With today's announcement of the first seven team owners participating in the Overwatch League, Activision Blizzard also revealed some information about the league's schedule, player signing and how city-based teams are going to work after the first season. But league commissioner Nate Nanzer says there's plenty more to come, and the reason it took so long to get it out there is because Blizzard wanted it all out at once.
"Good things take time," Nanzer told theScore esports. "My famous quote at this point I think is that it turns out that building a sports league from scratch is a lot of work. And we've been hard at work building a team and building a structure and we want to get everything right. And I think one of the reasons that maybe more time elapsed between the announcement — the initial announcement and today's announcement — than some people would have liked is we wanted to make sure we got it right and we wanted to make sure that when we have our next announcement that is was really something meaningful. We wanted to have a really big, meaningful announcement and I think today is really a watershed moment in the history of esports."
Nanzer pointed out that not only have esports never had a league with city-based teams before, traditional sports has never tried having an intercontinental city-based league. Future seasons of the OWL will feature home and away games in the United States, China and South Korea, and Nanzer says that picking those locations wasn't just about market size — it was about Overwatch fans.
"It's important to us that we wanted big markets, and it's not just big markets in terms of population but big markets in terms of the number of Overwatch players," he said. "So we sat down and looked at what are the top markets in the world where we have large concentrations of Overwatch players. And then we went through a very organized process where we talked to potential owners in that city in order to make sure that we got the best in class operators and entrepreneurs who were really going to work with us and help build the league for the long term."
Notably, Nanzer says that the league won't feature import restrictions for now. Player signing will operate as a "free market" ahead of the first season, without a draft process. Nanzer says the lack of import regulations comes from Blizzard's desire to have only the best Overwatch players in the world participating in the league, but the lack of a draft seems confusing, particularly in light of the scouting reports letters Blizzard sent out late last month.
Nanzer says that scouting information wasn't necessarily about drafting as much as it was about giving team owners an idea of the players who are good enough to play in the OWL, as well as inspiring a few of the top ladder players to examine the possibility of going pro.
"That scouting report email was about Blizzard taking a proactive role in sort of aggregating data on the top players in the world," he said. "Much the same way that Lebron James plays for the Cavs but that doesn't mean that the Lakers don't have his statistics right. It's just an important part of having a professional league is that we know who the best players in the world are and teams have visibility into what makes them great. That was the first step in that process."
Some of those players are already signed to teams in the OWL, and those teams won't be forced to break up their rosters ahead of the first season. However, the three endemic esports teams who have signed on for the league are some of the few esports teams still left in Overwatch.
Overwatch tournaments have dried up over the last few months, and teams have gone with them. Over the past two months, Team SoloMid, Splyce, Evil Geniuses, Ninjas in Pyjamas and Fnatic were among several organization that dropped their Overwatch rosters. Nanzer points out that the three endemic esports organizations involved in the OWL are some of the largest, and that Blizzard was looking for something unique from the endemic organizations.
"This announcement includes three endemic esports teams. Who better to speak about the opportunity of Overwatch esports than three organizations who are actively engaged in Overwatch esports," Nanzer said. "And I think that if you look at the esports industry and you look at the way it's developed and you look at the organic, grassroots growth of it, I think a lot of teams are less professional sports organizations and more clubs. And what we're looking for is a little bit unique because of this home and away format that we like to pursue.
"We think there are a lot of advantages to it, we think in addition to all the great things it will do for our players and fans I think it's going to unlock a lot of revenue potential for teams that just currently doesn't exist today. And in order to be able to host home games in a major city, there's a certain amount of capability that is required in order to do that and, you know I think we've been very thoughtful about who we partner with."
Nanzer also says that Blizzard spoke to "virtually every endemic esports organization," though did not name any in particular. He called Misfits, NRG Esports and Immortals the "best and brightest" of the group of teams they spoke to, and that Blizzard expects to add more endemics over the next few years.
But many fans aren't concerned about the next few years right now, they're concerned about the present. The Overwatch League still doesn't have a set start date, though Nanzer said it's still scheduled for later this year, and there aren't too many competitive Overwatch events on the horizon outside of the OWL and Overwatch Contenders. But Nanzer says the future is bright, even if fans can't see it all just yet.
"You know, this stuff is going to take time to grow. It's important to remember that Overwatch is a game that's only a year old. It's going to continue to grow over time," he said. "But I think one of the things that we really want to focus on in the early years is really start to make household names and stars out of our players. If you distill down why Activision Blizzard cares about esports into one thing is we want to celebrate our players. And we have built the team here to create content around the league that I think fans are really going to enjoy and they're really going to get to know the players and we hope that the top Overwatch players in the world become household names just like the top football, basketball and baseball players."
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.