Overwatch League is promising its teams something else that mirrors traditional sports: revenue sharing. Franchises will eventually split the money made from broadcast deals and national advertisers — which have included HP, Sour Patch Kids, T-Mobile and Toyota — in addition to keeping all local revenue, according to Blizzard. The players receive minimum $50,000 salaries, and were allocated at least half of the inaugural season’s $3.5 million prize pool.
Market research groups said e-sports last year generated about $700 million in revenue and about 300 million unique viewers — the vast majority of them in a young demographic coveted by advertisers. And more people than ever are watching others play games online because of live-streaming services like Twitch, which Amazon bought for $1.1 billion in 2014.
Companies that aggregate streaming data say an average of 100,000 to 150,000 viewers watched regular-season Overwatch League matches on Twitch in English, Korean and French. Even though the Shanghai Dragons finished 0-40, an additional 400,000 to 500,000 people were said to have watched on Chinese streaming sites.
Being able to “tap into local fan pride and connection to their home cities is a powerful model,” said Scott Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon’s cousin and a fellow partner at Sterling Equities, the parent organization for Excelsior’s ownership group, Sterling.VC.
Overwatch players aim to control an area or to escort a vehicle through enemy fire using characters with varying powers: Pharah causes havoc from afar with rockets and a jet pack, Mei freezes opponents and builds ice walls, and Lucio, a rollerblading D.J., heals his teammates with music.
The game play can be difficult for a casual observer to process, but the culture surrounding it is familiar. Several teams have flown in their players for meet-ups to forge real-world connections. An Excelsior player was scheduled to throw a first pitch before a Mets game, and the Philadelphia Fusion hosted open tryouts for a local player to join the roster of their minor-league team. And as in other sports, fans of the Overwatch League watch matches at bars while wearing jerseys of their favorite team.
“Humans,” Mr. Nanzer said, “are tribal in nature.”
Blizzard, which also publishes long-running franchises like World of Warcraft and Diablo, believes it will be able to hold the interest of fans the same way it keeps players enthralled. It regularly introduces new characters, maps and game modes, as well as alluring outfits that are randomly distributed. The goal is an ecosystem that helps perpetuate the game, Mr. Vlastelica said.