The Birth of the Overwatch League

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Immortal eSports Organization/Courtesy

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An international league of competition — it’s something that hasn’t really been achieved in professional sports. Yes, we do have annual or quadrennial tournaments where we crown world champions, but they require national sports organizations to select their own representatives that compete in the Olympics and other international tourneys. Instead, I’m talking about a league with a regular season that involves cities around the world competing against each other.

Blizzard Entertainment is trying to create a global form of competition through its brand new Overwatch League. In place of the promotion/relegation model that most modern esports leagues use, the Overwatch League seeks to set up franchises based in cities around the world that hire “Overwatch” players to compete in live arenas and via video streaming. Imagine a team based in Los Angeles battling against a team from Shanghai. That is something entirely in the realm of possibility for the inaugural season of the Overwatch League.

I got a chance to sit down and talk with Brady “Agilities” Girardi and Stefano “Verbo” Disalvo, two Canadian members of Immortals’ new Overwatch team, about the Overwatch League and how they got there. Both of them are in their late teens, and even though they are now formally professional esports players, their origins in the video game world weren’t really different from the rest of ours.

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Like many of us in college now, Agilities’ first console was the PlayStation 2, while Verbo first gamed on the Nintendo Game Boy. As the technology evolved, they moved from console to console until both of them eventually settled on PC gaming. It was “League of Legends,” as well a few other games, that initially drew them to the PC arena.

As a Masters-rank support player in “League of Legends,” Verbo wanted to go pro in “League of Legends,” but then he saw a new opportunity in Overwatch. Starting at BlizzCon 2014 through early 2016, Blizzard began releasing more and more information and trailers related to its newest first-person-shooter game, “Overwatch.” Some of these trailers became animations that drew the attention of players worldwide. These animated short films of no more than five minutes each gave each individual character/hero in “Overwatch” a deep backstory and vivid personality. Agilities was drawn into the game by its hero aspect and how Blizzard was able to artfully craft a lore behind it.

Agilities became legendary as a Genji main who was regularly in the top-40 of the North American ladder. Verbo, a Lúcio main, was still a high school senior when he first considered going pro. As many among older generations would be, however, both of their parents were skeptical of the idea of playing video games for a living. They did have friends who understood their passions for video games, but none who shared their dreams for going pro. They were relatively alone in the pursuit of such a unique future.

This is where Blizzard hopes the Overwatch League will be able to redefine the esports industry. The company hopes that the league will help legitimize esports as a sport, which is why they are following the models of the NFL and NBA. It all starts with a minimum $50,000 salary with health, retirement, housing and training benefits, which are lacking in modern esports.

Most notably, Blizzard has confirmed that the Overwatch League will have a draft combine of sorts, where those at the top of the ranked ladders will have the opportunity to try out for professional teams, providing a structured means for driven and passionate Overwatch players to find opportunities to sign with professional teams.

In the case of Agilities and Verbo, this framework played a big role in convincing their parents. After talking with Noah Whinston, the CEO of Immortals, and seeing the contracts with the benefits that Blizzard requires all teams to provide, they came around to the idea of professional esports. In addition, the lack of the threat of relegation helps increase the longevity of professional “Overwatch” players’ careers. They are now able to balance the needs of today and tomorrow, as opposed to in the past when esports athletes had to essentially battle for survival every day.

Even before its first match, the Overwatch League has already garnered a lot of attention from both worlds of traditional sports and esports. The initial group of team owners includes big NFL names, such as New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft and Los Angeles Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke. Naturally, the league has caught the eyes of several well-established esports organizations, such as Cloud9, Immortals, Misfits and NRG eSports, who all have confirmed franchises for the inaugural season as well. Blizzard’s campaign also seems to have coincided with Riot Games introducing franchising in its North American League of Legends Championship Series.

The Overwatch League is set to begin preseason matches on Dec. 6, 2017, with its inaugural season launching with 12 teams on Jan. 10 of next year. For now, matches will be played in Burbank, California, at the Blizzard Arena, until teams can establish their own home venues in their base cities.

In preparation of the inaugural season, the Immortals Overwatch team has been trying out new players and scrimmaging other confirmed franchises of the league. In addition, they’ve been working hard to unite the Korean and Western halves of the team — a problem all too common in professional eSports. “Overwatch” is a six-on-six game, and three of Immortals’ players are Korean, while the other three, including Agilities and Verbo, hail from North America. They not only have differences in playstyles and a language barrier, but they have also discovered cultural disparities as they have begun living together in the same team house.
As a result of all these constantly changing factors, Agilities and Verbo don’t necessarily have high goals for the inaugural season, and they don’t have to, thanks to the franchising model. They plan to use this first season as a learning experience, to grow both as a team and as individuals. esports was sort of a spontaneous decision for Agilities, so he hopes to be able to explore the possibilities of an easier life or career in the industry after his playing career is over. Similarly, Verbo hopes to be able to give back to youth and provide a positive change in esports. Having the time to do these things is a luxury that esports athletes of the past didn’t have. That’s all due to change with the Overwatch League. If this inaugural season is successful, we will not only see an expansion of the league, but a transformation of the realm of esports.

Lawrence Zhao covers eSports. Contact him at [email protected].