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This summer, two teams will battle it out inside Barclays Center for their shot at a league title and a piece of a $1.4 million prize pool. It’s not the NBA or NHL taking over the 19,000-seat arena, home to the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders, but — for the first time — the year-old e-sports organization, Overwatch League.
After its inaugural season, with viewership topping 10 million in the opening week and averaging 408,000 viewers per minute during matches, the league is betting on a breakout moment when its finals take place July 27 to 28 at the New York venue, which has hosted the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and WWE’s SummerSlam.
“Barclays Center is in the big event business, and we consider hosting the first-ever Overwatch League championship as no different,” Keith Sheldon, executive vp programming for the stadium’s operator, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Overwatch, the game, is a first-person shooter with a cast of colorful characters developed by Activision Blizzard-owned Blizzard Entertainment and released in 2016. The title has already generated more than $1 billion in sales revenue and boasts 35 million players worldwide.
Overwatch, the league (OWL), launched in January with financial backers who include New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller, Hollywood veterans like former Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore (who manages OWL’s L.A. Gladiators) and such sponsors as HP, Intel, Toyota and T-Mobile.
“We’ve had a great start,” Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer tells THR. “Games are universal. People from 8 to 80 play videogames.”
Regular season matches are held at the 450-seat Blizzard Arena, which sits on a soundstage at Burbank Studios that once housed Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and now features a towering 13,000 pixel LED display which requires six 4k video outputs to feed it.
For local fans in Los Angeles, catching a match in person is a significantly better value than heading to a Dodger or Lakers game. Tickets for Overwatch League go for $20 on weekdays and $30 on weekends. Seating is open and first-come, first-serve, and each ticket grants admission for three matches, roughly six hours of content. For fans priced out of more traditional sports arenas, Overwatch League offers a more wallet-friendly alternative, and that appeal, in turn, attracts investors.
“A lot of savvy folks from the sports world really see what’s happening here and we rebuilt the structure that’s very familiar to people in traditional sports, one that’s really focused on creating value for our owners,” says Nanzer.
“Activision Blizzard has built a better mousetrap. They recognized and addressed a fundamental opportunity within the market to level up,” says Peter Levin, president of interactive ventures and games at Lionsgate and a board member of OWL’s L.A. Valiant team.
League matches — aimed at young men who are abandoning traditional TV offerings — are streamed on Amazon’s Twitch platform as part of a two-year deal valued at a reported $90 million.
“That’s Twitch’s best guess at what it thinks it can monetize by delivering ads,” financial media analyst Michael Pachter says of the deal. “It’s Activision and Blizzard saying we don’t quite yet have the capability to create our own network, so let’s just let Twitch do it and collect for us while we learn.”
Blizzard Arena is OWL’s only stadium, but plans are in place to expand into cities across the U.S., Europe and Asia where the league’s 12 teams are based. Says Nanzer, “That’s really the next big phase for us — giving millions of fans around the world the opportunity to engage with this content live.”
This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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