Blizzard was one of the first video game studios ever to experience esports success with the original StarCraft in the late '90s and early 2000s. Now the company has truly embraced the new competitive medium, with huge esports programs centered around StarCraft 2, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone and even World of Warcraft.
It's no surprise, then, that the developer is planning a similar esports rollout for its new competitive shooter, Overwatch. The company revealed plans today for what it's calling Overwatch League, and they look quite different (and quite a bit more ambitious) than anything else currently running in esports.
Blizzard global director of Overwatch esports Nate Nanzer told Polygon that the developer has three main pillars that it used in planning the Overwatch League: consistency, stability and accessibility.
Unlike several esports organizations, such as Riot's League of Legends Championship Series, Overwatch League will feature permanent teams. Games like League of Legends and, beginning next year, Blizzard's own Heroes of the Storm use a complicated system of promotion and relegation.
In this system, a team that's in the league one year may lose its spot if it performs poorly and be replaced by a younger team. While relegation and promotion make for good drama, they also lead to instability that can frustrate or scare away team owners and fans.
"Promotion and relegation is really exciting and awesome in European football, where you have 120 years of history and eight divisions in every country," said Blizzard executive vice president of corporate operations Gio Hunt. "Overwatch is a brand new game and a brand new ecosystem. We think having permanent spots for teams is really going to give team owners confidence — and not just team owners, but media partners, sponsors, everyone that's going to be involved in the Overwatch League."
"You can't just build the top of the pyramid"
As for who those team owners will be, Nanzer said that prospective owners "across both existing esports organizations and traditional sports owners" have been invited to this weekend's BlizzCon event to learn more about Overwatch League.
Blizzard is also looking to give fans consistency in schedule, which for them means a shorter but more exciting and reliable season. An abbreviated first season of Overwatch League will begin in 2017 — Nanzer said the company is "targeting a start for the season around Q3" — but beginning in 2018, Overwatch League will run regularly through spring and summer with finals in August. Unlike many esports, including others from Blizzard, Overwatch League will recognize a lengthy off-season each year during fall and winter months.
"An off-season is really important and something that's missing in a lot of esports," said Nanzer. "You have this 12-month calendar, and we've heard from teams and players that an off-season would be a welcome addition. The other thing an off-season allows us to do is to make sure that there's a third-party ecosystem that exists outside of the Overwatch League. While the Overwatch League is the pinnacle of competitive Overwatch, we want to make sure that there's a robust ecosystem outside of that. You can't just build the top of the pyramid. You have to have the whole pyramid, right?"
A local hook
In considering how to build a new esport organization with long-term economic stability, Blizzard took cues from traditional sports. Most notably, Overwatch League will run city-based teams, encouraging a local groundswell of fans, greater merchandising opportunities and the ability to run matches across many different cities.
"You typically see fans of esports teams are fans of individual players, and then they kind of stick with that team over time," Nanzer said. "But we think there's an opportunity to bring in people who are interested in esports but maybe haven't engaged much with it by adding that geographic element. If you look at the way that teams make money in traditional sports, a lot of that has to do with local activity. When we think about adding stability to esports and to esports teams, we think localizing esports to some degree by having the city-based teams is going to unlock additional revenue opportunities for teams that don't exist in today's esports ecosystem."
While Blizzard has invited existing esports teams that already have their own established names and brands to consider being part of the Overwatch League, Nanzer said the developer hasn't made any firm decisions on how that would tie into local team branding.
"Nobody talks about what the prize pool is for the World Cup or the Super Bowl"
And in spite of city-based teams usually being more region-focused, Nanzer promised Overwatch League would stick with the esports norm in terms of shooting to be a global league with competition from all over the world.
"We've heard from our fans and esports fans more broadly that what they love most about esports is global competition," he said. "We want to make sure that we're delivering as much of that as we can. We're not going to be sharing a lot of details around the specific schedule right now, but that's definitely our vision, to create a global league with lots of global competition that has cities representing every region in the world."
Blizzard is also chasing stability in how its players are compensated. While the developer promises an expected seven-digit prize pool for Overwatch League, it hopes to turn the conversation away from prize pools and toward more mature and long-term signs of a sports league's success. For example, Blizzard plans to implement a guaranteed minimum salary for players and to require that team owners give them full benefits. The studio has also looked into starting a college fund for players, acknowledging that many esports competitors are young, and most won't stay involved with esports forever.
"Nobody talks about what the prize pool is for the World Cup or the prize pool for the Super Bowl," said Hunt. "Everybody knows that the athletes are very well compensated. They get bonuses for winning the World Series or the Super Bowl, but it's not where the emphasis is in terms of the compensation. That's because a much more stable ecosystem for players and athletes is where they have contracts and guaranteed compensation and benefits and everything else. That's more along the lines of the approach that we're taking."
The path to pro
The final pillar of Overwatch's esports plans is all about making sure there's a clear path from becoming a regular hardcore player to a professional. Blizzard isn't revealing a ton of details on this now, but it has mentioned one huge part of the pathway to pro play: a "first-of-its-kind esports combine."
In traditional sports leagues like the NFL, a combine is a once-a-year opportunity for amateur (usually college) players to showcase their talents to coaches and team owners looking to fill out their teams for the next season. Players seek to impress these would-be employers by performing specific tests that showcase their skills at the sport in question.
According to Nanzer, Overwatch's combine will operate in much the same way.
"We're going to put players through tests that will determine if they'll be an excellent Overwatch player," he said. "We think that's a really cool way to give a very clear path."
"We're making lots of quality of life improvements"
Invites to the combine will be determined by multiple factors, including performance on the game's ranked ladder as well as placement in third-party or amateur tournaments outside of the Overwatch League. Blizzard sees that as one way in which third-party tournaments will continue to be extremely important to the game even as it focuses on its own developer-run league.
Another aspect of accessibility will be making Overwatch esports broadcasts more, well, watchable. Nanzer said Blizzard has already done a lot of work on the game's spectate and broadcast features and has plans to continue tweaking and improving them as the launch of Overwatch League nears.
"We're still iterating on that," he said. "We're still making improvements. We actually just implemented a smooth camera system and static camera bookmarking. We're exploring things like adding team colors. We just recently added team names. We're making lots of quality of life improvements right now."
While the Overwatch League will not kick off until at least Q3 of 2017, the game has already seen a number of third-party and fan-run esports tournaments popping up. Nanzer noted that the quality of broadcast talent for these tournaments has improved at an extremely fast rate for such a young game, including drawing in established shoutcasting talent from other esports titles.
While Overwatch League is still a ways off, you can catch a glimpse of what competitive Overwatch looks like at BlizzCon today and tomorrow as the Overwatch World Cup tournament wraps up. Rather than pulling in existing teams, this tournament saw some of the best players from each region thrown together to represent their countries. Russia, Spain, France, Finland, South Korea, the United States, China and Sweden will face off to determine who has the most talented Overwatch players.