The most anticipated esports league is rounding into shape.
That's because the groups running the NFL champion New England Patriots and baseball's New York Mets will own two of seven teams participating in the official league based off the popular video game, developer Blizzard Entertainment said Wednesday.
The Overwatch League, which will likely start sometime this fall, will have a global feel to it. In addition to teams in Boston and New York, there will be franchises in San Francisco, Los Angeles and esports hotbeds Shanghai, China and Seoul, South Korea.
Currently, the only established major esports leagues featuring the team-based Overwatch are in China and South Korea.
"We're excited to be working with leaders from esports and traditional sports to create the sport of the future," Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said in a statement.
Esports have become a major industry, as some of the top gamers around the world battle each other in a wide range of games over the internet. Like traditional sports such as baseball or football, these competitions are watched live by an audience as they're played.
Overall, esports popularity is surging, as heavyweights such as League of Legends have more than 100 million players globally. Competitive professional gaming has nearly 300 million followers online and on TV, as esports' global revenue is estimated to reach $696 million this year -- and up to $1.5 billion by 2020, according to esports data tracker Newzoo.
Those projections led US pro sports leagues like theand venerable game-maker to jump in to esports. It also attracted the attention of Patriots' owner Robert Kraft to explore the esports market for years, "waiting for the right opportunity to enter."
The news of the new Overwatch teams comes nearly 10 months after Kotick stunned the gaming world by announcing an official league was in the making. Launched just 14 months ago, Overwatch has quickly become one of the world's most popular games, with more than 30 million players globally. Blizzard is currently hosting a North American and European Contenders series prior to the new league's launch.
The league will be closely watched by gamers, experts and fans as it tries to reach a broad audience, said Ted Pollak, a senior gaming analyst at Joe Peddie Research, a San Francisco-based tech consulting firm. What makes Overwatch a popular shooting game, he said, is that the diverse characters such as Mercy, Bastion and Junkrat are all equally playable, and its anime-style violence isn't so graphic.
For its inaugural season, Overwatch League matchups will take place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in a Los Angeles-area arena. This will allow teams time to establish their fan bases and find local arenas to eventually play in future seasons, said Nate Nanzer, the league's commissioner.
"We already have an Overwatch brand that has animated shorts [and] comic books, and now we're building an entire ecosystem around this, and esports is an important piece of it," he said.
This includes the San Francisco franchise owned by NRG eSports operated by Andrew Miller and Mark Mastrov, co-owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings. NRG also has major investors including basketball hall of famer and broadcaster Shaquille O'Neal and former baseball MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins.
"Esports isn't the sport of tomorrow, it's the sport of now," Miller said during a phone interview. "This is part of our culture."
There had been speculation about whether Blizzard could put a league together, according to reports by ESPN, as the company is seeking a $20 million buy-in from prospective owners with apparently no revenue sharing until 2021.
While Wilpon and Miller didn't discuss with me how much they bought into the league, Wilpon was emphatic that it is a worthy investment as his team will be in the largest sports market in North America. He said that three months ago, Kotick, his grade-school buddy, presented him an opportunity his venture capital firm couldn't resist.
"We have a lot of people in the marketplace for sure, and we're humbled and proud to represent the New York area," Wilpon said. "This was a competitive process and we feel honored to be a part of now."
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