Just a few years ago, video games were seen as the domain of the geeky, sitting in a pool of light in their bedroom and playing against someone they’ve never met in South Korea. Yet today, they are predicted to become bigger than the NFL or the English Premier League, with franchises worth $20 million and city-based teams predicted to have their own stadiums and a dedicated fan base. Times have certainly changed.
This may sound far-fetched until you look at the numbers for the runaway success of Overwatch over its first 12 months. Launched at the end of May last year, the new age-friendly, first-person shooter notched up 7 million players in its first week alone and passed 10 million just two weeks later. By mid-October, it had reached 20 million players, and in April this year, the game’s maker, Blizzard, announced they had passed the 30-million players mark.
To put that into context, that’s about the size of the population of Afghanistan all playing at once or around half the population of Italy or the U.K. That’s more people playing Overwatch than playing online casinos, despite the fact that just one casino site that made three people millionaires in March alone.
Naturally, Mike Morhaime, Blizzard’s CEO, was delighted with the first-year figures. “We’re very grateful for everyone’s incredible passion and enthusiasm,” he said. “We poured a lot of effort into creating a game — and a new universe — that anyone could enjoy.”
Much of the success of the game comes down to some very careful planning, with an age-friendly, gore-light, first-person shooter format that is populated by a range of ethnically diverse characters in worldwide locations. In a highly unusual move, especially for an age-friendly orientated game, Overwatch even has a gay character.
Described by Blizzard as “super colorful and super friendly”, the game was designed with watchers in mind as well as players, with teams of six characters going head-to-head across a number of challenges.
The high price tag for teams in the new Overwatch league has not put off potential franchise owners, with investors coming from both eSports and traditional sports backgrounds. The NFL’s New England Patriots and baseball’s New York Mets are already involved, along with the Sacramento Kings from the NBA. The Kroenkes, who are investors in Premier League team Arsenal FC and the Los Angeles Rams, are also team owners.
They are joined by leading eSports names including Noah Winston, who owns an LA franchise, and Jack Etienne, CEO of Cloud 9, who recently purchased the rights to field a London-based European team for $20 million. Clearly, they anticipate the franchise owner’s 50% cut of all revenues will be well worth the high buy-in price.
Blizzard’s Overwatch league games will not only be streamed online and available through the game itself, but they will also be held live so that fans can come together and watch. The games will start in a Southern California studio, but will ultimately extend to host cities around the U.S. and around the world, allowing “home” fans to cheer their teams.
In time, Blizzard thinks franchises will build dedicated gaming stadiums in their home cities, purpose-built to give fans the very best live gaming experience, as Overwatch grows to challenge traditional sports at their own game. It has to be said: that’s quite a journey from the origins of a pool of light in the geek’s bedroom… Wouldn’t you agree?