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League of Legends Photo courtesy Riot Games.

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Why competitive gaming is starting to look a lot like professional sports

Can an FPS compete with the NFL?

On the afternoon of January 20th, the Houston Rockets played host to the Golden State Warriors at the Toyota Center in a marquee match for the NBA. It was a preview of the epic seven-game playoff clash between the two teams later in May: the all-star duo of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant led the Warriors as per usual, while James Harden, who would go on to win the league’s MVP award, had just returned from a hamstring injury in time to help his club battle the NBA’s defending champions. It was a back-and-forth game that culminated in the Rockets pulling off a close eight point victory, thanks in large part to Harden’s return.

Later that day, the two organizations competed on a very different playing field: Summoner’s Rift. January 20th also happened to be the opening night for the North American League of Legends Championship Series’ (NA LCS) spring season, the long-running pro circuit for the free-to-play strategy game. And the third matchup of the evening saw two brand new squads go head-to-head: Clutch Gaming, owned by the Rockets, faced off against the Warriors-backed Golden Guardians. This match wasn’t nearly as close as its NBA counterpart. In the debut for both sides, Clutch dominated, with the Guardians struggling to inflict any damage on their superior opponents.

As e-sports continue to chase mainstream popularity, traditional sports organizations have steadily joined the ranks. Now, some of the biggest professional e-sports leagues in the world are starting to look a lot like the NBA or NFL. That includes big-money owners, a structured schedule, and things like minimum salaries and other benefits for players. The transformation started slowly, with European soccer clubs signing professional FIFA players to represent their teams in competition. Eventually these clubs expanded their influence; German soccer team Schalke 04 operates a League of Legends team in the European pro circuit, while French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain has its own Rocket League team. In 2016, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers became the first major North American team to get into the field when it acquired e-sports group Team Dignitas.

It’s not hard to see the appeal. Money and viewers have been steadily flowing into the e-sports space, turning it from a fringe hobby into a remarkably lucrative phenomenon. According to market analyst group Newzoo, the global market for e-sports is expected to top $922 million in 2018, with an estimated 221 million fans across the world. Major events like Valve’s Dota 2 tournament The International have made headlines with ever-increasing numbers. In 2017, the tournament’s crowdfunded prize purse was more than $24 million, and more than 400,000 people watched the final matches on Twitch.

As those splashy numbers attracted groups from traditional sports to the competitive gaming landscape, those groups in turn are changing that landscape in significant ways. This season the NA LCS introduced the concept of franchising, with 10 permanent teams, many backed by big-name sports franchises like the Rockets and Warriors. Meanwhile, in January, Blizzard debuted perhaps the most ambitious e-sports league ever, with a professional Overwatch circuit that features a dozen teams based in cities all over the world. Even the NBA has launched its own league, partnering with publisher Take-Two on the 17-team NBA 2K League.

This kind of structure is designed to bring something new to e-sports: stability. By having permanent teams that fans can become attached to and owners can invest in for the long-term, these leagues are hoping to build something that can eventually compete with more established professional sports leagues. “That consistency and stability are really important for what we’re endeavoring to do,” says Nate Nanzer, commissioner of the Overwatch League, “which is to build a forever sport.”

Photo by Robert Paul / Blizzard Entertainment
Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment.
Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment.

The Overwatch League was first announced in November of 2016, a few months after Overwatch itself launched. It was something that developer Blizzard had been thinking about for a long time. Most e-sports leagues and tournaments are reactionary; they develop after a game has become popular and garnered a large audience that wants to watch the best in the world play. Blizzard had plenty of history in the e-sports realm, with StarCraft and its sequel among the pioneering titles in the space. But with Overwatch the developer wanted to do something different.

“It was a unique opportunity in that it was Blizzard’s first new [intellectual property] in 17 years, and so we were building this new IP, this new game franchise. It was an opportunity to build something from the beginning of the game’s lifecycle,” Nanzer explains. “I think something like this would be harder to do if it was a game that was out for a while. But because we had the opportunity to build it from the beginning, we thought, well, ‘How do we build the entire ecosystem around competitive Overwatch?’ It really was the perfect game to do that with.”

