Jon Spector, the Director of Franchises and Competition of the Overwatch League has some pretty strong opinions about the future of esports and whether or not they belong in the Olympics – a debate that has been going on for years and now seems to tip in favour of esports joining the biggest sporting event in the world.
Recently, the Overwatch League finale in the Barclays Center in LA drew north of 10k fans per day. The event had over 11 million unique viewers throughout worldwide. That’s pretty impressive, though not as impressive as the deal Blizzard struck with Disney just before the event – the League battles were televised by Disney-owned ESPN-1, otherwise known as the network’s flagship channel.
The fact that the event got the 7 pm slot on a Friday is pretty cool too – that’s prime-time for events like this one. Overwatch is a great choice for this sort of thing since the game is quite similar to ‘regular’ sports. This is what Jon Spector had to say on the matter:
“One of the things we think is really special about Overwatch League, there’s more than 40 million people around the world who play Overwatch, and there’s just north of 100 — I think 120 players who have made it to the top of the world to compete in Overwatch League. You’ve got the same ingredients you have with any sport. I grew up playing Little League baseball and wanting to be Derek Jeter. I think you’ve got the same sort of phenomenon now where millions of people who love Overwatch and want to see who’s the best in the world and learn from them and aspire to that. Our feeling has been, if you look at the fandom we’ve built up and the passion of the fans, even a league that’s been around for one season … it’s been really energizing and exciting for us. There’s clearly so much skill and teamwork and coordination and hard work and preparation that goes into this. These players have done an incredible job, and we’re really proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
For Blizzard which is notoriously cagey about publishing numbers of active players, this is a pretty bold statement. Spector followed that up by expressing his opinion on the Olympics and esports:
“We’ve obviously been really excited about the conversations with the IOC (note: International Olympic Committee, recently held a forum on the topic of esports joining) and others around the possibility of bringing esports to the Olympics in future. It seems to make a lot of sense. There’s a lot of appetite from fans, and a lot of esports — and Overwatch in particular — is a really global game. I think it potentially fits really well with that model. As far as a governing body goes, I’m not gonna try to speak for all of the other folks in our ecosystem about that. We feel on our side of things that, if you look at the way this works for traditional sports, you have a governing body for soccer, and one for basketball, and hockey. I think lumping all those esports together and saying “This is one thing” potentially misses some of the nuance. Overwatch is a specific esport versus… Counter-Strike looks very different or Dota looks really different or Hearthstone looks really different. My own point of view is it makes sense to think of esports as individual, specific games as opposed to lumping them all together and saying “This is one thing.”
It seems that just about every big name in the industry supports this move – Overwatch is actually a pretty good candidate since it satisfies most of the requirements for an Olympic sport. One aspect that many games violate is the requirement to follow the ‘Olympic Spirit’. This means that overt violence and death can’t be part of the events. This precludes most 2D fighters as well as many bloody shooters. Revised versions of these games (in other words, censored versions) may be eligible to join, but that matter is still far off for now.
As for the Overwatch League itself, Spector couldn’t resist talking about its future either: “We’re one season old now, so there’s a ton we can do as we continue to grow. We’ll be adding new cities, which is exciting for fans around the world who’ll have a home team. I think the big focus for us, moving forward, is going to be bringing esports into that sort of home-and-away format where, when you have a match between Shanghai and Seoul, they’re playing it for thousands of fans in Shanghai. Or the New York-Boston rivalry takes place in Boston or in New York instead of out here in LA. That’s going to be a huge focus for us in the next couple of years, helping to make that transition and creating a live event experience. We feel good about what the broadcast looks like and if you tune in on ESPN or Disney, we’ve honed that experience. Now one of the areas we’re really going to turn our attention to — and Finals was a great launch point for this — is what that great live experience looks like, where thousands of fans come out and support their local home team.”
It looks like Overwatch really may end up taking the same route that sports like football or soccer have – a decentralised League with teams based in their home cities, and home as well as ‘away’ games. Whether this will be sustainable on an International scale remains to be seen, but it’s more than possible within the US where large parts of the Overwatch fanbase are located.