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At the Overwatch League’s opening night, I witnessed the strange, thrilling future of sports

An ambitious bet from Blizzard

Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.

Blizzard has an ambitious plan to turn a video game into the next big spectator sport. With the developer’s recently launched Overwatch League, a global pro circuit with a dozen teams spanning the globe, the company is betting that the structure of a traditional sports league like the NBA or NFL is exactly what it needs to thrust the burgeoning world of e-sports into the mainstream.

The league features big-name owners, including the likes of New England Patriots boss Robert Kraft and Chinese internet giant NetEase, as well as a level of professionalism that’s new to e-sports. Players will receive contracts with guaranteed salaries and perks like health benefits and life insurance. Several clubs are in the midst of building state-of-the-art practice facilities to ensure a competitive advantage. When the season wraps up later this year, the winning team will take home a $1 million prize.

For now, every match will be played in a new facility created by Blizzard in Los Angeles. The name of that initial home, Blizzard Arena, conjures up images of iconic sports venues like Madison Square Garden or Old Trafford. The reality is slightly less grand. Blizzard Arena is housed in the Burbank Studios, the same place where Days of Our Lives has been filmed since 1965, and it looks like more like a TV studio than the home of a world-class competitive league.

As you enter, you’re greeted by a large shop selling team jerseys and keychains, and there’s a tiny concession stand tucked away as you walk to the seats. The dominating feature of the arena, which can house around 450 fans, is the actual set where the players compete. It’s sleek and metallic, with a large ramp that leads up to two banks of six computers on either side and a massive screen that wraps around the competitors. It’s a space that was clearly created with broadcasting in mind, with little that resembles a traditional sports venue.

But once things start, and the players make their way to the stage while that giant screen flickers to life, all of that fades away.

Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

The league has been in the works for some time — it was officially unveiled in late 2016 — and it finally made its official debut last Wednesday, with an opening match between the San Francisco Shock and Los Angeles Valiant. (For season one, Blizzard Arena will be home to three matches a day, every Wednesday through Saturday.) Because six teams were involved in the opening night, the line snaking around the studio prior to kickoff was a colorful one. There were fans decked out in the electric orange jerseys of the Shock, while a loud group of Valiant fans waved green team pennants and chanted “USA! USA!” A few people even made their own gear. A group of LA Gladiators fans wore matching, homemade purple shirts featuring the team’s “shields up!” rallying cry.

Because there was no actual home team, the vibe was a bit different than a typical sporting event. There seemed to be a few more LA fans in the crowd, but it was pretty evenly dispersed. I spotted plenty of the distinct black-and-gold jerseys of Seoul Dynasty, the league’s sole Korean club, and the heavy favorites in the debut season. And while, at just a few hundred people, the crowd was significantly smaller than the average NHL or MLB game, it was still plenty loud. The chants continued as fans made their way into the arena, and the cheers ratcheted up significantly when the first two teams made their way to the stage. There was a collective gasp when the massive display showed off an impressively large full-screen view of the first map, “Dorado,” which takes place in a sleepy Mexican town.

E-sports can make for great TV, thanks to flashy in-game action that can be augmented by ESPN-style broadcast flourishes. When you’re watching in person, though, things get tricky, because the live view typically doesn’t provide the same information as a broadcast. But the Overwatch League’s home venue brings in elements from TV to in-person matches. You can actually hear the play-by-play commentary from well-known e-sports broadcasters like Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles and Erik “DOA” Lonnquist even when you attend live, and it adds another layer of excitement to the live experience.

Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

The huge screen provides a ton of important information from the current status of players to the actual action of the game. The area of the screen in between the two teams is used to showcase the moment-to-moment action. It’s the same feed you’ll see if you’re watching the game on Twitch or through the league’s mobile app. The camera shifts around, following the viewpoints of different players or offering a bird’s-eye view of the battle, depending on what’s happening at any given moment. The shifts can be jarring, but the camera operators do a good job of keeping the focus on the important parts of the battle.

Even with all of the technology, the crowd is still crucial

Meanwhile, the area of the screen directly behind each player, flanking the main game display, shows their in-game avatar. Overwatch features a cast of 26 different heroes, each with distinct skills. Team composition is a crucial part of Overwatch strategy, and players can switch up their character midgame. The display lets you not only see the current composition for each squad, but also easily see each character’s health status or respawn counter (the time it takes to get back into the game after being killed). Meanwhile, below each player is a huge close-up feed of their face, adding a more human element to the thrill of virtual competition.

Even with all of this technology, the crowd is still a crucial component, at least for a more casual Overwatch fan like me. The multitude of information on-screen certainly helped, but I still found it tough at times to follow the flow of the action. It’s easy to spot an impressive kill-streak, but not every accomplishment is quite so obvious. When crowd started to cheer because of a well-placed snipe or perfectly timed special ability, it forced me to pay closer attention. At the end of the evening, I’d not only had a good time, I had a better understanding of some of the more subtle nuances of high-level Overwatch play.