Around the same time, Blizzard’s parent company, Activision, was getting into e-sports in a big way. In October 2015, Activision announced that it was forming a dedicated e-sports division, and it hired Steve Bornstein, former CEO of both ESPN and the NFL Network, to lead it. A few months later the publisher acquired pioneering e-sports group Major League Gaming, further signalling its competitive gaming ambitions to the world. “Our acquisition of Major League Gaming’s business furthers our plans to create the ESPN of e-sports,” CEO Bobby Kotick said at the time.

With the support of the biggest game publisher in the world and a brand new multiplayer shooter on the way, the time was right for Blizzard to try something ambitious. The company wanted to take what it saw as the best aspects of traditional sports — namely, permanent franchises, professional ownership groups, and teams based in specific cities — and merge them with the burgeoning world of e-sports. The Overwatch League would offer players guaranteed contracts with minimum salary requirements, along with other perks like healthcare benefits, retirement plans, and free housing. It would include a dozen teams, based in cities ranging from Seoul to New York, which would compete throughout a lengthy season for a spot in the playoffs, culminating in a championship match with a $1 million grand prize.

The idea of region-specific, permanent franchises is a relatively new concept in e-sports. Most big competitive gaming events, like Valve’s International, are tournaments where teams are either invited or have to qualify to participate. With a franchised structure like the Overwatch League, all teams are permanent. It’s a setup that Blizzard hopes will attract a new kind of fan, and one that also helped make the league an easier sell for many owners, a number of whom come from the traditional sports world.

The Boston Uprising are backed by the Kraft Group, for instance, which also owns the NFL’s New England Patriots. Meanwhile, entrepreneur Stan Kroenke added the Overwatch League’s LA Gladiators to his stable of franchises which include the LA Rams, Colorado Avalanche, and English soccer giant Arsenal. The league also attracted owners from elsewhere: Chinese internet firm NetEase acquired a franchise in Shanghai, while respected e-sports groups the Immortals and Cloud9 snapped up clubs in LA and London.

For many of these owners — who reportedly paid a $20 million fee to be part of the league — the familiar structure of a traditional sports league like the NBA was comforting, in large part because the business model is proven, something that’s not true for many e-sports leagues. According to Kent Wakeford, co-founder and COO of Gen.G Esports, which owns the Overwatch League’s Seoul Dynasty, the revenue streams for Blizzard’s league are “very much like traditional sports.”

The biggest earner is broadcasting rights, and earlier this year Blizzard signed a two-year deal with Twitch that’s reportedly worth $90 million. More recently, the company announced a deal with Disney to feature the Overwatch League playoffs, as well as the second season, on both ESPN and Disney XD. Then there are merchandise sales, which include not only real-world jerseys, but virtual in-game jerseys that fans can buy to support their favorite team while playing Overwatch. Eventually there will also be ticket sales. For the league’s first two seasons, all matches will be played out of Blizzard Arena, a 450-seat studio in Burbank, California. But the plan is for teams to eventually move into their own home arenas, in their respective cities, and play home-and-away matches.

Another huge area of potential revenue, as in traditional sports, is sponsorships, and it’s here that Blizzard is also hoping to differentiate its league. E-sports teams have traditionally been able to pull in sponsors that are already closely associated with gaming. It’s common to see the logos of energy drinks like Monster and PC gaming companies like Razer plastered on team jerseys. But with its diverse ownership and familiar structure, the Overwatch League is hoping to bring in bigger, more mainstream brands — and it seems to be working. While its first two big sponsors were computer-makers HP and Intel, the league has since added the likes of Toyota and T-Mobile to its list of corporate sponsors. All of these various revenue streams are then pooled together, and shared out amongst the league and the dozen clubs. “Each of the teams has an equal share in the revenue pool,” Nanzer explains.

