I find myself in an interesting position when discussing Overwatch League (OWL). Either a person knows exactly what I am talking about or has absolutely no idea. So, I wrote this blog to help a person unfamiliar with OWL understand why it is important for esports and the issues surrounding the league. For the person familiar with OWL, I hope it enables us to think critically about OWL and what it means for the game. Without further ado, here are the seven questions about OWL.

What is Overwatch League?

OWL is a professional, global esports league for the video game Overwatch. The video game was created and released on May 24th, 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment (Blizzard). Overwatch is six vs. six team first person shooter with 27 different heroes, each with different roles and abilities. Teams work together to capture, push, attack, or defend an objective to win. Overwatch requires individual skill, strategy, teamwork, and communication to succeed. On October 17th, 2017, Blizzard reported over 35-million registered players across the globe. The league is owned and operated by Blizzard and composed of 12 city-based teams that compete in a set schedule ending with play-offs to decide the winner of the $1-million-dollar championship prize.

Blizzard Arena
The Blizzard Arena in Burbank California. All Overwatch League games take place here Wednesday through Saturday. Source

Most professional esports teams compete in tournaments, similar to how golfers compete in the PGA. OWL takes a leap forward by modeling OWL after traditional sports leagues like the NHL. Each team reportedly paid a $20-million-dollar franchise fee to be a part of OWL. However, esport and traditional sport industry leaders and corporations have teams in OWL. A Blizzard press release notes owners include Robert Kraft, owner of New England Patriots; and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owners of Arsenal F.C. and the Los Angeles Rams. Since launch, OWL has surpassed Blizzard’s expectations, with title sponsors by HP, Intel, Toyota, T-Mobile and Sour Patch Kids, a reported $90-million-dollar broadcasting rights deal with Twitch, and over 54-million Twitch views since the league’s launch in January. In their last earnings call, Blizzard expectations were for OWL to be profitable in its first season and add teams for the next season, even with the reported 500-million-dollar investment made by Blizzard.

Why is Overwatch League Succeeding?

One reason is OWL broadcasts are faced paced, exciting, and entertaining to watch. While there is a learning curve to watching OWL, it doesn’t take long to figure out what is happening thanks to the live broadcasting talent that breaks down the game and the strategy behind each team. At half-time, desk analysts further break down important plays from the first half and help viewers understand what each team needs to do to achieve victory. As OWL league player, Andre “iddqd” Dahlstrom stated in an interview with IGN:

“OWL has done a really smart job drawing from traditional sports because it makes it easier to watch and cheer for teams… Its way easier to watch and care about a game between Boston and Dallas than Cloud9 and Fanatic (previous teams not part of OWL). Blizzard did a good job letting viewers latch onto games they would not really care about.”

In other words, by blurring the line between esports and traditional sports broadcasts, OWL allows for a mainstream audience to watch esports and be a part of the league. From a viewer’s perspective, OWL is entertaining and is like watching any other sports. But, OWL still draws characteristics of Twitch streams, which have been an important part of facilitating online community and interactions with content creators, video-game players, and esports culture (Sjöblom & Hamari, 2017, p. 986). OWL uses features familiar to followers of esports broadcasts to cater to the devoted audience of Overwatch esports before the formation of OWL.

From a business perspective, OWL is succeeding because Blizzard attracted the necessary outside investment by modeling OWL after traditional sports leagues, which minimized the economic risks. Blizzard modeled the league so teams earn money based on advertising and sponsorship revenue instead of prize money. In an interview from Sporttechie, NRG CEO, Andy Miller (owner of the San Francisco Shock) commentated:

“The previous (esports) model was much like the Pro Golf Association (PGA), you can spend a bunch of money to get a team, hopefully your team does well and you get a share of the prize money. There’s no stability, you don’t own anything. Someone could come in next month with more money and buy your players out. With Overwatch, you can build into the future.”

Miller reveals the OWL allows for revenue streams that are stable and makes traditional sports leagues so valuable. This means OWL is more in tune to making decisions that is best for generating advertising revenue. Already, the league’s broadcasts feature 3-minute breaks between game rounds, which is an obvious place for advertisements in the near future. Moreover, as the league continues to grow, OWL will lead the way in combining traditional sports revenues and esports revenue, thought to be a rich a diverse market to profit from (Lee & Schoenstedt, 2011, p. 40). Unfortunately, the more stable and familiar streams of revenue have involved a handful of corporations into OWL, something that has not necessarily been to the benefit of traditional sports (Corrigan, 2014, p. 45).

