International league pro video games aims to drive esports as mass entertainment

Overwatch League Matches
A crowd takes in the Overwatch League game in January2018 between Los Angeles-based teams the Gladiators and Valiant. Source: Ousama Farag/CBC News

Esports is fast taking the gaming industry on its hold. You can see cheering fans wearing team jerseys, the bright lights, professional commentators, camera crews, a state-of-the-art control room as you step into Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League studios, and you’d never know you’re about to watch a bunch of 20-somethings get paid to play computer games.

Don’t be surprised watching a bunch of 20-somethings getting paid to play professional esports looks like. For almost 40 years, the biggest attraction at The Burbank Studios in California was The Tonight Show.

Now, about 15 minutes outside of Los Angeles, these television studios are where millions of eyeballs — much younger ones — are focused every week, soaking up the newest esports league to hit the scene: The Overwatch League. It started hosting regular pro games in January 2018.

There’s a real tradition and history here of entertaining people across the studio. It’s a massive space that looks a bit like the setting of a TED talk, with stadium seating for about 500 people facing a main stage. But instead of empty space for a single presenter, there are 12 computers lined up — all facing the crowd — each station equipped with web cameras so spectators can see the players’ faces as they play.

Overhead, there are giant, wall-sized monitors primed to show various angles of action within the game.

Overwatch matches and league in progress
Commentators in the Overwatch League’s Burbank studio review the performance of the Gladiators after a game. (Overwatch League)

Behind the scenes, a team of dozens carefully choreographs the live broadcast, instant replays, and analyst playbacks. When you sit in this arena, the energy in the room, you’d have no idea what sport you were watching. The crowd, the level of engagement, their reaction to a great play — it’s like watching any sporting event.
Indeed, from the long admission lines and the security screening, to the array of pricey merchandise, and even the zig-zag of snack vendors in the stands, a live game of Overwatch has all the hallmarks of any other traditional, professional sporting event.

The Game Play

If you’ve never seen the game before, the action’s admittedly hard to follow — but during the Overwatch League’s opening week in January, an estimated 10 million people tuned in. At its core, Overwatch is a fast-paced, team-based first-person shooter. Each side has six players, and depending on what level you’re on, there’s a different objective. For example, one team might be trying to escort a payload through a city street, while the other team tries to stop them.

Game play at Blizzard Entertainment
Some of the diverse characters from the Blizzard Entertainment shooter Overwatch. (Blizzard Entertainment)

According to Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, 35 million people play this game. What has arguably given the game a broader appeal than many other shooters is the sprawling universe in which it’s set.

There are more than two dozen playable characters — a Japanese assassin, an American cowboy, a Mexican hacker, a robot monk, a genetically-engineered gorilla — and each character has their own backstory. That diversity of gender, culture and race may be why major companies like Intel, HP and Toyota are comfortable investing as league sponsors. Even restaurant chain Jack In The Box sponsors a team. People under 30, they’re becoming next to impossible to find and communicate to, and here’s a place they’re passionate about.

Lane Roberts, 23, from Canada is a member of the L.A. Gladiators. In-game, he goes by the name “Surefour.” Soon after Overwatch was released in 2016, he began climbing the game’s built-in competitive rankings.

Within the first season, he was ranked No. 1 in North America. That put him in good stead when it came time to build a team to represent Canada at the Overwatch World Cup, a Blizzard-backed event showcasing the highest echelons of talent in what was, at the time, a nascent game.

Ultimately, Surefour would help propel Team Canada past 30 other countries to a second-place finish. “I never had the goal to become an esports player,” he says. “It just sorta rolled out that way.”

League matches
The Gladiators huddle with their coach David Pei, second from left, to get last-minute instructions before a match. Source: Ousama Farag/CBC News

Surefour has parlayed that “roll-with-it” attitude into a full-time job playing Overwatch competitively. He gets paid a salary with  benefits. His team pays for the house he lives in, and there’s a chef who cooks up a lavish dinner six nights a week. Sure, he lives with four teammates and his head coach — but that has more to do with building a cohesive unit than scrimping on accommodations. The head coach plays the role you might expect: someone who cracks the whip, runs plays and builds strategies. There’s also another coach who focuses on the mental game.

These are, after all, 20-something gamers. They sit at a computer half the day, fueled by a steady supply of Coke Zero and instant noodles. “Pretty chill,” Surefour says about the life he’s carved out for himself. He has time to chat about it while on his team’s mandated 30-minute morning walk. “We are playing video games for a living, so it’s kinda like a dream job in a way,” he admits.

“Yeah, that’s where the stress comes in … it’s definitely hard. It’s not easy. And if you ever think it’s easy or there’s no point to it, I challenge you to try and do what we do.”

It varies, but Surefour and his team can spend up to 10 hours a day sharpening their skills, reviewing game footage, and discussing strategies. They officially get one day off a week. But even during leisure time, you can often find them playing Overwatch — sometimes for a live audience on a streaming service like Twitch.

The League

Surefour is just one of 113 of the best Overwatch players on the planet, representing franchises from 12 cities around the world. They’re based in Los Angeles during these first two years of the league, and all games play out in front of a live audience at The Burbank Studios.

Also despite the fact Overwatch is generally played online, the league wants its teams meeting face-to-face. So every game a team plays will either be a home or away game.

League Matches
Team Canada takes on Team Australia during the Overwatch World Cup at BlizzCon 2017 in the Anaheim Convention Center in November 2017.  Source: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

There’s $2.5 million US in prizes up for grabs through the season and the grand prize for being on top when it all ends: another $1 million. Then the whole thing starts all over again. It’s sponsorship money that keeps this boat afloat, big names who want their brands attached to the esports phenomenon. And it’s through the guarantee of stability that the Overwatch League hopes to build stronger relationships.

In the Overwatch League, teams have two-year contracts — an eternity in the world of esports. The league also has the all-in backing of Blizzard Entertainment, one of the biggest game developers in the world.

It remains to be seen just how big esports can become, and whether the Overwatch League is the right vehicle for that growth. It’s a gamble, and there’s momentum — a natural inertia from fans, pushing the industry forward. (Source CBC News)

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