The Overwatch League and the Future of Esports Advertising

August 10, 2018

On July 28, confetti rained down on the victorious London Spitfire, marking an end to the Overwatch League’s inaugural season.

One that by all accounts was a success. The audiences were twice as big as expected with broadcasts that averaged between 80,000 and 170,000 concurrent viewers. The two-day finals event was hosted at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn where all 11,000 seats sold out. Even the addition of a new paradigm-upending character, the healer Brigitte, was viewed by most as positive despite the fact (or, perhaps, because of the fact) that it completely upended the standings.

Photo Credit: Depor

Before the inclusion, the New York Excelsior was the league’s best team and viewed by most as a shoo-in for the championship. Yet, Brigitte was specifically designed to counter the Excelsior’s bread-and-butter “dive comp” tactic. The Excelsior were slow to adapt, and the underdog Philadelphia Fusion knocked the Excelsior out in the semifinals round (and would go on to be trounced by the Spitfire in the finals).

“I think there’s a lot of traditional sports that are struggling to keep fans engaged and engage with young fans because they haven’t evolved in 100 years,” Nate Nanzer, the Overwatch League commissioner, said to The Washington Post. “And so, I think that’s an advantage that we have over traditional sports.”

Yet, according to the majority of the people involved, from the team owners to the management at Activision Blizzard to the coaches and players, everyone feels this is only the beginning.

“Ultimately, to really be a force — to create the types of monetization that you’d like to have on a local basis, the team has to be in-market more regularly,” Jonathan Kraft, President of the Kraft Group, which owns the OWL’s Boston Uprising franchise and also the New England Patriots, was quoted in the same Post story.

Kraft is referring to the fact that, even though the 12 Overwatch teams are tied to specific cities, the teams actually all played their matches in a Burbank, California studio (former home of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”). That is also the plan for next season.

Photo Credit: Overwatch League

However, by season three (year 2020), the owners intend to move their franchises to their home cities.

“I think to start to attract and educate casual fans and bring the geographic connection in — I think of people who don’t love hockey but say, ‘The Bruins are my team because they live in Boston.’ I think you have to be in-market to fully take advantage of that,” said Kraft.

“Once it comes into the market, those less-than-avid fans then have a reason to start paying attention. That’s when we’ll really have to kick it into high gear,” he continued. “Look, the league launched very successfully, no one can dispute that. … And we’ll just get stronger next year. But the next real big test will be when we go in-market in 2020.”

By that time the Overwatch League will look significantly different than it does today. On August 2, the League announced the addition of two new franchises: Atlanta, Georgia and Guangzhou, China. It is believed that as many as four more teams could be added before the 2019 season kicks off (Japan is suspected to be one). In addition, ESPN, Disney, and ABC have secured the broadcast rights to League matches (the games will still continue to be streamed on Twitch).

“Our goal was to create something easy to follow for fans, that people would understand. One issue with esports in the past 20 years is that it’s big, people have heard of it, but no one could understand it,” Nanzer said in an interview with Adweek.

“That city-based anchor is something we’ve seen catch on quickly. It’s given millions of gamers a reason to care. … If they’ve been on the periphery of esports but never engaged. ‘You guys have a New York team, and there’s Boston, so I know who to hate!’ Those rivalries are built in, and it’s caught on.

“There is no live sport in the world delivering 13- to 30-year-olds. That’s what we’re delivering.”

In a discussion that also included Daniel Cherry III, Activision Blizzard esports leagues Chief Marketing Officer, and David “Nomy” Ramirez, a player on the San Francisco Shock team, the three examined the future of the Overwatch League and how sponsorships are going to be integrated in it.

Photo Credit: The Esports Observer

“Imagine doing a deal with a league, and that deal includes Lebron James, basketball, and courts,” said Cherry. “That’s the case with Overwatch League,” which includes the leagues, courts and stars, plus it’s a “gateway to larger IP. It’s extremely turnkey.”

Cherry stressed the importance of sponsors integrating organically with the League. The average esports fan is between 13 and 40 years old (the average age is 26) and notoriously good at avoiding traditional advertising. They utilize ad blocking software while online and have cut the cable/satellite cord that once contained their media feeds. They are also pretty good at avoiding non-traditional ads, as well. A recent study found that as Facebook ramped up its targeted advertising, the average user of the platform began to trend older. In other words, the younger crowd started jumping ship as their feeds filled with ads.

Or as Cherry said when describing his view of bad advertising experiences, “we’re gonna get to the point where (seeing) an ad is a bad ad experience.”

That’s why it is imperative that sponsors attempt to integrate their messaging naturally within the games and league commentary. And it is especially important to start now, because gaming culture is only going to become more ingrained as this audience segment matures.

“Have you met a 12-year old recently?” asked Nanzer. “Because if you have, I’m guessing all they do is watch other people play video games on Twitch and YouTube. And that’s not going to magically change when they turn 35. It’s not like they’re going to turn 35 and be like, ‘Well, I’m a baseball fan now.’”

Another interesting aspect of esports is that it is in a (almost) unique position to appeal universally to an extremely broad audience, one that is equally inclusive to all races, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. This is especially important as some sectors of the gaming community are still being hit by scandals. Overall, as these issues are addressed, esports has the potential to become the most inclusive sport.

Photo Credit: Casino.org

Despite the fact that there is no reason to keep genders from playing against each other (unlike traditional sports where body type could give one gender an advantage over the other in a head-to-head match), esports competitions are frequently divided by gender.

The Overwatch League is hoping to break through this mindset by bringing more female players onto its teams (the current number sits at one: Geguri, who plays for the Shanghai Dragons) and notes that its cover art and logo are dominated by the female character Tracer.

“To be part of a brand where the Michael Jordan of the logo is a woman is so powerful,” said Cherry, “and my daughter gravitated to it naturally. Like many girls, she plays competitive sports. She doesn’t want the princess model and doesn’t want to be saved by anyone. On Overwatch she can play Tracer, kick ass and save herself. That’s a powerful narrative to talk about, and we can do that in Overwatch League.”

“There’s still a long way to go before equality,” said Nanzer. “We’re making good progress on a diverse team to operate the League.”

For more on our thoughts on the future of organically integrating advertising within esports tournaments and leagues, as well as how to ensure that your efforts are as inclusive as possible, reach out to eGency at 972-323-6354.