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The Overwatch League ruled esports. Then everything went wrong

Esports gaming

Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since its formation in 2017, the Overwatch League—the professional esports program for Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch hero shooter—has drawn frequent comparisons to traditional sporting institutions. Its stated aim, as WIRED put it in a 2017 feature, was to become the new US National Football League.

The two institutions certainly overlapped: The Overwatch League was the first major esports league to franchise local teams in major cities, and it features live spectator events with hometown crowds and salaried athletes. The goal was to offer esports fans a more traditional sports model, where they could go to a local arena or venue, see their hometown team play against an “away” team, and cheer during the event. The model offered local pop-up stores, team merchandise, ticket sales, media rights, and licensing.

Well-known sports tycoons co-own multiple esports teams. Steve Bornstein was CEO of the NFL Network before he became Blizzard’s esports chair. (He told WIRED in 2017, “When I left the NFL, the only thing I saw that had the potential to be as big was the esports space.”) No more potent symbol of the league’s ambition existed than the plans for a Philadelphia Fusion stadium: a $50 million, 65,000-square-foot, 3,500-seat arena, projected to turn Philadelphia into an “esports town.”

As Cecilia D’Anastasio recently revealed to Bloomberg, Activision Blizzard enticed team buyers with a projected league revenue of $125 million by 2020. This money has not materialized. Though buoyed by the release of Overwatch 2and the beginning of a new season of the Overwatch League, viewership has dwindled. Overwatch League 2022 Summer Showdown, for example, was less popular than the two previous years’ events, according to Esports Charts, with just 51,000 peak viewers—particularly grating when you consider franchise owners pay upward of $20 million to license a team.

Questionable moves—like switching the Overwatch League’s primary broadcast medium from Amazon-owned Twitch, the most popular site on the web for livestreamed game content, to YouTube in early 2020—have driven viewers away. Shortly after that move, COVID-19 shut down the live, in-person events and tournaments that gave the League life, along with the international travel that players relied on to get quickly from their hometowns to matches. On top of all those factors, allegations of abuse and harassment inside Activision Blizzard led gamers, advertisers, and sponsors to abandon the League, forcing the company to scale back some of its growth ambitions.

In 2023, the League’s path to profitability is unclear. Pessimism is compounded by the uncertain future of its pioneer, Bobby Kotick, and Activision Blizzard’s decision to lay off 50 esports employees in 2021. Even now, the US Federal Trade Commission is seeking to block the company’s $69 billion acquisition by Microsoft. It’s an understatement to say the League has had a rough time over the past several years.

The latest development in this saga is the rebranding of the Philadelphia Fusion, one of the League’s more popular teams, to the Seoul Infernal. The team will relocate and become the second Seoul-based team, alongside the existing Seoul Dynasty. (Most Overwatch players are South Korean, and the majority of the competition moved there during the pandemic, while Comcast owns Korean company T1 Entertainment and Sports.) The stadium has been abandoned and will become a retail facility instead.

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