Individual teams have been able to pull in a similarly diverse group of sponsors. The Dallas Fuel feature the logo of fast-food chain Jack in the Box on their jerseys, while the Seoul Dynasty signed a unique deal with Mirae Asset to offer financial management services for the team’s players. “Our players are professional athletes and deserve nothing less than the best quality support and treatment,” Gen.G CEO Kevin Chou said when the deal was announced.

Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment.
Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment.
Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment.

This setup doesn’t just benefit Blizzard and the wealthy group of owners — it’s also a good thing for the players. E-sports are infamous for poor player treatment. Scandals abound: unpaid salaries, players dumped from a roster with little warning, and teams folding and leaving players stuck finding new jobs. In an essay in The Players’ Tribune in January, League of Legends star Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng revealed that he found out he was being dropped from his club, Team Solomid, by browsing Reddit. “It’s the saddest thing ever,” he wrote. “In e-sports you have to get used to a certain amount of chaos and mismanagement.” For most teams and players that compete in tournaments, their income is almost entirely dependent on prize winnings.

In the Overwatch League, on the other hand, players have guaranteed contracts and, while they can earn significant bonuses for winning, they earn a salary regardless. Teams are still focused on winning in the present, but the Overwatch League also has a much more future-facing outlook than most traditional e-sports circuits. Because owners are investing so much into these clubs, they’re looking beyond just a “win now” mentality, with an eye on developing talent for the long-term.

Blizzard recently introduced a revamped version of its Overwatch Contenders program, a group of seven regional leagues designed to foster the next generation of talent in the game. Think of it like the NBA’s G-League, or the “B” teams for big European soccer clubs. The Overwatch League is the big show, and Contenders is where players can audition their skills to get on board.

Teams are also investing in state-of-the-art training facilities. The Immortals, which owns the Overwatch League’s LA Valiant and also operates teams in Dota 2 and Counter Strike: GO, recently opened up a standalone facility in Los Angeles, designed to offer everything from high-end equipment to game on, to areas where players can exercise or relax outdoors. Professional e-sports teams regularly employ chefs, dieticians, sports psychologists, physical trainers, and other seemingly unrelated experts to ensure that players are in top-form both physically and mentally. “We’re really focused on these players being the best that they can be, and being athletes for a very long period of time,” says Dynasty COO Wakeford.

But as well as these players are treated, moments of stereotypical gamer toxicity can still seep through the cracks. First-person shooters are notorious for their hostile fan cultures, which can be unfriendly to just about everyone, in particular women and minorities. And while the Overwatch community is arguably more welcoming than most, it’s still a huge undertaking on Blizzard’s behalf to stamp out the trolls. The developer has gone so far as to proactively hunt down players exhibiting toxic behavior on sites like YouTube.

The professionals in the Overwatch League aren’t immune to this behavior. On January 19th, Dallas Fuel player Félix “xQc” Lengyel was suspended by the league for four games, and fined $2,000, after making homophobic remarks on a livestream. The Fuel took things a step farther by suspending Lengyel until the end of the league’s first stage. “We believe in working with our players to help them become the best competitors, professionals, and teammates,” the Fuel said in a statement. “That includes work both inside and outside of competition for Felix.”

The punishments didn’t work: in March, Lengyel was suspended four more games and fined an additional $4,000 for “repeatedly using an emote in a racially-disparaging manner on the league’s stream and on social media,” as well as calling the league’s broadcasters “cancer.” After competing in only six matches for the team, Lengyel was let go by the Fuel.

While the most extreme example in the league, he’s far from the only offender. His former teammate Timo “Taimou” Kettunen was fined $1,000 for using anti-gay slurs on his personal stream, Tae-Yong “TaiRong” Kim of the Houston Outlaws received a formal warning for posting offensive memes on Twitter, and Philadelphia’s Josue “Eqo” Corona was fined $1,000 for making racist gestures on a stream. In each instance, Blizzard made details of the punishments public on the league’s website, explaining that it “takes standards of player behavior seriously and is committed to responding swiftly when violations occur.”

