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Activision Blizzard Unveils Overwatch League eSports Plans

Deadline logo Deadline 7/12/2017 David Lieberman
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Some high profile executives in traditional sports including New York Mets’ Jeff Wilpon and the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft are joining the eSports bandwagon: They’re among the group of seven people and entities that have bought city-based franchises for the new Overwatch League that Activision Blizzard has created to promote its multiplayer online first-person shooter video game.

In addition to Wilpon (with a New York franchise) and Kraft (Boston), the list includes Immortals CEO Noah Whinston (Los Angeles), Misfits Gaming CEO Ben Spoont (Miami-Orlando,) NRG Esports founder Andy Miller (San Francisco), NetEase (Shanghai), and Kabam co-founder Kevin Chou (Seoul).

“The fact that we’re bringing in owners from multiple disciplines is what we’re excited about,” says Major League Gaming (MLG) CEO Pete Vlastelica — who took the job in September, leaving Fox Sports where he was EVP of digital . “We consider that to be a real inflection point for eSports.”

Last year Blizzard bought MLG to manage its eSports content distribution efforts.

Blizzard isn’t saying yet how much the franchise owners paid for their rights. Fans “should expect more franchise announcements” before the league begins competitions, planned later this year, Vlastelica says.

ESPN reported in May that Blizzard was “struggling to sign franchises” as it sought about $20 million for some cities, with prices varying by market size.

The company announced in November that it planned to launch the league. It could add $50 million a year to Blizzard’s revenues (not including franchise sales),  Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey analyst Matthew Thornton estimated last month, plus $100 million from “indirect revenue from increased game engagement.”

He warned though that “many questions remain.” Prior to the announcement, he envisioned 16 initial teams rising to as many as 32.

The first regular-season matches will be played at a Los Angeles-area eSports arena, Blizzard says, “as teams develop their local venues for formal home and away play in future seasons.”

Matches will take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The actual schedule, including the length of the season, will come “soon,” says Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer.

The league will share with teams its net revenues from advertising, ticketing and broadcast rights. They get to keep the amounts that they generate locally “up to a set amount,” Blizzard says. Cash collected above that threshold will be shared.

Teams also can profit from up to five amateur events a year in their home markets. There’ll be a “clear path” to becoming a pro, Nanzer says, as well as league rules governing players’ minimum salaries and benefits.

The league expects to sign agreements that would enable fans to watch matches on cable and digital platforms. “It’s an opportunity to go younger for an aging cable network,” Vlastelica says.

Wilpon, a partner at venture capital fund Sterling.VC, calls his Overwatch League franchise “a major opportunity to take a lead position where technology is converging with sports and media. This partnership with the Overwatch League and with some of the elite ownership groups in professional sports, offers a unique opportunity to connect with millions of dedicated fans, engaged and passionate about one of the world’s fastest growing sports, and to continue proudly representing New York.”

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