In an interview with Bloomberg, Robert Kraft believed OWL was a good investment because it provided him access to a “global audience and market.” OWL and Overwatch may be increasingly manipulated by these large, powerful, and deep pocketed corporations to change Overwatch community into a community based on market relations rather than peer-to-peer relations. Thus, the community that around Overwatch may transform into a consumption-orientated space rather than a space of recreation and friendly competition. This is something that traditional sports leagues have been attempting for a long time and has led to corporations transforming sporting communities into a commercial enterprise (Friedman & Andrews, 2007, p. 186). Traditionally, video games profited on the video game being purchased, but OWL may show corporations can create a video game to create an audience and to sell to advertisers. OWL may be seeing the blending and combining the economics of the gaming and sport broadcasting industry for the benefit of corporations, not for gamers or viewers.

How Does OWL Usher Esports into the Mainstream?

Because of the investment by industry leaders in traditional sport teams in OWL, they have a significant economic reason to promote OWL to mainstream audiences. If more people watch and consume OWL products, the more money they will make. Blizzard has also spent a fortune on marketing the league. Additionally, many OWL teams have been featured and promoted by traditional sports teams. The Philadelphia Fusion were featured on the Philadelphia Flyers’ twitter and hockey boards. New York Excelsior confirmed Jong-yeol ‘Saebyeolbe’ Park will throw the first pitch at an upcoming New York Mets game. Two Houston Outlaw players, Jake ‘Jake’ Lyon and Shane ‘Rawkus’ Flaherty were interviewed on the Today Show with Megyn Kelly. Both NBC and the Houston Outlaws are owned by the same parent company, it still thrusts OWL into mainstream audiences.

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Shane ‘Rawkus’ Flaherty (left) and Jake ‘Jake’ Lyon (middle) being interviewed by Megyn Kelly. Source

Additionally, because OWL looks and feels like a traditional sport, it feels less foreign to viewers not familiar with Overwatch. As Patrick Shanely from The Hollywood Reporter stated in his review of OWL, “As the match wore on…I found myself actually rooting for my home team. Why? Perhaps because I like screaming at screens, but I like to believe it’s because a competitive spirit was clearly on display.” Shanely goes onto describe that he enjoyed watching the game because it “felt” like a real sport and competition (2018). The significant investment into OWL made it possible for the league to be familiar to a wider audience.

Another important aspect is OWL provides a governing body for Overwatch esports, in which Blizzard controls and dictates the rules of the game, rules of the league, codes of conduct, media releases and access, and the daily operations of the league and game. Often, esports lacks a formal, governing body, which makes it difficult for it to be identified as a ‘professional sport’ (Hallmann & Giel, 2018, p. 16). With OWL, Blizzard acts as a governing body and further legitimizes esports as viable competition for mainstream audiences and participants.

What Precedent Does OWL set for Esports?

OWL sets a precedent for companies creating video games with esports potential. Simply, Blizzard is demonstrating that a company can both own the video game and the professional league to earn money on both ends. Esports products have seen increased control over the development, distribution, maintenance, and continued creation by a single company (Karhulahti, 2017, p. 46). This gives the company more control and power over the products they create and the community that plays the game, all while increasing the potential profit of esports products (Karhulahti, 2017, p. 46).

In the case of OWL, Blizzard controls the game Overwatch and OWL and uses their position to maximize profitable by creating products and incentives for players to watch OWL broadcasts. Currently, ‘cheering’ 600 Twitch ‘bits’ will earn you in game hero skins and watching the broadcast will earn you OWL Tokens to purchase in game team skins. While seemingly harmless, content is being created so a player of Overwatch will watch OWL broadcast. The Overwatch development team may be creating content that will increase OWL viewership that may have otherwise been free.

Just recently, an Overwatch game update, the ‘Overwatch Retribution’ was incorporated into OWL broadcasts. This means that fans of the game must watch an OWL broadcast to learn about the game and to stay up to date. It seems increasingly that the lines between the league and the video game are being blurred by Blizzard. In other words, OWL is the first major step in converging gaming and sports together.

Kaplan
Lead Designer of Overwatch, Jeff Kaplan (left) being interviewed in between games to announce the limited time event ‘Overwatch Retribution’ . Source

While this is not an issue for many players, its assumed Blizzard will remain a benevolent corporation. But research is demonstrating the convergence of gaming and sports increases market and social control over the community of players which generates huge amounts of revenue for one company (Macey & Hamari, 2018, p. 345). While some may argue that the convergence is a good as it allows game developers to create more in-game content for ‘free,’ I would argue that converging the league and the video game makes in-game content contingent on OWL’s success. Additionally, now in-game content and patches may be heavily influenced by the league in order to maximize revenue, not because it necessarily good or needed for the game.

How Does OWL Legitimize Players as Athletes and Professionals?