Similarly, when the league made its anticipated debut in January, it was an entirely male-dominated spectacle, something true of most e-sports leagues. There wasn’t a single female coach, manager, or player to be seen. It’s something that seemed to run counter to the spirit of Overwatch, a game explicitly designed with a diverse group of characters in order to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Unfortunately, that diversity isn’t yet reflected in the professionals that play the game, though there has been some minor progress. Ahead of the league’s second stage, the Shanghai Dragons announced that they had signed four new players, among them 19-year-old Korean Kim “Geguri” Se-Yeon, the first woman to play in the league. She made her competitive debut in Shanghai’s 3-1 loss to Dallas on April 4th. “There is a lot of pressure, but I will fight for my goal as there are so many fans supporting us,” Se-Yeon says.

If Blizzard can make good on translating the global, inclusive nature of Overwatch to the players in the Overwatch League, it could represent a significant advantage over the traditional sports leagues it’s aiming to compete with. The league currently has only one woman and openly gay player amongst its pros, which is not a lot, but still puts it ahead of most competitors. It also features players that come from all over the world, particularly North America, Europe, and Asia. This, combined with plans to eventually have teams play out of their home cities, could help turn the Overwatch League into the first truly global professional sports league.

It’s something traditional sports leagues have explored in the past. The NFL has long toyed with the idea of putting a team in London, while rumors of an NBA team in Beijing or Mexico City have persisted for some time. But the logistical hurdles that make these expansions difficult in traditional sports don’t impact e-sports in the same way. The wear and tear of a flight from LA to Seoul, for example, wouldn’t necessarily deteriorate the performance of an Overwatch player in the same way it would a professional in the NFL.

And in the coming seasons, the league is looking to grow its global audience even more. “Our focus for season two and three expansion is to add more teams in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, to really make this a truly global league with a global footprint,” explains commissioner Nanzer.

Photo courtesy Riot Games.
Photo courtesy Riot Games.
Photo courtesy Riot Games.

The Overwatch League might be the most ambitious professional e-sports league at the moment, but it’s far from the first. In 2012, three years after League of Legends first debuted, Riot Games announced plans for a fully-professional league to support the best players in the game across Europe and North America. The league would adhere to an ongoing schedule, much like a typical sports league, and players would also receive guaranteed salaries on top of whatever prize earnings they managed to pull in.

Unlike the Overwatch League, which is a single entity operated entirely by Blizzard, the landscape for professional League of Legends is a bit more complex. Riot operates the two western leagues, known as the NA LCS and EU LCS, while different groups are in charge of other top pro leagues Asia. Chinese internet giant Tencent, which also owns Riot, operates the Chinese LPL, while the LCK in Korea is a joint effort between Riot, the Korea e-Sports Association, and two local television channels. The Masters Series in Southeast Asia is run by Garena, a massive online gaming company based in Singapore. Each league operates slightly differently, but at the end of the year the best teams from around the globe compete in a world championship that is viewed by millions.

Within this complicated framework, the NA LCS has steadily become an outfit that operates much like a traditional North American sports league. It started with the standardized schedule and minimum player salaries, and this year it took perhaps the most significant step yet. Previously, the league operated on a system of promotion and relegation; at the end of the season, the worst teams would drop down to the league below, while the best teams from the second division would be promoted to the LCS. But for 2018, Riot introduced new permanent franchises. Instead of a constantly shifting rotation of teams, the NA LCS would feature 10 squads that would carry over from year to year.

Many of the league’s teams returned, such as reigning champions Team Solomid, and popular squads like Team Echo Fox, backed by former NBA player Rick Fox, and Cloud9. But the shift also saw an infusion of new owners from outside e-sports, particularly from the NBA. The Golden State Warriors introduced the Golden Guardians, while the Houston Rockets launched Clutch Gaming. The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, partnered with former Call of Duty pro player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag on 100 Thieves.

