Thousands of people will fill the Brooklyn Barclays Center July 27 and July 28, but not for basketball, not for hockey and not for concert. They will be there for the Grand Finals of the Overwatch League, an e-sport league video game developer Blizzard Entertainment runs with its popular team-based first-person shooter, Overwatch.
The sold out finals will mark an end to Overwatch League's first season, with teams from Philadelphia and London (city-based team is a league hallmark) to compete for $ 1.4 million in prizes. The matches will be broadcast live on ESPN and Disney XD, which marks the first time the e-sport has been broadcast live on ESPN's main channel in primetime, Blizzard says.
Before the big event, TIME joined Blizzard Entertainment President and CEO Michael Morhaime to talk about the tournament, Overwatch and the game industry more wide.
The following questions and answers have been edited easily for length and clarity.
What do you think about e-sport when it comes to its cultural moment right now? It feels like it's just because of going common.
Gaming is common now. There has been a change. If you go back 20 years ago, games were not [mainstream] really, out of a few places in the world, South Korea is one of them. However, there has been a gradual movement of game popularity more and more in the usual.
It's as big as other forms of entertainment, and so I think it's only natural that organized competitive games will follow. I think people are interested in seeing what they know and what they care about, like you've got more people where games are a big part of life, they'll see what the best players in the world can do. [1
We want games and e-sports to be something that is welcoming and appropriate for anyone who wants to come and see. I am surprised at the level of toxicity sometimes that exists online, especially where people can say things anonymously. It's something we eat a lot of time talking about Blizzard, and I think there are some great ideas that will start to affect it.
For some of the players, everything is suddenly in a light like this, something that surprised them. But they must say that they are public figures now, and represent more than just themselves, and then they must take that responsibility seriously if they want to be part of a professional organization.
It's important to be inclusive for business reasons too – you want to sell games to female players to LGBTQ players.
We make it safe. But even more than the business reasons … what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want our children to grow up? And when you think about expanding games to a larger audience, do you think about people who go online and have their first experience and what should that experience be? You do not want them exposed to such things.
Overwatch League has taken steps to ensure that players get well-compensated in terms of pay, benefits and so forth. Why is it important to you?
It's very important that the top players give us stability so they can focus on being the best. If you are looking at traditional sports, this is something that traditional sports do very well. You are signed into a team and you have many things just like a regular job where you focus on being the best you can be. So have a minimum wage that has health benefits, with this good environment [helps] to focus on building collaboration with the team.
Has there ever been a challenge where it might feel something right for the competition side of Overwatch but does not feel right for the usual casual player?
There is something we handle in all our games that are e-sports. It is crucial that the game is well balanced at the professional level. And we must also look at all levels of play and how the decisions we make also affect these levels. So it's definitely a balancing act, but it's something that the design team constantly thinks about.
Do you play often?
I do, yes.
Have you tried to play against any of these players?
It would not even be enjoyable to look at. But you know, one of the wonderful things I love about Overwatch is, regardless of your skill level, you can go in there and have a very fun experience. And I do. I'm able to go in there and I'm able to win matches and I can play with my nephew, which is a bit younger than me and we can go in and just do well. And I'm not very good at the game so it's pretty awesome that I can have so much time playing and walking away and not feeling that I'm really as bad at the game as I'm probably, if you were to match me with people like really knew what they were doing.