Unfortunately, the first two matches of the night didn’t exactly match up to the excitement of the crowd. Despite an energetic start that included the first kill in league history, the Shock were little match for the Valliant, losing the opening match 4-0. (Overwatch League games are spread out across four rounds, with a point awarded for each win; in the event of a tie things go to overtime.) There were some highlights — like when the Valiant’s French sniper Terence “Soon” Tarlier found some high ground and systematically picked off his opponents for an extended period — but it was a very one-sided affair. Things only got worse in the second game. The Shanghai Dragons, the league’s sole Chinese entrant that boasts an entirely local roster, were no match for the Gladiators, who swept the match 4-0 as well. At no point was the final result ever in question.

Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard Arena is the current home base for the league, and will be for at least its first two years of existence. But beyond that, Blizzard has bigger plans — and that could mean experiences that are very different from the one I had last week. Ultimately, the goal is to have each of the 12 teams — plus future expansion franchises — play out of facilities in their own respective cities. Other teams will fly in to play, resulting in proper home and away matches, much like you see in traditional sports. If it’s New York against London, that means New York will travel to London, or vice versa.

As of now, there’s no consensus on what those venues will look like. Starting in season three, the LA Valiant will play out of the Microsoft Theater, putting the team across the street from the Staples Center, where the Lakers and Kings play. But no other team has announced a home facility yet, though everyone I heard from is currently exploring ideas for their future home. Dan Fiden, president of London Spitfire owner Cloud9, says that he envisions a multipurpose facility that serves as a home arena, a sports bar for watching away games, a community gaming center, and a practice facility.

“There’s not a one size fits all approach.”

According to Nate Nanzer, commissioner of the league, the venues will likely be very different from one another. In a place like Seoul, where e-sports are already entrenched, it’s easy to envision a large arena full of thousands of screaming fans. Facilities in less-established markets will likely offer a smaller-scale experience. “There’s not a one size fits all approach,” says Nanzer. “There are some football clubs in London that play in front of 20,000 people, and then Manchester United plays in front of almost 80,000 people. It varies, and I think we’ll see something similar play out in our league.”

Whatever form they take, everyone seems to agree that home venues will be an important evolution for the fledgling league. They’ll also be a key differentiator from other e-sports ventures, which are typically tournament-based. “I personally think it’s very exciting,” says Kent Wakeford, COO and co-founder of KSV Esports and owner of the Seoul Dynasty. “That becomes the next level of this sport, evolving like a traditional sport.”

According to Chris “Huk” Loranger, a former professional e-sports player and current president of gaming for the Overwatch League’s Boston Uprising, regional teams could help fans form deeper connections with teams. “I think generally an average fan will always relate better to players, even if it’s a team game, then they would the team itself,” Loranger says. “And [traditional e-sports] teams lose a lot of value from that, because if you lose an important player, the fan goes with that player to the new team. They don’t stick with the team. And I think that by introducing regionality, fans will generally relate to a team more, which adds a lot of stability for the whole ecosystem, while players can still maintain their own popularity.”

In the meantime, the teams outside of LA are trying a variety of ways to get local fans involved. In addition to making players available online through streaming and social media, teams are also experimenting with local meetups and viewing parties for games. According to Wakeford, a fan event in Seoul ahead of the league’s launch sold out of its 1,500 tickets in 90 seconds. Whether that kind of appetite will apply to other markets will be a big factor in the league’s long-term success.

Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

For now, the live experience is surprisingly slick, even if it’s lacking the scale of the traditional sports the league is trying so hard to emulate. And as opening night went on, the in-game action picked up as well. The night’s marquee match was between the Dynasty and the Dallas Fuel. Prior to the Overwatch League, the game’s premier competition was a Korean tournament known as Apex, and previous incarnations of the Fuel and Dynasty, with almost identical rosters, had captured the first three Apex championships. The third and final game of the Overwatch league’s opening night featured an intriguing matchup between two teams with an existing history.

Dallas stormed out of the gate and took the first round, seeming to surprise Seoul with sheer aggression and some unorthodox play. After two tightly contested rounds the Dynasty managed to claw out a lead, with a back-and-forth that was both exhausting and thrilling to watch. The fourth round ended in a tie, leaving Seoul with a much-deserved win, thanks in large part to the stellar play of Byung-sun “Fleta” Kim and team captain Je-hong “ryujehong” Ryu. It was the kind of match that showed the promise of the league: intriguing storylines, intense action, and a thrilling conclusion.

After the game, the Seoul players got up from their computers and walked across the stage to shake hands with their opponents. When they stepped down the ramps, they were swarmed by fans, some waving Korean flags, others hoping for a selfie. For a moment, they were superstars — and if Blizzard has its way, that moment will only grow larger.