I finally got to check out a live broadcast of the Overwatch League (OWL) last week.
Most of you probably don’t even know what the hell that is, so in this post, I’ll hold your hand and gingerly walk you through the deep dark state of the sports and broadcast media today first, then the lush brave new eSports world of tomorrow straight out of Willy Wonka’s wildest dreams.
So the Winter Olympics started last week in PyeongChang, South Korea, and I haven’t watched any of it. Apparently, I’m not alone in this lack of enthusiasm: Olympics Day 1 Viewership Down Double Digits From 2014 With 24.1M For NBC
Another big sports event for us Americans was the Super Bowl LII, which was also last week. I’d say it was a pretty exciting game between the two teams with the most fervent (obnoxious) fan base, and the half-time show by JT was decent, too. However, it was the only football game I watched since the last year’s Super Bowl, and I mostly went to the viewing party to hang out with my friends. I’m not alone in this behavior either : Eagles’ 1st Super Bowl Win Draws 103.4M Viewers, 7% Decline from 2017 and Smallest Audience In Nine Years
When you look at the ratings for the NFL, NHL, and even the Premier League over in Europe, they are all in steep decline. The NBA and MLB are holding on but their numbers have been going down over the past two decades as well. People just aren’t watching sports anymore. Since sports is really the only reason you would ever have cable, this trend has also been destroying the telecom industry and the traditional/linear TV companies.
Admittedly, I’m not much of a sports fan (Although I am a big fan of Crossfit as a spectator sport but that subject is for another post), but I’ve been meaning to check out one of these eSports competitions largely for research. It’s clear that the existing sports leagues and their broadcasters have been losing audience rapidly. BUT, take a look at this chart:
Now that’s a growing market. Whenever I try to shock a layman about the size of this industry, I ask them to guess the size of the biggest prize pool for a single eSports tournament. The answer is 24.8 million dollars from The International 2017. And that event is just for one game called Dota 2, which was only released in 2013. (The first Dota as released in 2003)
Competitive video gaming has been growing slowly but surely. There are now hundreds of pro gamers making six-figure earnings, and the viewership for some of these games easily surpasses that of the existing sports leagues. Even ESPN started broadcasting eSports to capture that audience and delay the inevitable demise of their network. The popularity and the potential for eSports are not lost on the traditional sports business either. Shaq, Magic Johnson, ARod, and even the Philadelphia 76ers have acquired eSports teams of their own.
All that background information brings us to the Overwatch League. Overwatch is an online first-person shooting game where you play 6-on-6 team match. It looks pretty, runs smoothly, and the characters have distinct types like attackers, defenders, and healers, so teamwork is essential to the gameplay. The incredible thing is that it only came out in May 2016, and in less than a year, it became the most popular online shooting game in the world. Of course, this success wasn’t luck by any means, considering that Overwatch is made by Activision Blizzard, the largest game company in the western world guilty of creating life-ruining titles like World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo.
Blizzard had the guts and capital to build the OWL, systematically designed very much like any other “normal” sports leagues. Currently in its inaugural season, the league has twelve teams from different cities around the world that compete with each other over 240 matches just during the regular season. It’s the first formal eSports league running like traditional sports in many ways with quite the scale. This can be the beginning of it all. If the Overwatch League succeeds, other games will start their own leagues with their teams of players, millions of viewers, corporate sponsors, live events in real stadiums, and etc. We might be at the verge of a sports entertainment revolution.
So that’s why I just had to go check it out at the Blizzard Arena Los Angeles, where Blizzard decked out a full-sized studio space solely for the purpose of broadcasting the OWL.
First off, the production was far superior to any other major TV networks’ sports broadcast or TV show taping I’ve seen in Hollywood. The tech and set-up were out of this world. The arena held a crowd of 450, and the stage had the biggest, most technically advanced screen, which constantly shifted between a dozen different modes of display over a connected, contoured, custom display that elegantly enveloped the stage. This screen ran smoothly in a break-neck pace without any tech failure or slowdown. And they were broadcasting all this live on Twitch at the same time.
The show also ran very smoothly with very professional commentating. They had a full panel for live coverage, summary, and prediction between matches. There were also separate hosts to talk to the live crowd and comment on what’s going on backstage between matches. There was never any down time. It felt more action packed and smoother than the Super Bowl.
However, they did lose me at times because I didn’t understand some of the technical details — and this is coming from a guy who’s played the game for over 30 hours. I’d imagine those unfamiliar with the game would be even more confused.
The matches were the most high-octane competition I’ve ever seen. The existing human sports on earth’s gravity simply can’t compete. They played through 4 matches that lasted between 15–20 minutes. The game itself is also designed so that there is rarely any downtime. And seeing some of the fastest brains and hands in the world blazing through a digital battleground unbridled by the laws of physics was nothing short of a spectacle.
The problem was that this pace made the experience of watching it so exhausting. The amount of action, movement, and colors was an order of magnitude higher than the earthbound sports I’m used to, and I think this sensory overdrive might actually deter a lot of people from getting into watching eSports. But the experience might have been too intense for me partially because I was in a frenzied crowd with the brightest and craziest display I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m confident that eSports is the future. It might be the only future left for sports broadcasting based on the numbers. The industry and the medium have so many elements going for it that I didn’t even get to cover here. eSports is international by nature and easy to proliferate unlike traditional sports. Even soccer (football) can’t penetrate the entire world, but these video games can because all you need is an internet connection and a PC. The crazy thing is that most of the eSports audience don’t even play the games they watch. So contrary to popular belief, the viewership is not limited to nerdy gamers in their 30s like me. Lastly, the eSports broadcasting market has a singular leader that is reaping more profit and growth than even the game publishers.
That singular market leader is Twitch. Twitch bought the rights to ALL the broadcasting for the Overwatch League. And guess who who owns Twitch?
You already knew that this tech giant is taking over the entertainment industry with their TV shows, movies, and a streaming platform. What you didn’t know is that Amazon is already monopolizing the only growing sports media that you haven’t even heard of yet. Our future is exciting and scary. Let’s see how the Overwatch League goes.