The biggest esports league in the world is back again for its second season, as Overwatch League kicked off last night at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank. Not only was last year’s debut season monumental for the Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment (which made news earlier this week for laying off hundreds of employees), but it also proved to the non-gaming world that esports are here to stay.
With 8 new teams joining the dozen from last year, Overwatch League continues to convert even the most casual and noncommittal of fans on levels that even the parties involved didn’t expect. As Los Angeles Valiant CEO Ari Segal noticed, people from all over the world immediately began supporting their “local” teams (very few of the teams actually have any hometown players, and teams won’t actually have games in their cities for another year or two at least), and the organizations themselves started to become more and more like the cities they represent.
“We know that Overwatch League is a beloved and celebrated property globally, but we also know that there is an opportunity to build a local market around an esports team,” says Segal, who worked in the front office of multiple NHL teams (including the Ducks) before moving into esports. “Seeing our market here in Southern California embrace the Valiant is my biggest priority, but I’m also following how in markets on multiple continents and in cities that are incredibly different and diverse from one another, this phenomenon has been replicated. The Philly fans in Philly are different than the New York fans in New York. The London fans are different than the Seoul fans, and yet they all have responded to their local esports teams. That sets the stage for an incredible new phase of esports and entertainment properties.”
Of course, not only do the Valiant players have to battle with their San Franciscan rivals, but they’ve also got their cross-town competitors to deal with. The Valiant’s green and gold regularly clash with the purple and white of the Los Angeles Gladiators, and every owner, coach, and player knows exactly what’s at stake. Neither team wants to become the esports equivalent of the Clippers, and both local organizations made a push both in the standings and among fans late in the year last season.
But regardless of how things wrapped up in the debut season (in which the London Spitfire took home the championship), every team is prepared for what is effectively a brand new start this year. With significant roster changes, additional teams, the fluid nature of the best-selling video game, and a year’s worth of experience under many of the players, 2018’s playoffs seem like a distant memory for many of the players at this point.
“I think a lot of the viewers underestimate how long the offseason is for players,” says Aaron “Bischu” Kim, who plays a tank role for the Gladiators. “The players who weren’t able to attend the World Cup or All-Stars have had pretty much no scrim experience for a long time. I think the momentum kind of carries over because you still have the strategies from last season, but as far as the experience of playing the game, you more or less have to start over.”
Perhaps more than anything though, Overwatch League’s sophomore season is a sign of what’s to come going forward. With the logistics being worked out to host matches all over the world in the teams’ home cities and a steady increase in interest and popularity, the largest esports promotion in history figures to continue to expand for the foreseeable future. If last year was about everyone getting their feet wet and overcoming some of the early hurdles and growing pains, 2019 is the season in which Overwatch League players, coaches, executives, and fans can build on the basics and structure they learned last year while also looking toward the future.
“I think just knowing how much work it takes and understanding the schedule gives the returning players an advantage over the rookies,” Kim says. “This year, all of the [returning] teams have their schedules down, and we know how long the season is, whereas last year everyone was just kind of figuring it out as we went.”
Even if competitive Overwatch isn’t your thing, it’s hard to deny the impact that video games and esports have continued to build over the last handful of years. From Grand Theft Auto V breaking sales records across any entertainment medium to the popularity crazes of Pokemon GO and Fortnite, gaming is undeniably a bigger mainstream juggernaut than it’s ever been before. And for those of you who still don’t understand why millions of young people around the world regularly watch others play video games, the Valiant CEO can put it into terms that any traditional sports fan would understand.
“If you wanted to get into basketball — but you’d never picked up a basketball or gone to a basketball game of any level — and you just turned on a basketball game, it would probably be confusing and disorienting, and the viewer experience probably wouldn’t be that great,” Segal says. “The best way to get into basketball, hockey, football, or any other sport is to either play the sport or go to a live event. The same is true for esports. If you want to understand why people under the age of 35 are engaging with this content more than they’re engaging with any other kind of sports and entertainment content around the world, you have to get off the couch and either play or come to a live event.”