In previous esports tournaments and leagues, players were treated more like mercenaries than athletes and professionals as in traditional sports. OWL changed this by governing the relations between players and team owners. Teams pay a minimum salary of $50,000-US-dollars, be given fifty percent of prize-pool winnings, provide health insurance, retirement savings plans, housing, and must cover transportation costs for all their players and coaching staff, and practice facilities for their players according to the league. Many teams provide meal plans, trainers, mental health professionals, and have dedicated media teams for their players and coaching staff. This is an important step in legitimizing the OWL as a professional competition and the players as professionals, as treating the players as athletes in traditional sports legitimizes their careers and professionalizes the esports players (Keiper, Manning, Jenny, Olrich, & Croft, 2017, p. 252).

However, while OWL legitimizes players as professionals, it also gives Blizzard power and control over the players lives. Furthermore, many of these players are community spokespersons for the game and their role is now hampered as they are now employees of Blizzard. This is nothing new to traditional sports leagues, as many teams silence players and media into criticizing their respective league and team’s management (Corrigan, 2014, p. 44). In some cases this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the league has punished players for racist or homophobic slurs and remarks.

But players in OWL may have trouble being critical of their employer and working conditions. Unlike other professional sports leagues, OWL players do not have union. In an interview with OverwatchWire, Jake ‘Jake’ Lyon commented that many of his fellow players in OWL do not see the need for a union because Blizzard is “ahead of the curve” and is “treating them well,” he fears that a union will be formed reactively when there is a clear abuse or issue with Blizzard. Time will tell if his fears will become reality or not. Interestingly, many on Reddit fear that Blizzard is taking most of the merchandising revenue and players are not being fairly compensated in comparison to other sport leagues.

What Other Stuff Would You Like to Mention But Don’t Have the Word Count For?

Where do I begin? OWL has already seen controversies around issues of race, sexuality, gender, and working conditions. Blizzard is already pushing narratives that anyone can become a professional OWL player, even though there are economic, political, cultural, social, race, and gendered issues preventing players from playing in OWL. The first female player, Seyeon ‘Geguri’ Kim, in OWL made her debut on April 4th, something that needs proper analysis and discussion of its importance for OWL and esports.

Geguri
Seyeon ‘Geguri’ Kim of the Shanghai Dragons. She is the fist female player in the Overwatch League. Source

There is a rich treasure trove of media Blizzard has produced that we need to be critical to address who is being excluded from Overwatch and OWL. I could go on, but. I think you get the point. What your reading is just the tip if the iceberg.

Well Now What?

That’s a good question. I don’t really know. While researching for this post I found little information from academics, journalists, and bloggers about the economics, ownership, and power structures of esports. OWL is a new venture for both Blizzard and for gamers. As I said in the beginning, we need to be more critical and have an understanding of the underlying ownership and economic structures that drive Overwatch and OWL. I want OWL and esports to succeed and lead the way in the sports industry for inclusion, player rights, diversity, and entertainment. But we need to understand what goes on behind the veil of entertainment to push Blizzard to have the best esports league on the globe. Maybe that’s where we ought to start.

 

Title Image Source.

Sources:

Corrigan, T. F. (2014). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. In A. C. Billings & M. Hardin (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media (pp. 43–54). New York: Routledge.

Friedman, M. T., & Andrews, D. L. (2007). The built sport spectacle and the opacity of democracy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(2), 181–2014.

Hallmann, K., & Giel, T. (2018). esports – Competitive sports or recreational activity? Sport Management Review, 21(1), 14–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2017.07.011

Karhulahti, V.-M. (2017). Reconsidering Esport: Economics and Executive Ownership. Physical Culture and Sport. Studies and Research, 74(1). https://doi.org/10.1515/pcssr-2017-0010

Keiper, M. C., Manning, R. D., Jenny, S., Olrich, T., & Croft, C. (2017). No reason to LoL at LoL: the addition of esports to intercollegiate athletic departments. Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, 11(2), 143–160. https://doi.org/10.1080/19357397.2017.1316001

Lee, D., & Schoenstedt, L. (2011). Comparison of esports and Traditional Sports Consumption Motives. Journal of Research in Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport & Dance, 6(2), 39–44.

Macey, J., & Hamari, J. (2018). Investigating relationships between video gaming, spectating esports, and gambling. Computers in Human Behavior, 80, 344–353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.11.027

Shanley, P. (2018, January 10). Overwatch League Proves Video Games Really Aren’t a Waste of Time. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/overwatch-league-maybe-video-games-arent-a-waste-time-1073863

Sjöblom, M., & Hamari, J. (2017). Why do people watch others play video games? An empirical study on the motivations of Twitch users. Computers in Human Behavior, 75, 985–996. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.10.019

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