US cable channels ESPN and Disney XD are broadcasting the Overwatch League (OWL), billed as the world’s first major esports league, under a multi-year agreement with the Walt Disney Co and Activision-Blizzard announced last week.
The final stages of OWL were shown by the two networks starting on 11 July. The two days of finals — on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 July — will be entirely live on ESPN, ESPN3 and Disney XD in prime-time slot. Highlights of the tournament will be broadcast on the ABC network the day after its conclusion.
Financial terms of this agreement were not been disclosed, but it will cover more than one edition, allowing the newly-created esports league to plan its medium term future.
This deal represents a turning point for the positioning of esports, giving it the opportunity to reach a newer and wider audience via traditional media platforms.
The Overwatch League is one of the biggest esports tournaments, with the winning prize amounting to $3.5 million. It’s not the first event of its type to be broadcast by Disney. ESPN has, on its digital and linear channels, aired famous tournaments such as Heroes of the Dorm collegiate competition, Capcom Cup Street Fighter V and the Evolution Fighting Game Championship. ESPN also showed the Paris Regional Final of the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship on its main linear channel. The event was held at the same time as the Super Bowl, one of the year’s most-watched televised sports events. ESPN has also signed a multi-year agreement to broadcast the Madden NFL 18 Championship Series, confirming its interest in the world of esports.
Blizzard Entertainment is the studio which developed Overwatch and organises the OWL. Its aim is to narrow the distance between traditional American Sports like the NBA or MLB and esports. The Overwatch League has been created following the footsteps of the most famous and traditional US leagues. For the first time in history, the 12 teams have been attached to a city; for example, the Los Angeles Valiant might be as famous as their more famous cousins the LA Lakers in a not-too-distant future. They will join a league that that does not include a system of promotions or relegations.
Walt Disney’s strategy for esports is not limited to broadcasting one-off events only. The ambitious plans of Blizzard also include investments in creating arenas to host esports tournaments organised in two-leg rounds—home and away—just like any traditional sport competition. The first of these facilities—named the Blizzard Arena—was unveiled in October 2017 in Los Angeles and will host all the events for the OWL for the first season in 2018 and for future ones as well. In the near future it will not be uncommon to see other arenas in different cities entirely dedicated to esports.
This deal gives OWL further legitimacy on the world stage, in light of it struggling to find traction in some parts of Asia. Overwatch has struggling as an esports in China, due to Overwatch League, with Blizzard squeezing out other unofficial esports events in order to promote OWL, meaning most leagues are struggling to find the bonuses or sponsors needed to support consistent training and competition. As a result, many Overwatch leagues have instead moved on to play Publisher Unknown’s Battlegrounds via Tencent. The game fares better in Korea, however, thanks to the country’s broader esports ecosystem, and Korean leagues being able to find places within OWL.