Can Esports' Overwatch League Succeed Without A Television Broadcasting Deal?

01/10/2018 09:35 pm ET

Backed by investments from traditional sport industry leaders including, Robert Kraft, Stan Kroenke and Steve Kaplan, the Overwatch League launched today with twelve international esports teams turning to digital media to build a fan base.

Announcing its first distribution deal yesterday, a two-year contract with Twitch reportedly valued at $90 million, all of the league’s games will be streamed globally in English, French and Korean. To date, a television broadcasting agreement for the Underwatch League is not in place. Can the league grow its fan base and meet the needs of owners and corporate sponsors without one?

“After our first season, I will evaluate our success based on whether we grew our audience,” Overwatch League commissioner, Nate Nanzer, told THE HUFFINGTON POST. “There are lots of expectations around the Overwatch League. Yet, we are still launching a new league and it’s going to take time to build an audience. We are taking a long-term view; our goal is to build a forever sport. This year we are building the foundation. I want to make sure we are growing the audience across all content areas from live matches, preview shows, web and mobile. Viewership is the one publicly available metric and the key number for us is unique viewers, which we want to grow over the course of the year.”

One way the league seeks to grow viewership is through content creation.

“Storytelling is an area that has been underserved in esports to this point. All of our players have incredible stories. We want fans to build a more personal connection with players and teams, which we think is vital to growing the league,” Nanzer explained.

Its first corporate partner, HP, agrees that content creation is critical to the Overwatch League’s success.

“Traditionally, it has been very difficult for hardware companies to come in and work with esports professionals and teams to create content that remains true to what we do and is entertaining enough that people want to come back and watch. We’ve been working closely with the Overwatch League to create a reoccurring series with players unlike anything anyone else has done,” HP’s senior manager of global marketing for PC Gaming, Josh Kocurek, said.

But can this content reach enough viewers without a television broadcasting deal?

“Although we do want people to watch and know who we are as a partner, when you look at the audience we’re trying to hit, it’s a digital audience,” HP’s Kocurek said.

Capturing the digital consumer is central to the Overwatch League’s plan to command the marketplace.

“Esports is digital native content. It was very important we put a lot of time, energy and effort to make sure we had a good digital distribution platform. Television can play a really interesting role, particularly internationally where there are markets like Brazil in which broadband internet penetration isn’t the same as it is in a place like South Korea. In a place like Brazil, a television deal could help us. We are taking a global look to television to see where it makes sense. In the U.S. we are interested and having conversations about some of this content living on television, but we really think of this as a digital product,” Overwatch League commissioner, Nate Nanzer, explained.

Others with significant distribution experience agree that a digital distribution model can secure the Overwatch League’s success.

"A television broadcasting contract doesn’t matter much, to be honest. The reachable gross number of audience members we aspire to connect with digitally is phenomenally large. We have to focus on the lowest hanging fruit and then branch out from there. I’m not going to say we aren’t going to make an attempt to negotiate a television broadcast deal, but you have to be efficient with your resources,” Lionsgate’s president of interactive ventures, games and digital strategy, Peter Levin, an investor in the Overwatch League’s Los Angeles Valiant, told the HUFFINGTON POST.

With a distribution plan in place, the Overwatch League has a clear target demographic for its initial fan base: Generation Z.

“I still watch baseball, because I grew up watching baseball. You watch what you grew up with. Kids are growing up consuming this content on digital platforms. I expect they will continue to do so. LA Gladiators owner, Stan Kroenke, said something really smart when we had our first meetings with him. He said, ‘Kids watch what they grow up with and we need to be a part of this even if we don’t play games, because kids do.’”

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