Can The Overwatch League Survive Expansion?

Can The Overwatch League Survive Expansion? 1

From home stadiums in all cities to a group travelling schedule and ever-increasing buy-ins, the plans for the Overwatch League going forward are ambitious, but are they achievable? 

Right off the bat, it’s clear that the Overwatch League is interested in becoming a legitimate contender in the traditional sporting landscape. From their broadcast agreement with Twitch to their expansion plans and various sponsorship agreements with investors, there is some real pedigree to the league thus far.

But can they do it? Can the Overwatch League expand and grow to meet the lofty heights of their ambition, and will they succeed going forward? To put it simply, yes. I think that the Overwatch League can survive expansion and yes, I believe that they can become a legitimate sports league. The key, however, lies in continuing the momentum that they have going, while also not overextending themselves or becoming complacent.

Let’s start with where the league is right now. The inaugural regular season is now over, and six of the league’s twelve teams are gearing up for the upcoming playoffs that run from July 11th to July 28th. Viewership wise, the inaugural season did much better than expected, averaging no less than 100,000 concurrent viewers in each Stage. To put that number in perspective, the owner of the L.A. Valiant recently said that owners expected around 30,000 concurrent viewers in Season One, which makes the numbers so far even more impressive. There has been a bit of a steady decline in every Stage, but that could very well have to do with the fact that many teams fell out of the playoff race rather quickly. As for sponsors, the Overwatch League currently has agreements with Toyota, HP, Sour Patch Kids, and T-Mobile, with more cropping up regularly. The fact is that attracting big-name sponsors is a cornerstone for any sports league and if they can keep the momentum going then success will continue to follow.

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Not only are there a number of new sponsors popping up rather regularly, but the Overwatch League confirmed this week that there will be a total of six teams added to the League by the start of next season. While no teams have been confirmed as of yet, the rumour is that there will be two each from North America, Europe and the Asia/Pacific Region, which would bring the total to 18 teams for Season Two. And frankly, the move makes a lot of sense as the league currently has a lot of momentum going for it and expansion provides an opportunity to bring new fans into the Overwatch League world. Fans have already taken to Reddit to share potential team concepts such as the Paris Triomphes and the Toronto Daggers.

However, the League isn’t satisfied with these six extra teams — at least not in the long run. Commissioner Nate Nanzer has said in the past that he wants the league to someday have 28 teams, which is comparable to many major sports leagues like the NHL (National Hockey League) and NBA (National Basketball Association). Similarly to those leagues, Nanzer also wants teams to play in their home cities and travel to play away games. While his ambition is commendable and adding new teams to the league makes perfect sense, there also needs to be a bit of restraint shown.

Adding too many teams too soon runs the risk of fans being overwhelmed by the number of teams, or downright disinterested. As for travel, it isn’t a cause for concern with NHL or NBA teams because they regularly fill 19,000 seat stadiums and only travel within North America. The Overwatch League, on the other hand, is made up of teams from three separate continents and while their games at the Blizzard Arena normally sell out, the capacity of the arena is only around 500 people.

All that said, being a global league is also arguably the Overwatch League’s biggest strength, as it means that they have basically the whole world to draw an audience from. Furthermore, there really isn’t an ongoing professional sports league in the world that features teams from so many different locations.

The global nature of the Overwatch League does also bring with it two major hurdles, as teams need to figure out travel costs and build home stadiums by the target date of 2020. As for the potential to pull this off, the League is exploring a few possible solutions. One of the main ideas lingering around is introducing a sort of travelling circus approach to games. The idea is that every team in a given division would travel together and visit a new city every week. As a result, all teams would travel to one city at a time, and play a game or two in that city before moving onto the next one. Under this format, teams wouldn’t have to worry about chartering separate plane rides or other financial strains that come from travelling alone.

This travelling circus-style would bring half of the best Overwatch League players in the world to one place at any given time, which would no doubt create mass amounts of excitement among fans, and it’s easy to imagine every game selling out. Also, even though a 500 to 1000 seat eSports arena wouldn’t be cheap to build, it would be far cheaper than most traditional sports stadiums that hold around 20,000 fans. And frankly, if the Overwatch League is going to continue to succeed going forward, then city specific home games are a must.

Almost every major sport in the world is geographically based, which means that teams play in and are located in a particular city. As a result, fans can see their teams play rather easily and develop an even stronger bond with their team. Before the Overwatch League, the top Overwatch teams like EnvyUs and GC Busan’s names and identities didn’t correlate to specific cities or fanbases, so the choice to make the Overwatch League City-based is a step in the right direction. The fact is that most people don’t know what an EnvyUs is, but they sure as heck know where New York City is.

Speaking of New York City, the upcoming Overwatch League Grand Finals in Brooklyn this July are going to be a good barometer of where the League is at and where they need to improve heading into season two. The fact is that there has never been an eSports league with as much ambition and polish as the Overwatch League. And while the Overwatch League is currently manoeuvring through uncharted waters, their foundation is solid and they are more than ready to make waves in the sporting landscape and beyond.

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