Blizzard’s first-person shooter Overwatch was unquestionably the most popular new game of 2016. The company re-ported 30 million players within the first year of sales, raising over half a billion dollars in revenue. A year and a half on, the game fosters an immensely dedicated fan base. Overwatch-exclusive YouTubers and other content creators spend hours poring over the most minute details of updates to the design, while other fans produce art, write stories, and dress up as their favourite characters. Blizzard, a company that is notoriously conservative with their game design, has found huge success in their first original franchise for 17 years.
One question that faces the company-moving into 2018 is how to sustainably exploit the enthusiasm surrounding the IP. At £29.99, Overwatch is relatively expensive compared to its competition, and doesn’t particularly incentivise multiple purchases. Once players buy the game, there is little reason for them to spend more money. Blizzard currently have few ways of generating additional income off their existing players. This is important if they want the funds to continue to update and maintain their title. Maintaining the game’s popularity as it gets older will also be a challenge. With thousands of shooters released every year, gamers are spoiled for choice regarding what they wish to play.
An entry into competitive gaming solves both of these issues. Once the niche pursuit of tiny online communities, e-sports is now a mainstream multi-billion pound industry. The best players compete in sold-out stadiums across the globe and the largest teams attract colossal followings. Over the last two years, the industry’s explosive growth has reached new heights through investment from American media behemoth Turner Broadcasting and Amazon among others. Viewership is at a record high: 106 million people tuned in to the finals of the League of Legends world championship in 2017. Popular e-Sports titles can generate millions of dollars in revenue for their developers through sale of in-game cosmetic items, or real-life merchandise relating to the gaming teams.
Blizzard announced its Over-watch League (OWL) in November 2016 in an attempt to support the ballooning Overwatch e-Sports scene. The game developer managed to attract an alleged $20 m of team buy-ins from mainstream corporations such as Com-cast Spectacor, the Kraft group, and Stan Kroenke, who currently owns Arsenal. In fact, of the 12 teams in the OWL, at least five owners are completely new to the world of e-Sports. Each team owner has picked a city for their brand to represent. Nine owners chose American cities. The remaining three represent Seoul, South Korea; Shanghai, China; and London, England. Blizzard argue regional teams take advantage of regional pride to grow their fan bases: a lesson learnt from more organic sports leagues like the NFL and the Premier League.
The OWL faces a few initial issues. Firstly, the region selection is completely arbitrary. This is laughably evident in the London Spitfires. They’re owned by North American e-sports organisation Cloud 9. Their two play-er rosters are both entirely South Korean. All games for the inaugural season of the league will be played in Los Angeles, California. These regional differences will pose significant barriers to garnering support from a British audience. The only significant link to the UK for the Spitfires is their name. Other teams face similar representative issues.
Viewership will pose another problem. Previous Overwatch tournaments have lagged behind e-Sport viewership of other popular games like League of Legends or DOTA 2. Blizzard has had trouble translating their enormous playerbase into large viewing numbers. Whether they can successfully do that for the OWL remains to be seen.
So far, Blizzard’s approach has been promising. They have attempted to address viewership concerns by hiring popular broad-casting personalities from other e-sports titles. Auguste ‘Semmler’ Massonatt joined the team as a commentator this week. He brings with him a large following from the Counter Strike scene. Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner has been brought on as an e-sports consultant to the London Spitfires. OWL and its partners have recognised that they need to utilise existing expertise to succeed.
Blizzard plans to fix the problems of shoddy regionalisation by establishing ‘home’ stadiums from which the teams will play each week. I remain sceptical about when these stadiums will materialise: they will take a while to build, and for now, local interest will have to rely on viewing parties. That said, one such party in Boston on Thursday 11 January for the second night showed huge interest and was shared widely on social media. There’s potential to exploit existing regional rivalries too: the Boston/New York conflict has already transcended different sports. With both a Boston and an NY team in the OWL, why not carry it over to Overwatch?
If successful, the OWL represents a cataclysmic change in the size and scope of competitive gaming, and the figures from the first week look promising, reaching as high as 441 000 peak concurrent viewers. Blizzard needs this endeavour to succeed. The eyes of the world are watching.