In gaming, few titles can claim the moniker 'instant classic' but from its very launch, it was clear that Overwatch was something very special. Indeed, there was little debate about the fact that the Blizzard's hero shooter would be a mainstay in multiplayer gaming. Before it had even dropped it was widely accepted that the game had already joined the ranks of such classics as Team Fortress 2 and Quake.
But even with this incredible hype leading into its launch (boosted by the pedigree that comes with Blizzard's name), no one could have predicted the cultural impact that was to follow. With a simply gorgeous visual style looks like if Disney made an anime and turned the charm up to 11, the game got its hooks into players old and young from the outset.
With a player base of over 35 million (Statista, October 2017) it was only a matter of time before an Esports community grew around Overwatch. In 2017 Overwatch tournaments kicked off across China, Korea and Asia-Pacific, drawing in massive crowds who gathered to see the incredible feats of skill performed by top-level players. Meanwhile, in the west, Overwatch Contenders competitions were springing up across North America and Europe, allowing new stars to emerge.
Launched at the start of this year, Overwatch League provides an official gateway to the world of competitive Overwatch play, allowing players of all skill levels get a taste of the high-intensity thrills of competitive gaming, working their way up in brackets, until they eventually reach Pro status, wherein they can compete from prize money, in-game loot and bragging rights. This top-down integration of Esports elements is one of the reasons the community has drawn in so many fans from every corner of the world. The barrier to entry is low and even novice players can get involved with action early on in their Overwatch careers.
"As the first major global pro esports league organized by cities, the Overwatch League is taking a proven model from traditional sports to create the most rewarding and engaging esports experience for players and fans," explains Daniel Siegel, Activision Blizzard Consumer Products' head of esports licensing, who joined the firm in late 2017 with a view to building an epic licensing program for Overwatch League.
"The League currently has 12 teams —including one in London—grouped into two divisions, with a regular season and playoff structure that is like most traditional sports. Each team is launched with a brand identity unique to the Overwatch League, which aids greatly in helping their licensed gear stand apart from that of other esports."
Now, pro Overwatch teams are brands unto themselves, with the likes of London Spitfire, Florida Mayhem, Seoul Dynasty and so on, all sporting their own kits and merchandise lines licensed through Activision Blizzard, catering to fans around the globe.
"At the foundation of our program will be a robust apparel line designed to be authentic and to appeal to the style and fashion sense of a massive global audience of gamers," says Siegel.
"Additionally, we are looking to connect with best-in-class partners across all product categories who share our vision that the Overwatch League is the premier licensing opportunity for a new era of sports fans."
The teams' kits even sport advertisers with sponsorship deals that rival top sports clubs.
"The Overwatch League currently has a roster of world-class sponsors and marketing partners, including HP, Intel, Toyota, T-Mobile, and Sour Patch Kids candy, while Twitch is the league’s exclusive third-party streaming provider except for China," Siegel adds.
To many in the UK, the concept of Esports licensing is a relatively new one and while the concept is growing in the mainstream consciousness through efforts by such channels as ESPN, the question remains: how can the industry embrace this firstly as an entertainment medium and secondly, as an area of great potential in licensing? Siegel has a few ideas.
"Success in licensing esports has been elusive because of the complexity, and frankly, the time and cost involved in collecting all the rights needed to produce an appealing merchandise program for fans," he elaborates. "Most esports leagues simply cannot offer all the rights for which licensees are looking to create a comprehensive merchandise program. Instead, licensees face the challenge of collecting groups of rights that the leagues and/or teams do not control."
The Overwatch League's centralised approach to licensing rights provides a solution to this problem, serving as an excellent gateway drug to the heady highs of esports merchandising.
"The Overwatch League is one of the only professional leagues in the world that solves the IP challenges a licensee can face in esports by offering a full suite of all rights needed," enthuses Siegel. "Viewed through that lens, the potential really speaks for itself."
From the beginning with the Overwatch League, we’ve worked to create a world-class esports ecosystem with a focus on excitement, accessibility, and long-term sustainability for teams, players, and fans.
Daniel Siegel, Activision Blizzard
For those not fully integrated with the scene, it can be difficult to grasp the scope of esports as a genre of entertainment. Why should licensees look to this fledgeling entertainment format while the likes of film and TV still dominate culture? Well, Siegel argues that this is not actually the case.
"Esports viewership rivals that of traditional sports already, and continues to grow. In January, 10 million viewers tuned in to watch their favourite Overwatch League teams compete during the opening week of the season."
To put that in perspective, the average Premier League football match pulls in around 900,000 viewers in the UK (Bloomberg, October 2017). For a sport that was essentially invented less than two years ago, that's not bad progress. And with communities getting bigger by the day and streaming platforms like Twitch becoming more prevalent and user-friendly, these numbers are only set to increase.
"As the audience continues to grow and the quality of viewing experiences increases, we believe the licensing portion will experience similar growth and expansion."
Looking ahead, we quiz Siegel on the future of the Overwatch League and how the firm will continue to build on its early efforts.
"From the beginning with the Overwatch League, we’ve worked to create a world-class esports ecosystem with a focus on excitement, accessibility, and long-term sustainability for teams, players, and fans," Siegel concludes.
"Esports as a whole will certainly continue to grow massively over the next five years and beyond, with ever-increasing accessibility to fans all over the world—and with fans who can root for their local team and connect with a strong local community as well as a huge global community. We’re excited that the Overwatch League is contributing to that evolution, and we’re looking forward to being a big part of it for many years to come."