NEW YORK – When the last Philadelphia hero was eliminated and left motionlessly on the animated map, the players removed their hands from the controls, confetti flared through the air and triumphant music scattered through the public address system at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Fans were on their feet and cheered, lifted their smart phones to record the moment: The first championship in the Overwatch League.
London Spitfire thundered Philadelphia Fusion on Saturday afternoon, an important milestone for a first year league that started playing in January with the revolutionary design of esports being played, structured and consumed. The confetti, the expensive fans, the raging atmosphere ̵
Saturday marked the culmination of the opening season, and while the start-up match has spun it as a big success, it was just one step. The threatening transition to the local markets will ultimately define the success of not only the league, but also if its ambitious model really can transform the landscape of the esports.
"The city-based format has really taken a faster and bigger way than I expected," said Nate Nanzer, the League Commissioner, "and frankly, as I knew it would work – for all reasons that work in traditional sport. I just thought it might take more time. "
The League (OWL) was not built to be a fast-paced regime. It aims to have the living and the popularity of traditional sports leagues such as NBA or NFL, which connects with communities like the New York Yankees or New England Patriots, and produces revenue that blurs the line between games and sports.
"I think it's still a long-term game. One year in sports league trading is insignificant," said Jonathan Kraft, president of Kraft Group, who owns the OWL Boston Uprising franchise and also the New England Patriots. "We did this with an eye to build long-term asset value. "
Just before Saturday's championship formally brought the launch season to end, OWL officials had been busy plotting season 2 and beyond. ESPN recently reported that the league has completed agreements with three expansion franchises – one in Atlanta, one in Paris and another in Guangzhou, China – and as many as three can be on their way, each sells for $ 30-60 million. And while the league's most avid fans are used to following OWL games via live streaming Twitch, the league also signed a broadcasting agreement this month that will put future matches on ESPN and Disney channels.
While the league's online numbers exceeded the expectations of many team leaders – the broadcasts are located on average from 80,000 to 170,000 simultaneous viewers. Team and team members feel that their success for year 1 is just a preview of what's coming. They think the league still rolls down the track, and although there are some potential obstacles in the future, they feel they are following a plan that will revolutionize the eports.
"If the Overwatch League is successful, it has inherently changed the model for all publishers, for each league and for every team that exists in the world," said Noah Whinston, general manager of the Los Angeles Valiant franchise. "Having a local model on this scale has never been tried before. If this league succeeds, I think it throws a lot of conventional wisdom about esports completely outside the table."
The two groups of players sat at one stage at one end of the arena, dwarfed by the giant video scoreboard. The favored London Spitfire squad consisted of six Korean players, all of whom would be carded by any bartender in Brooklyn, and Philadelphia Fusion contained six players from five different countries. None of the players on the stage were American, and nobody had any concrete connection to the city he had represented in the last four months.
The news of OWL is the geolocating model where the 12 franchises are linked to specific cities, just like traditional sports leagues. It is a new formula and based on the early return, Blizzard, the game publisher, could eventually use the same approach with other titles, especially Call of Duty, a popular esport title for the last dozen years.
But in year 1 of OWL, all the teams were actually located in the Los Angeles area and played their matches at the same 450-seat Burbank, California, a former studio of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." It will also be the year 2 event.
But owners are hoping that in the years 3 – 2020 teams will move to their actual cities, which opens new revenue streams. A report from the market research Newzoo earlier this year suggested global esport revenue will be $ 900 million this year and will almost double in the next three years. The OWL teams know that money is out there and therefore franchise rights for the first 12 teams have been sold for $ 20 million.
"Finally, to really be a strength – to create the types of revenue generation you want to have on a local basis, the team must be on the market more regularly," says Kraft.
The League sought out owners as has experience in traditional sports, which understands growing an audience in a local market.The OWL owners include the Kraft family, Fred Wilpon, who owns the New York Mets, and Stan Kroenke, who owns Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Rams. which represent cities only in name, there is only so much they can do with that knowledge. The teams have hosted parties and attempted to generate local media interest, but the possibilities are inherently limited.
Estimates suggest as many as 150 million people see on esports globally, a figure that is expected to grow only in the coming years. However, the league wishes to be particularly keen to flourish in the league's handpicked cities. They can then exploit the fandom and generate revenue streams: ticket sales, merchan dising, local sponsorship, community partnerships.
"I think revenue generation is the core issue in esports," said Whinston. "We all know how big the audience is… We are still far away from generating tens of millions of dollars on a yearly basis, but I think we have taken the right steps to begin to prove the different parts of the model."  Kraft Likes League season 1 core crowd to low-hanging fruit, mostly players who did not need much arm-twist. The challenge down the road will grow beyond that.
"I think to start attracting and educating informal fans and bringing in the geographic connection – I think of people who do not love hockey, but say," Bruins is my team because they live in Boston, "he said. I think you must be in the market to take full advantage of it. "
" When it comes into the market, the less than avid fans have a reason to start paying attention. That's when we really have to kick it to high equipment, "he continued. "Look, the league was launched very successfully, no one can contest it… And we'll only get stronger next year. But the next real big test will be when we enter the market by 2020."
