[toc]The arrival of Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League is imminent, and the effects are sure to reverberate across the esports landscape.
There has been much debate about the much-anticipated league. Some fans believe Activision-Blizzard is jumping the gun, demanding $20 million or more for rights to own franchises and setting expectations astronomically high for a game that has yet to establish a consistent viewership.
Others are excited to see the traditional sports franchise model brought to esports, and to have teams to call their own, based in their own backyards.
Whether it works spectacularly, struggles mightily, or falls somewhere between, there’s no doubting that the effects will be dramatic. But just who are the owners bringing the first Overwatch League teams to life. And where will fans be able to follow players locally?
There are nine confirmed teams so far:
One of the most prominent early investors in Overwatch League has been Robert Kraft, Chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group.
Kraft’s strong background in sports franchise ownership aligns well with Activision-Blizzard’s goals with Overwatch League. He is the principal owner of both the NFL’s New England Patriots and MLS’ New England Revolution. His success as an owner of the Patriots has made him one of the more prominent members of that league.
Kraft has made media appearances alongside Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick promoting the new league with mainstream media outlets. His contribution has lended immediate credibility to the league. Kraft’s investment stands as likely the most important yet secured.
Overwatch New York City
New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon will control the league’s New York City franchise.
Like Kraft, Wilpon has a strong background in franchise ownership in the traditional sports models that Activision-Blizzard is attempting to emulate. Wilpon also has a background in investments. He is a co-founder of and partner in Sterling VC, a venture capital group based in New York.
Wilpon has received occasional criticism during his tenure with the Mets for meddling overly much in team affairs rather than letting his baseball-minded employees make the decisions. It’s doubtful this will carry over to a young esports franchise.
Overwatch Los Angeles
Continuing the trend of traditional sports franchise owners getting involved in Overwatch League, one of the league’s two Los Angeles franchise allocations was delivered to Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. That company owns stakes in six professional sports franchises including the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and football club Arsenal.
Owners Stan and Josh Kroenke will oversee the team. The Kroenke family stirred some controversy in moving another of their holdings, the Rams NFL franchise, from St. Louis to Los Angeles. The move will provide some geographic symmetry with the new Overwatch team. However, fans may feel a bit wary some years down the line that their franchise’s owners have wandering eyes.
Overwatch LA (again)
Also in Los Angeles will be a team headed up by Noah Winston, CEO of the Immortals esports organization. (AEG, owner of LA Live, is an investor in Immortals.)
One early criticism of Overwatch has been that Activision-Blizzard’s practices have alienated traditional esports organizations and team owners. The company has managed to maintain some endemic ties, however, as Winston’s presence shows.
What will be interesting is how owners like Winston attempt to tie established branding into the new franchises. Activision-Blizzard has made it clear that Overwatch League teams must have original branding unique to the team in its new home.
This means it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing the LA Immortals, though Winston and his associates may pursue other means to maintain brand synergy.
Overwatch San Francisco
The league’s San Francisco location will be headed up by an owner with roots in both esports and traditional sports in Andy Miller. Miller is a co-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings franchise. More recently he helped to found the NRG Esports organization.
Like Winston, Miller will face the challenge of establishing a new brand presence while attempting to maintain the brand strength of the broader organization he owns. Miller will at least have the advantage of having San Francisco all to himself, while Winston will be forced to share space with the Kroenke family.
The last of the American franchises already delivered will be an exception in that it will cover two cities, Miami and Orlando.
The metro areas are closely linked in South Florida. So long as Overwatch League is played locally in California, fans in either city will equally be able to enjoy their team. Things might get a little thornier when it comes time to build a physical arena in Florida somewhere between the two sunny locations.
The owner is Ben Spoont, owner of the Misfits esports organization through Esports Now LLC, which is in nearby Boca Raton.
The most controversial franchise decision thus far has been the handing of the London franchise to Jack Etienne.
As the owner of the Cloud9 esports organization, Etienne has built a reputation as being one of the leaders among owners in the esports industry, particularly in the United States. Cloud9 has traditionally fielded American teams, often some of the best that the country has to offer.
Making his ownership of a franchise in England even more strange is that Sam Mathews, founder and chairman of popular esports organization Fnatic, publicly expressed his frustration on Twitter with Etienne’s ownership. Mathews implied that Fnatic should have been given priority on the spot, given that the organization is in London.
Mathews’ annoyance provided a window into a negotiation process that appears not to be inclusive to all interested parties, even those as established as the chair of one of the world’s biggest esports brands. It’s unlikely that any of this will affect the London franchise in the long run, but it certainly makes for an inauspicious debut.
Moving to Asia, Activision-Blizzard announced that its first franchise in China would be in Shanghai. Internet technology company NetEase, headquartered in Beijing, will own the franchise.
Esports fans may not immediately recognize the NetEase name, but it’s a company that has an established working relationship with Activision-Blizzard. NetEase operates a number of Blizzard’s online games in China, including Hearthstone, StarCraft 2 and World of Warcraft.
This association likely provided a clear path for NetEase to claim the first Chinese Overwatch team, and offered Activision-Blizzard a comfortable choice of partner.
Rounding out the list of franchises is a team to in Seoul, South Korea. At the helm will be Kevin Chou, former CEO of mobile gaming company Kabam. Chou made a reasonable fortune from the growth and sale of Kabam. He has since founded KSV Esports International to direct one of the debut Overwatch League franchises.
Expectations will be high for Chou and the management team he puts into place to run his team. The bar has always been high for Korean esports teams and players, thanks in large part to an earlier social acceptance of esports in Korea and the strong early infrastructure that resulted from it.
Korean teams have consistently been among the world’s best in the infant days of Overwatch. Anything less than that moving forward will likely be considered a disappointment for fans in South Korea.
At least one other team is in the works, according to ESPN.
Team EnVyUs will own a franchised based in Texas, spanning Austin and Dallas. ESPN reported the team’s likely existence in August; no official word about it has come yet. (The league announced the second LA team and the team in London since this report.)
EnVyUs was one of the earliest teams in Overwatch, so it’s no surprise it will take part in the fledgling league.
According to the league, the “latest new owners won’t be the last,” so it’s possible the league gets to a dozen or more.
What it all means for Overwatch League
There’s no doubt that the Overwatch League will have a profound effect on the esports industry. Those effects will certainly be felt at the top as owners attempt to discern the best spots in the marketplace to invest. But fans of the game and interested bettors will also feel these effects.
Overwatch League will bring with it a consistency that Overwatch has not yet seen before. It will allow fans to follow their favorite players and teams from game to game.
It’s a big risk that Activision-Blizzard is taking, but the rewards are plain to see. And no matter how things pan out for Overwatch League, fans will benefit from all the games and the opportunities that come with them.