Owl Case Study: Can an esport be created?
This week is all about the Overwatch League (OWL), which launches its inaugural regular season tomorrow. OWL is more than a year in the making, and is the result of massive efforts from Bobby Kotick (Activision CEO), Nate Nanzer (OWL Commissioner), and the entire Blizzard-Activision team. OWL is the first franchised esports league—though it has since been joined by the North American League of Legends Championship Series. The team ownership groups include long-standing, endemic esports teams like Cloud9 (London Spitfire) and Team EnVyUs (Dallas Fuel), as well as major figures from the world of traditional sports, including Robert Kraft (Boston Uprising), Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles Gladiators), and Fred Wilpon (New York Excelsior). Each team paid a franchise fee of $20 million. The league has already announced major sponsorship deals with Intel and HP, inked a broadcasting deal with Twitch for seasons 1 and 2, and it’s just getting started.
A lot will be written about OWL this week, and rightfully so. But among the many topics that the launch of OWL brings to the fore, I find myself focusing on one of the fundamental debates within the esports industry: can an esport be made? The historical, conventional wisdom among esports industry insiders is that an esport cannot be made or forced; esports are the product of organic growth and community involvement. This isn’t to say that a publisher does not play a pivotal role in the evolution of an esport, but the starting point must be community members deciding to organize competitions, form teams, and watch the events… or so the story goes.
Overwatch is doing things a little differently. Though the game is only a year and a half old, Blizzard didn’t wait for esports to take hold organically—OWL has been part of the plan since the word go. Over the past year, Blizzard has does as much to enhance the viewing experience as it has the playing experience. Every team in the league has custom skins to help viewers better identify who is on which team while watching. Every skill in the game has been skinned in the spectator mode for a similar effect. New camera angles have been added. OWL matches are also being promoted in the game client, and Blizzard is even giving each player one team skin in order to promote OWL fandom throughout the community.
Instead of community-driven, this is publisher-created. Instead of organic growth, this is beginning with the NBA of esports. Now the question is, will it work? If it does, and I think it will, this will fundamentally shape how game publishers approach esports in the decades to come.
5 Things the Overwatch League Got Right Pre Launch
With the highly anticipated launch of the Overwatch League tomorrow, we take a look at what they got right in pre launch.
Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League kicks off its inaugural season tomorrow, Wednesday January 10. Here are 5 things OWL got right in the lead-up to it’s first ever season.
- Pre-season. Operating a technically flawless and uniquely exciting esports broadcasts is no easy feat. Long technical timeouts during esports tournaments are all too common and hurt audience retention. Blizzard’s announcement and execution of a short pre-season — to introduce fans to the viewing experience, stadium setup, and spectator tools — helped the OWL team do a broadcast dry run while not compromising the competitive integrity of the league.
- Merchandise. Merch from the league and from individual teams is available now on the OWL website. Creating and — more importantly — standardizing the merchandise available creates an air of professionalism for the league which is sorely lacking in esports. Jerseys ($60), t-shirts ($25), hats ($35), keychains ($10) and lanyards ($6) provide fans opportunities to support their favorite team at varying price points.
- Broadcast Talent. The full list of OWL broadcast talent was announced yesterday and includes a mix of some of the biggest names in esports and a bevy of up-and-comers. By nabbing personalities such as Semmler, Crumbs, and Chris Puckett — who have made their names in other games — OWL is widening their possible fan base and tipping the hat to the esports ecosystem that helped bring it to life. All this talent is in addition to my personal favorite casting duo in esports — a duo which is often considered to be the best — Monte and Doa.
- Arena. Have you seen the Blizzard arena? It looks phenomenal. An engaging in-person experience is critical even if the league is ultimately digital first, and OWL clearly agrees. Expect beautiful sweeping jib shots to dominate tomorrow’s debut broadcast.
- Promotion. OWL has been aggressively advertising the launch of the league both digitally and through traditional media. A billboard showcasing the Dallas Fuel is on display in their home city – pushing tune in to the league’s launch. The league’s social handles have been promoting excellent tune-in content such as this gif and this video featuring every team’s branding with a universally clean look.
I’ll be tuning in this Wednesday to see how OWL’s debut fares and based on the quality of product being presented ahead of the season’s launch, I’m optimistic that OWL can set a new standard for production, promotion, and partnerships across the esports industry.
The NBA 2K League player qualification process has begun
On new years eve, NBA 2K officially launched the qualification process for the NBA 2K League. Required information to sign up included:
- First name
- Last name
- Email address
- Gamer Tag
- Favorite NBA Team
The NBA 2K League Qualifiers will run from January 1st to January 31 and will require players to win 50 games in NBA 2K18’s Pro-Am and to complete the online application by January 31st. Everyone who completes the above requirements will move on to tryouts in February with the draft culminating in March.
Applicants must be at least 18 years old.
With this announcement, the NBA 2K qualification is officially underway.
Overall I really like this qualification process. Outside of the minimum age requirement, anyone with NBA 2K has a chance to be in the NBA 2K League and this open opportunity will further increase engagement and community around 2K.
As this process continues and the league continues to develop, ancillary platforms will emerge to complement the league infrastructure. We are already seeing Forbes (specifically contributor Brian Mazique) emerging as the prominent publication for player scouting reports, tournament recaps, and general user guidance. It will be interesting to see what other platforms decide to commit resources to covering the NBA 2K League (will ESPN Esports add the NBA 2K League to their core coverage of LoL, Overwatch, CS:GO, and DOTA 2?) Much of this will depend on the viewership and general fan interest but the NBA 2K League is off to a strong start with their transparent and open qualification process that looks to engage a widespread group of users.