Competitive gaming and esports are booming. Games like Dawn of the Ages and League of Legends are now so popular that national leagues are forming around them, with millions of people watching.
In Asia, tournaments held by South Korea’s League of Legends Champions Korea and the Chinese League of Legends Pro League have been fixtures of the esports calendar for years. The leagues draw hordes fans to watch online or cheer in arenas.
But in the West, similar leagues and tournaments are also on the rise. The latest of which is a league for Overwatch, Blizzard’s team-based first-person shooter.
With The Overwatch League now making its network television debut, what’s driving this interest in the spectator sport?
What is Blizzard’s Overwatch League?
With inaugural games in 2018, the Overwatch League (OWL) turns the competitive play of the multiplayer game into something slick, professional and most of all, entertaining.
It’s much like a traditional sporting league. Think the Premier League, NBA or NFL, but for gamers.
Within the OWL, teams of professional gamers are organised by major national cities around the world, each of which is owned by a group or backers.
As opposed to other esports leagues where teams are relegated or promoted, the OWL uses a regular season and playoffs format.
During each season, teams within the league play against each other to determine the league’s champions. Brands like Skrill sponsor the teams - as in many traditional sports.
And just like sports teams, players get contracts giving them a salary, benefits and a share of the winnings depending on how they perform.
How popular is Overwatch?
With 40 million players and counting worldwide, calling Overwatch a popular game is something of an understatement.
During its first season, all OWL matches took place at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. But the developer plans to up the ante in the second season, with the promise that home and away games will be held at arenas in each team’s respective city.
As well as giving fans the chance to support their local teams live and in the flesh, Blizzard is offering “Overwatch All-Access Passes” to fans who tune in via Twitch.
It’s another bold move that could make massive in-roads towards increasing the league’s viewership.
Do any other games have leagues?
OWL’s $6.7m prize pool puts it in the top 10 biggest leagues in esports, according to Esports Observer.
But it isn’t the first game to develop its own league. Dota 2 tops the prize pool charts, with a massive $22.5m up for grabs.
The most-watched esport of the moment is League of Legends, with fans watching a total of 240 million hours via Youtube and Twitch, followed by Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, whose fans watched an impressive 212 million hours of play last year - the equivalent of 1,008 years!
One of the earliest esports games, Starcraft II, is another Blizzard title that still ranks among the most popular in the world. Starcraft II has 386,440 players worldwide and 153 tournaments, while the Hearthstone Championship Tour has a prize fund of over $4m, and draws over 600 players to 53 tournaments.
Fortnite, Clash Royale, Hearthstone and Starcraft II are also all games that teams like QLASH (sponsored by Skrill) compete on a professional level.
What does this mean for esports?
Esports is expected to become a billion-dollar business in 2019, and with leagues attracting millions of fans, this new spectator sport is projected to keep growing.
Dota 2’s annual tournament, The International 2018, drew 52.8 million viewers - just over half the number of people that watched Super Bowl 2019.
While that’s quite some way from the 3.5 billion people worldwide who watched the FIFA World Cup in 2018, venues such as The O2 in London, the Barclays Center in New York and the Oracle Arena in California are now lining up to host tournaments.
These events will see up to 20,000 people at a time watching their favourite games played by the pros.
Esports have some way to go before they reach the popularity of football or basketball, but they’re definitely on the rise.
With leagues being funded by gaming giants like Blizzard and sports networks like ESPN giving the burgeoning Overwatch League more airtime, the future of esports looks bright.