Overwatch, barely two years old, already has a loyal consequence. The followers flooded Brooklyn – many of them set up hours before the Barclay Center doors opened – had equipment representing all 12 of the league's team, many with the names of particular players across their shoulders. Many others were dressed in costume like the heroes of the game – Sombra, Zarya, Widowmaker and even Wrecking Ball, a new hamster figure introduced last month among them – and seemed to connect the characters in the game as much as the players who use them. .
In the arena the players were still still on stage, their hands made all the work unseen, their heads shielded from the amount of screens. Most of the action took place on the giant video table. Overwatch is a six-to-six shooter, a futuristic adventure that is both the reason for the league's immediate success and perhaps a small cause of excitement.
Even when the league took off this spring, many players began to gravitate this year to another title. Fortnite was undoubtedly playing at the moment, eventually topping 125 million players and bringing in $ 1 million a day.
"Fortnite has made it incredible," said Tucker Roberts, president of the Fusion franchise. "It's pulling fans right now from Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota, Counter-Strike – all the biggest games that have been around for years. It's no joke …. But I do not think it will last forever."
Fortnite and its royal format do not turn into a team-based league, and OWL officials are quick to point out that there are always new titles. Although some temporary siphon of players, they think the good games: Think: StarCraft, Legends Legend, Counter-Strike, Warcraft – tends to have a power.
"From my point of view, fear of esports fads and games coming in and out of favor is a bit overblown," said Whinston. "Of course, there are random fans who want to move from game to game, but I think it's too simplistic to say," Well, a new game will come together and Overwatch will fall out of popularity. ""
The key is development. Updates, New Maps, New Characters, New Technology. And unlike traditional sports, Esport has the opportunity to adjust their games at any time, even during a season. Blizzard does regular Overwatch updates and this year introduced a new character midway through the season, which forced the teams to change strategies and raise the league hierarchy. As a result, the best-ever season season, the New York Excelsior, was thrown out in the OWL semi-final. The merger, which slipped into playoffs with sixth and last roster space, was found in Brooklyn this weekend.
Although baseball or soccer would never fundamentally change its rulebook midway through the season, OWL officials seemed to embrace a drastic midseason change that forced players to adapt.
"I think there are many traditional sports that struggle to keep fans engaged and engage with young fans because they have not evolved for 100 years," said Nanzer. "And then I think it's an advantage we have over traditional sports."
The League said that they sold about 11,000 seats for the two-day finals. Any fans who searched in the secondary market for tickets last week paid at least $ 125 to enter the arena. DJ Khaled played before today's main event and in the next 75 minutes all eyes were glued to the video board. Down under cameras fluttered over and zoom in close to the players. It all broadcast live globally on Twitch and planned to re-air during prime time on ESPN2.
The linear broadcasting agreement is considered a big step for the young league. It is not only validated esports place in the North American sports landscape, but it has the potential to help expand OWL's reach. Team leaders know that players are comfortable turning to Twitch, but feel that it's also a potential audience who's used to traditional cable. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
"Your core fan base can not go there, but their parents and their family and friends can," said Fusion's Roberts, who is the son of Comcast's CEO Brian Roberts.
It may potentially help arrange the sport in a way where the discussion is not relocated to online portals, college dorm rooms or school times. It can be discussed at the sports chat radio, featured at SportsCenter and discussed at the office water cooler. The audience would not just be those who play Overwatch itself.
"I do not necessarily think there are any big non-gaming mainstream audiences that we have to impress," said Whinston. "I think essentially what you need to do is increase audience by channeling the same passion that local fanbases have for their sports teams. Think of it this way, nobody would say you have to play baseball to be a baseball fan. I think what we are building is a kind of social and cultural movement. "
The road team and league leaders see it, they jumped into a business where the market was already in place with a built-in audience who was hungry for an engaging product. And OWL officials expect them to be around for a while.
"Have you met a 12-year-old recently?" Nanzer asks. "Because if you have, I'm guessing what they do, see, watch other people play video games on Twitch and YouTube. And it's not going to change magically when they get 35. It's not like they're going to beat 35 and be like : "Well, I'm a baseball fan now."
The hopes partyed in Barclays Saturday was just a glimpse in the future: fans fill seats, long lines of brands, a rushing competition that takes place on scene.
This commitment can only be more common in future generations.
"In the distant future – like 20 years from now – I do not think there will be any players," said Roberts. "I think the kids today have children and they play with their children. It's like who today you know it does not play any sports? Everyone has at least some knowledge. I think that's where things are coming. "
The Barclays audience certainly knew what they were looking at. The waving characters cheered their favorite players and were treated to an exciting final. London went into the day after winning three straight matches including a 3-1 win on Friday, led by 18-year-old Joon-Yeong Park, a injury specialist better known in the Overwatch world as "Profit", won the Spitfire Junkertown map, breezed through Lijiang Tower and then sealed the title by fighting back and redirecting Fusion on King & # 39's Row, a London-inspired map.
Spitfire is already planning to take the trophy to London in October, along with his all-Korean group of players.
"We are very happy to face them face to face , says Spitfire CEO Jack Etienne. "They have supported us all season, had to be up to 3 or 4 in the morning."
More than 310,000 watched Twitch's last minutes, and the audience in the Brooklyn arena broke the Korean-based, London-based masters with praise.
"I think it has given us a good foundation for building up in 2019," said Nanzer, the commissioner. "And you know I think that one of our main principles as a league is to make sure that every season is better than the last and I think this will be a great event to stimulate us."
Washington Posts Mike Hume contributed to this report.