Today, Activision announced the owners of its Overwatch League, and it has some surprising names on the roster. The League, which will have teams based in cities, has the backing of sports powerhouses including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. Kraft will own the Boston team and Wilpon the New York one. San Francisco’s team will share an owner with the Sacramento Kings. LA’s team has funding from, oddly enough, the Memphis Grizzlies. In short, the Overwatch League has quite a few “traditional” sports powerhouses behind it when it debuts later this year. But will that be enough to push eSports to the next level?
eSports are video games, played at a professional level. The Overwatch League, in this case, is built around Overwatch, a first-person shooter similar to Call of Duty and Doom. Overwatch has the advantage of being backed by Activision Blizzard and its deep pockets, but it also faces a problem in that eSports’ audiences seem to be elusive, at best.
No matter how much traditional sports talking heads may grouse about it, eSports are sports. In order to compete at the highest level, you have to understand the game inside and out; fighting game professionals, for example, have to time their moves in the game right down to a single frame of animation and use subtle audio cues to perfectly time attacks (which takes just as many hours of practice as it would to excel at a physical sport). Mentally speaking, it’s no different from a quarterback picking out a receiver as a linebacker storms towards him or a hockey goalie scanning the ice thinking ahead to when the puck will come his way.
And there’s no denying eSports are incredibly popular. Twitch, the Amazon-owned service dedicated to streaming people playing video games, saw 100 million viewers eat up 80 million hours of eSports content a month. But that makes the struggle of eSports to leap from Twitch stream to television screen all the more baffling. In the first quarter of 2017, no televised eSports competition saw even a quarter of a million viewers, despite the NFL Network, TBS, and ESPN all putting their muscle behind their various programs.
Part of this may be the nature of eSports, which tends to lump very different games together in an awkward fit. Imagine if you tried to watch “football” and found American football, rugby, Canadian football, and soccer all under the same banner — you’d never be entirely sure which you’d be watching when you tuned in the game. Similarly, it’s difficult, if you haven’t played the games yourself, to fully understand just why a team has made a brilliant tactical move or a crucial match-ending blunder. There’s no crack of the bat, no player breaking free from a mass of defenders and sprinting for the goal line, no cue that tells people flipping channels something dramatic is happening.
The Overwatch League clearly hopes to fix all of that. Overwatch is a game designed to pick up and play, although it has some deep tactical depth, and that makes it easier to understand. It’s also a bright, colorful game designed to be as fun to watch as it is to play, and it’s got some very clear objectives audiences can follow: Get a ball to one side of the field, or control one part of the field as long as possible. You don’t have to understand the complexity of the strategy to get a hang of what’s going on.
Similarly, the city-based leagues might help address the other problem eSports are struggling with: The desperate need for distinct, outsize personalities. Sports, on some level, are dramas, and dramas need distinct, similar personalities. eSports doesn’t tend to cultivate public speakers who drop funny one-liners in after-game press conferences, and that’s something the entire industry sorely needs. Pulling talent from a city might help; everyone loves a local hero.
Still, local heroes are made by their own work. The NBA could no more manufacture a second Michael Jordan on demand than it could a spaceship. In the end, eSports are still rolling the dice that a personality like that, wherever he or she may be, will emerge. But it remains the strongest bid yet to bring eSports to the next level.