Will the Overwatch League be good for established esports teams? EnVyUs, NRG, and Splyce weigh in

Team owners are cautiously excited about the new league

Image via Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard has officially launched its Overwatch League, and it’s looking to implement a model similar to that of traditional sports leagues. While the league is still a ways off (it won’t start until at least July next year) the community is buzzing about what it could mean for esports going forward.

During the BlizzCon keynote on Nov. 4, Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime outlined some of the details for the league, saying, perhaps most importantly, that Blizzard will pay player salaries. The league will also include a combine, drafting, and franchise slots based in cities. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of the details given, leaving a lot of important facts up in the air. Blizzard didn’t announce how organizations can bid for franchise slots, how many slots there will be, how much they are looking to go for, how the combine and drafting will work, or what it means for existing teams and esports organizations that have already signed an Overwatch roster.

We sat down with EnVyUs owner Mike “Hastr0” Rufail, NRG eSports CEO Brett Lautenbach, and Splyce owner Marty “Lazerchicken” Strenczewilk at BlizzCon to get their thoughts on the Overwatch League announcement. And while they were generally optimistic about Blizzard’s plans, they all very much wanted more information about the workings of the league so they know how it will affect their business.

What are your thoughts on the Overwatch League announcement?

Hastr0: For a publisher like Blizzard to want to formalize a league in an FPS game, that’s something we’ve never seen before. It’s a great step by them to try and give some structure to esports, I think that’s something we need more of, whether that comes from tournament organizers, game publishers, studios, teams, whoever. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

Brett: We are super excited about it, I think Blizzard is doing a lot of cool new things in esports that haven’t really been done before. We’d love to be a part of it and we’ve been really supportive of the scene so far and are really excited to see where it goes.

“It’s a way of just legitimizing the sport more and making sure that the right organizations are there to support the players.”?—?Hastro

Lazerchicken: I think it’s ambitious, I don’t mean that in a negative way. I always like to say, ‘I don’t want to become Fnatic, Cloud9, or TSM, I want to become the Yankees,’ my aspirations for Splyce are much higher and I think that’s what they did with Overwatch. They said, ‘We don’t want to become the LCS, we want to become the NBA,’ and I think that’s smart. You don’t aim for what’s already really good in your industry, you aim for way beyond that.

I also think that they actually thought through what it meant to do that. I’m not sure how it all plays out, but I think the end product, as long as they stay diligent and are supportive, could be really fantastic. The only thing that’s obviously worrying is that at some point we have to see how Overwatch becomes accessible as a spectator sport.

How does the league being city-based affect your organization?

Hastr0: We’re already speaking to cities, we’ve been doing that and I think we’re one of the first teams if not the first team to pioneer that, to really start a relationship with cities and begin to have those discussions. Right now we’re based in Charlotte and we have ongoing talks with the city to build our arena there so we’re a little bit farther ahead I think that many teams, but I think it’s needed. The local markets are something that are really important for esports to grow and there are fans all over the world so why can’t there be teams located in cities where you can go and watch esports on a daily basis live instead of just having to watch it on Twitch at your desk everyday.

Brett: I think we’ll figure that out as it goes along. Those conversations are a little down the road but there’s a lot of great cities out there and we’ll see where it lands. We’re really committed to Overwatch right now and we have this incredible roster and an incredible experience working with Blizzard so far.

Lazerchicken: I love it because I’ve been thinking about it for two years. It’s awesome to be in an arena full of people who are fans of the same team, cheering together, getting heartbroken together, all that stuff. It’s way more engaging than being in this arena right here [at BlizzCon] where we’re all fans of different teams. We love to say, ‘That’s my team.’ If you look at how people have picked up teams over the years in traditional sports, it’s either because of family connections, because of friends, because of some cool logo or colors, or just because it’s in your neighborhood.

“Why can’t there be teams located in cities where you can go and watch esports on a daily basis live instead of just having to watch it on Twitch.”?—?Hastr0

I think that we access not just this massive new revenue stream and opportunity to get ticket sales and concessions and all the stuff like that, which is great, those are much more stable revenues. But I care about building the biggest fan base possible and I think that’s an avenue towards giving people a reason to attach to your organization. I want to be the New York team, that’s what we’ve always been, I want to continue to be the New York team.

Are you worried about how the league could affect your current team?

Hastr0: It’s something that certainly we need those questions to be answered, but Blizzard assured us that they’re going to come out with a system to make sure that the players in the ecosystem and the teams are taken care of. It’s a business at the end of the day, when you get involved in esports and you run an organization, and you have to be really flexible and willing to just make the scene better. You can’t be too greedy and selfish.

You always have some concerns on how it’s going to affect your business, but at the end of the day I still believe in survival of the fittest and whoever is going to do the best job to foster a good ecosystem for their players. It’s a way of just legitimizing the sport more and making sure that the right organizations are there to support the players and the right organizations are there to give a better experience to the fans.

“They said, ‘We don’t want to become the LCS, we want to become the NBA,’ and I think that’s smart.”?—?Lazerchicken

Lazerchicken: Anybody that says they have no concerns would be silly, because any time something happens that shakes up the direction it’s going you have to consider how it impacts your business. I’m not massively worried, I think that ultimately the power of all of us endemic brands is important to the success of this league, I don’t see how this league gets the same success other esports titles have had, or better, without your Cloud9’s and your Splyce’s and your Fnatic’s and things like that. That is a driving factor in the initial growth at least. I’m still in the game, I’m still happy to be in Overwatch, I’m still glad we’re putting the resources into the team and I think it’ll pay off in the end.

What do you think of all these traditional sports owners and teams getting into esports, and potentially more looking to get in with the Overwatch League announcement?

Hastr0: Teams like that are great, having experience from traditional sports team owners, mainstream sports team owners, they have a lot of experience and natural progression of building a sport for the masses and I think it’s a great thing that they’re stepping in and starting to work with teams. I think they can only help us. It creates more competition in the space and a lot more business acumen coming in, so it’s only positive.

Brett: For us with Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov [Co-owners of the Sacramento Kings], to have two guys like that behind the organization, and then Shaquille, A-Rod, Jimmy Rollins, it’s an incredible experience to have that kind of support. Their involvement on a daily basis has been incredible for us and it’s really helped us grow the org and learn a lot of lessons.