, 1,500 tickets sold out, and some tickets were priced up to $100,” Arnold Hur, part of the Seoul Dynasty ownership group, said of a recent exhibition held in Korea. He said fans in Seoul were excited by the prospect of having a winning team that competes directly with teams from the United States and China..
“We ran out of capacity,” Tucker Roberts, president of the Philadelphia Fusion, said of his team’s local ticketed event for roughly 400 fans. “We’re just crazy fanatics for sports and esports is no different.” Roberts, a Philadelphia native, is the son of Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers.
The OWL has said previously it planned to relocate its teams by 2020, but Nanzer did not commit to that timetable during his interview with The Post. A league spokesman said the goal is to move teams “as soon as possible.”
A league built for a web audience
Because it’s naturally an online activity with a young audience, the OWL is “equally, if not more” focused on its broadcast, according to Nanzer. This year, all games will be available to watch on the ESPN app as well as Twitch. Select games will also air on ABC and ESPN2, as well as Disney XD. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Part of the challenge of running a new league for a new activity is deciding what kind of show to build around the competition.
“It’s not sports, it’s not entertainment, it’s both,” OWL Senior Supervising Producer Frank LaSpina said during a tour of Blizzard Arena last week.
The Overwatch League runs weekly development meetings, akin to a Hollywood TV show writers room, where story lines for players and upcoming matches are discussed and then sent to production staff.
Some of the key executors of highlighting those story lines are so-called “observers” who act as the equivalent of cameramen during matches. In front of a wall of displays in a studio backstage, this team of six is tasked with making split-second decisions about which characters to show during matches.
“We try to attach to the story but also love new narratives,” LaSpina said.
One of the observers said the biggest thing he learned last season was to trust his team.
“If you think you can catch it all, you’ve already failed,” Craig Whitfield said. The game features a frantic pace and 12 players’ characters.
The production team, roughly 80 people, will send out 30 video feeds this season, allowing fans who have purchased a special pass on Twitch to step select their preferred camera angles during matches.
But even on its native platform, Overwatch League is playing catch-up against more established games and events. Its playoffs peaked at 1.2 million concurrent viewers. League of Legends peaked at 99.6 million unique viewers, with a peak of 44, according to Riot Games.
The OWL’s playoffs last year did not crack the top 100 events for concurrent viewers online, according to stats published by industry analytics agency Esports Charts. It trailed events featuring Fortnite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Hearthstone (also made by Blizzard), and even other non-OWL Overwatch tournaments.
Thursday’s matches hit a peak viewership of 1.55 million overall, 1.25 million of whom were in China, according to Esports Charts.
Its TV broadcasts did not fare much better, with last season’s finals netting only a 0.18 Nielsen rating, or an estimated 215,280 households, for its Friday night broadcast. That was 20 percent worse than a boxing event televised the previous week, as first reported by Sports Business Journal.
In addition to weak viewership numbers, Activision Blizzard announced it would lay off close to 800 employees, despite record profits, which still fell below company expectations, according to Bobby Kotick on an earnings call this week.
The silver lining for Overwatch League is that the company announced plans to focus more on its financially successful games and esports, including Overwatch, and will be hiring more employees to support those games.
Along with gaining new personnel, another positive development for the OWL has been its ability to lure nongaming industry sponsors such as Toyota, Coca-Cola and T-Mobile, as well as a partnership with sports apparel retailer Fanatics.
A diverse player pool
Adding to the league’s potential reach are its diverse players, who hail from 22 countries. South Koreans account for more than half the league.
Some, such as Scott “Custa” Kennedy and Indy “Space” Halpern, talk like traditional athletes and evince a familiar kind of restlessness to compete in this new season, born in part from a disappointing playoff loss last year.
“We learned not to get complacent,” said Halpern. “You can always do more work.”
For others, there was the giddy enthusiasm to being in the big leagues.
“I’ve never played Contenders or Overwatch-level [in front of a crowd] so I’m actually not sure what it’s like,” said Ethan “Stratus” Yankel, 17, who won’t be eligible to play for the Washington Justice until he turns 18 at the end of the month.
“I’m super excited,” Yankel said.
Most players and coaches said that though they are committed to winning games, they want to grow the sport.
“Every player, every coach, should consider themselves an ambassador,” said Kwangbok Kim, coach of the defending champion London Spitfire.
For the Shanghai Dragons, who finished 0-40, the mission is more focused.
“They [the players] are only focused on winning,” said Dragons Manager Yang Van. A team from China did win for the first time in the OWL Thursday night, but that honor went to the expansion Hangzhou Spark, who defeated the Dragons.
As OWL continues marching into a world of its own creation, and fights to engage new audiences with a complicated game to watch and understand, Nanzer and his team is banking that an army of gamers is already out there, even if many of those gamers might not be aware of it yet.
“Video games is the most mainstream thing imaginable,” said Nanzer.
“There’s probably people who read The Washington Post who would never call themselves a gamer but they play Clash Royale [a mobile video game] for seven hours a week. Newsflash, you’re a gamer,” he said, laughing.
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