For Riot, the shift to a franchise system was aimed at the long-term growth of the league. “With confidence that they’re going to be around, the benefit is that teams will be able to invest for the future,” Whalen Rozelle, co-lead for Riot’s e-sports division, told me in November. Like in the Overwatch League, NA LCS teams have academy sides for younger players to develop, and many are building training facilities. Team Liquid recently partnered with PC-maker Alienware to open an 8,000 square foot training center in Los Angeles, which features dedicated practice rooms, a theater for reviewing games, a studio for creating videos, and an in-house chef, nutritionist, and sports psychologist.

Photo courtesy Team Liquid.
Photo courtesy Team Liquid.
Photo courtesy Team Liquid.

According to Jack Etienne, CEO of Cloud9, this shift to permanent teams is something owners have been asking for for some time. “When we were in the relegation process, it was really difficult to think much further than a year out,” he explains. “You could be relegated within six months. So going out there to sign a multi-year lease for a building, or to buy a building to facilitate your team, that wasn’t something that you even really thought about because we weren’t in a place where we could view that. I couldn’t tell investors that we have a long-term plan when we didn’t know where we were going to be six months out.”

With a limited number of teams, and rich new owners looking to get in, competition for a space in the NA LCS was fierce. Not everyone made the cut. The Immortals, for instance, lost their place, despite making it to the world championship just one year prior. But the injection of new owners was driven, in large part, by financial considerations. Just like Blizzard, Riot wants to reach big-name sponsors that might otherwise view e-sports as a niche space. Teams like the Warriors and Rockets already have those relationships, and the hope is that influence will transfer to the rest of the LCS.

“It drives money to the league,” says Cloud9’s Etienne. “Those guys are going to have the sponsorships with the types of companies we’ve always wanted to work with.” John Robinson, president and COO of 100 Thieves, says that the Cavaliers have started introducing them to potential partners, while earlier this year Riot unveiled insurance company State Farm as the league’s title sponsor.

This money, of course, benefits the players as well. This season Riot bumped the minimum salary in the NA LCS to $75,000, and the developer says that on average players make twice that amount. The league is also introducing a union to better support players outside of the game, as well as a revenue pool that divides league-wide revenue between Riot, the teams, and the players.

The NA LCS has already wrapped up its 2018 spring season, and the summer split kicked off last month. Riot says it is already seeing signs of success. From a pure gameplay perspective, the league is as competitive as it has ever been. Previously, Team Solomid had appeared in all 10 championship games, winning six titles; the only other teams to win a trophy were Cloud9 and Counter Logic Gaming. None of those teams even made it to the semi-finals this spring. Instead, Team Liquid, which had never made the finals before, earned its first major trophy in Miami. “Those are the hallmarks of what we thought franchising was able to bring to the NA LCS, and we’re seeing that pay off way faster than we expected,” says Jarred Kennedy, co-head of Riot’s e-sports division.

This has spread beyond the actual game as well; the new teams aren’t just playing well, they’re becoming very popular. “Typically our league has been fairly top-heavy, in terms of the fan distribution,” says Chris “Chopper” Hopper, head of North American e-sports at Riot. “It’s been really only the top two or three teams that have commanded 80 to 90 percent of our fanbase.” He cites 100 Thieves as a showcase example of this changing. The team reached 100,000 YouTube subscribers faster than any other team in league history, and 100 Thieves jerseys have become a rare commodity, selling out almost as soon as they’re available. During the spring semi-final against Clutch Gaming, the team’s fans could be heard chanting loudly at Riot’s Los Angeles studio.

From a business perspective, Hopper says that player salaries have reached record highs, and that more than 70 percent of NA LCS players are signed to multi-year deals, a record. Similarly, the developer believes that the new franchise-structure has turned the league’s teams into partners outside of the game; multiple committees have been set-up where clubs share information on brand marketing, social media tips, the new revenue-sharing pool, and more.

