Blizzard is starting a professional eSports league for Overwatch, one with a greater emphasis on accessibility and sustainability than any other game in Activision Blizzard's portfolio.
Overwatch League will be "a genuine career opportunity for the most skilled Overwatch players," according to Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime. Among its distinguishing features is a "combine," an annual event that allows amateur players to prove their worth to pro teams in need of talent. The combine will take place before the start of Overwatch League's first season next year.
Blizzard is also seeking to address the financial stability of eSports, guaranteeing all contracted Overwatch League players a minimum salary with benefits. In an interview with Polygon, Overwatch eSports director Nate Nanzer said that the new league will have a "seven-digit" prize pool, but the intention is to shift the focus towards long-term stability. Blizzard is also considering a college fund for pro players, an acknowledgement that "most won't stay involved with esports forever."
One aspect of that financial security is a focus on local fans. All of Overwatch League's teams will represent major cities in regions around the world, and their place in the league will be permanent.
"Promotion and relegation is really exciting and awesome in European football, where you have 120 years of history and eight divisions in every country," Blizzard's Gio Hunt told Polygon. "Overwatch is a brand new game and a brand new ecosystem. We think having permanent spots for teams is really going to give team owners confidence - and not just team owners, but media partners, sponsors, everyone that's going to be involved in the Overwatch League."
"If you look at the way that teams make money in traditional sports, a lot of that has to do with local activity," Nanzer added. "When we think about adding stability to eSports and to eSports teams, we think localising eSports to some degree by having the city-based teams is going to unlock additional revenue opportunities for teams that don't exist in today's eSports ecosystem."
Financial stability is a key issue within eSports right now. One of the more prominent League of Legends team owners, Andy Dinh, publicly criticised Riot Games for the impact of patches on the professional game. When Riot founder Marc Merrill deflected the criticism, Dinh also raised the issue of restrictions on sponsorship and merchandising making it difficult for pro players to build sustainable careers.
Ultimately, Riot backed down, and it has since committed to several initiatives designed to increase revenue opportunities within League of Legends' eSports ecosystem.