“That is what is going to lead to future growth [of the league],” explains Kennedy. “If you have a few teams having some immediate, short-term success, they’re able to take their learnings and distribute them in a way that, in the past, our league wasn’t able to do because the teams were competing against each other both on the Rift and off the Rift.” Early signs have been so encouraging that the European LCS is adopting a similar model, and will be announcing a slate of permanent teams in the future.

One thing the NA LCS isn’t looking to do, at least right now, is move to the city-based model that is such a big part of the Overwatch League’s pitch. Currently, all regular season matches in the NA LCS are played at a Riot studio in Los Angeles, while the finals are played in different cities around North America. For now, the league is taking a wait and see approach to the future viability of the model — but for League of Legends fans in China, that future is already here.

The 2017 League of Legends World Championship at the Beijing National Stadium.
Photo courtesy Riot Games.

This year, the League of Legends Pro League, or LPL, began the process of introducing a home-and-away system reminiscent of more traditional sports. Snake Esports moved to a new facility in Chongqing, about 1,000 miles west of the previous venue in Shanghai. Other teams have similarly moved out of the city. LGD Gaming built an e-sports arena in Hangzhou province, which also includes a movie theater and internet cafe, while OMG is planning a similar facility in Chengdu.

Not every one of the 14 teams in the league has a home venue yet, but the process has started. For all the hype of the Overwatch League, the LPL serves as perhaps the ideal testbed for whether or not region-based teams have any place in e-sports. With its devoted fan bases and huge population, China is a near-perfect market to experiment in.

“It’s a really fascinating case study that a lot of leagues will look to to learn about the idea of regional teams, and building strong brands within cities,” says Hopper. “We’ve had some questions about that in an e-sports world, where fans can be affiliated with a team regardless of their geolocation. There are concerns about what happens when you impose that forced fan identity on them — but it seems to be working pretty well in China.”

Photo courtesy Riot Games.

On August 27th, 2016, the summer finals for the NA LCS came to Toronto, the first time a major League of Legends event was staged in Canada. The event took place at the Air Canada Centre, now known as the Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors. Tickets for the two-day event sold out in 34 seconds, faster than any sporting event or concert in the venue’s history. “That’s as quick as the technology will let us sell them,” says Dave Hopkinson, COO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the arena as well as most of Toronto’s professional sports teams. “It shocked us.”

The success of the event piqued the company’s interest — but not enough to dive headfirst into launching a brand-new League of Legends or Overwatch team. Instead, MLSE latched onto a competitive gaming venture that was much more comfortable for a company with a background in traditional sports: the NBA 2K League. “This was a great way to learn about a space we don’t know enough about, in a very supportive and structured way, and with a product and audience that we are very familiar with and very comfortable with,” says Hopkinson.

Last February, game publisher Take-Two announced a partnership with the NBA to launch a new professional league based on NBA 2K, one of the best-selling sports games in the world. It was the first time a major sports league was so directly involved in an e-sports venture. “We believe we have a unique opportunity to develop something truly special for our fans and the young and growing e-sports community,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the time.

For the league’s inaugural season, which kicked off on May 1st, 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams are participating. Each has crafted a new, related identity for their e-sports offshoot. NBA 2K League teams include the likes of Warriors Gaming Squad, Wizards District Gaming, and 76ers Gaming Club. In Toronto, the city will be represented by Raptors Uprising GC. On April 4th, at Madison Square Garden in New York, the league held its inaugural draft, as all 17 teams picked six players to represent them. Silver himself was on-hand to announce the first overall pick, Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd, and the event looked a lot like an NBA draft; players wore colorful suits, and put on a cap with their new team’s logo when they stepped on stage.

Sports video games have typically made up a very small percentage of the e-sports market. While FIFA and Madden are popular, the most enduring competitive games are first-person shooters, such as Counter Strike, or strategy games like StarCraft. Because of this, the 2K League has struggled to garner the same kinds of viewership numbers as competitors from Riot and Blizzard. So far the average 2K League match has just a few thousand viewers on Twitch, compared to Overwatch or League of Legends, where games average more than 100,000 viewers on any given night.

NBA 2K League Draft
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver poses with number one draft pick Artreyo Boyd.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images.

But for many of the teams involved, the 2K League is viewed more as a chance to expand their reach and connect with younger fans, as opposed to a major new professional team. They may be paying players a salary and providing free housing, but in many ways the 2K League is a promotional opportunity. Some teams are taking it more seriously than others. The Sacramento Kings built an e-sports training facility in its home arena, while the 76ers announced that Michael Lai, who works as a data scientist for the NBA team, will also serve as general manager of the new pro gaming offshoot. The New York Knicks, meanwhile, hired Jerry Ferrara — best known for playing “Turtle” on Entourage — as the head scout for Knicks Gaming.

The NBA has long been one of the most forward-thinking sports leagues in North America. The league has put significant resources behind virtual and augmented reality, and last year it signed a deal to broadcast its developmental G-League games on video game streaming service Twitch. The 2K League is, in many ways, an extension of this philosophy. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a chance for NBA teams, many of whom haven’t invested in e-sports in any significant way before, to test the space before making a bigger splash. “While we haven’t elected to participate in League of Legends at this time, or Overwatch at this time, or PUBG at this time, for us it’s not a no, it’s a not now,” says Hopkins.

This is exactly how European soccer teams like Schalke and PSG entered competitive gaming, starting by signing individual FIFA players before moving on to more entrenched e-sports like League of Legends and Rocket League. And other sports leagues are already following the NBA’s example. Both Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League are doing something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s unlikely that the NBA 2K league or its equivalents will ever rival the big pro e-sports leagues in terms of popularity, but they could help ease some of the bigger names in sports into competitive gaming.

Photo by Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment

The traditional team sports model doesn’t represent the only potential future for e-sports. For years, competitive gaming has succeeded without it, garnering millions of viewers and massive cash prizes for players. And that trend shows no signs of slowing down. In January, at the Eleague Major in Boston, Cloud9 defeated rivals Faze Clan in a tense match of Counter Strike that went to triple overtime and earned the team $500,000 and reached a peak viewership of 1.13 million fans. Epic Games, meanwhile, recently announced that it’s investing a staggering $100 million in competitive Fortnite over the next year, which will include a world cup tournament. The first big Fortnite event was a celebrity-laden tournament played in a soccer stadium in Los Angeles during E3.

E-sports are also steadily becoming a part of some of the biggest sporting spectacles on the globe. Ahead of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, the Olympics-affiliated Intel Extreme Masters 2018 saw Canadian Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn become the first woman to win a major StarCraft II tournament. Meanwhile, the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia will include e-sports alongside the likes of track and field, rugby, and gymnastics.

Just as the World Cup exists alongside the top soccer leagues in the world, it’s unlikely that a successful Overwatch League will hamper entrenched e-sports events like DOTA 2’s The International or popular up and comers like Fortnite. But the structure of a traditional sports league isn’t just something that’s familiar to owners and players — it also allows more casual fans to connect with teams in a way they understand. If you’re from the Bay Area, or you love the Warriors, then the leap to supporting the Golden Guardians in League of Legends isn’t all that big.

This weekend, the first season of the Overwatch League will come to a close. It will culminate with the grand finals, a two-day series of matches that will take place at the Barclays Center in New York, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. The 17,000-seat arena will be sold out when the championship between the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion kicks off at 7PM tonight. It’s potentially a sign of things to come. A few years from now it’s possible that a team like the NYXL could become an accepted part of the city’s sports landscape.

For now, Blizzard has been trying to attract existing fans of Overwatch, which has an estimated 30 million players. But as the league begins to mature, the goal is to reach far beyond that and find a more mainstream audience. You don’t need to play soccer to appreciate the drama of this year’s World Cup in Russia, and one day the same could be true of Overwatch or League of Legends. “If you play games, there’s no reason you can’t become a fan of this league,” says Nanzer.

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