Overwatch backers push pro video games as big-league esports spectacle

The crowd, the level of engagement, their reaction to a great play — it’s like watching any sporting event,” Moore says. His team pays for the house he lives in, and there’s a chef who cooks up a lavish dinner six nights a week. There’s also another coach who focuses on the mental game. So every game a team plays will either be a home or away game. A sports spectacle is exactly what watching a bunch of 20-somethings getting paid to play professional esports looks like. At its core, Overwatch is a fast-paced, team-based first-person shooter. He gestures across the studio. He spent years building movie franchises at Paramount before becoming manager of the L.A. That would make for a lot of flying. “People under 30, they’re becoming next to impossible to find and communicate to, and here’s a place they’re passionate about,” Moore says. Then the whole thing starts all over again. Calgary-born Lane Roberts, 23, is a full-time player with the L.A. 1 in North America. It’s both jarring and familiar at the same time: cheering fans wearing team jerseys, the bright lights, professional commentators, camera crews, a state-of-the-art control room. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The Game

If you’ve never seen the game before, the action’s admittedly hard to follow — but during the Overwatch League’s opening week in January, an estimated 10 million people tuned in. Team Canada finished second in the world, behind South Korea. With benefits. It started hosting regular pro games in January. “It just sorta rolled out that way.”

The Gladiators huddle with their coach David Pei, second from left, to get last-minute instructions before a match. (Overwatch League)

Behind the scenes, a team of dozens carefully choreographs the live broadcast, instant replays, and analyst playbacks. And it’s through the guarantee of stability that the Overwatch League hopes to build stronger relationships. ( Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

There’s $2.5 million US in prizes up for grabs through the season. They’re based in Los Angeles during these first two years of the league, and all games play out in front of a live audience at The Burbank Studios. Ultimately, Surefour (Roberts says his alias doesn’t signify anything — it’s a random remnant from his days playing games on XBox Live) would help propel Team Canada past 30 other countries to a second-place finish. The league also has the all-in backing of Blizzard Entertainment, one of the biggest game developers in the world. Overhead, there are giant, wall-sized monitors primed to show various angles of action within the game. The format is nothing new — but the profit potential is. It’s sponsorship money that keeps this boat afloat, big names who want their brands attached to the esports phenomenon. Sure, he lives with four teammates and his head coach — but that has more to do with building a cohesive unit than scrimping on accommodations. And if you ever think it’s easy or there’s no point to it, I challenge you to try and do what we do.”

As a pro gamer, Roberts gets one day a week off during the Overwatch League’s season. Even the established kingpins of traditional sports recognize it. But even during leisure time, you can often find them playing Overwatch — sometimes for a live audience on a streaming service like Twitch. Gladiators. “We have a huge player base in North America, a huge player base in Europe and Asia, throughout China and Korea and Southeast Asia.”

Spectators cheer on Team Canada and Team Australia at the 2017 Overwatch World Cup. Team Canada takes on Team Australia during the Overwatch World Cup at BlizzCon 2017 in the Anaheim Convention Center in November 2017. Teaching team social skills and stress management is a big part of Panasiewicz’s domain, but he’s also a stickler for eating well and getting exercise. They officially get one day off a week. He has time to chat about it while on his team’s mandated 30-minute morning walk. Consider this: Robert Kraft, the owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, owns the Boston Uprising Overwatch team. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

It varies, but Surefour and his team can spend up to 10 hours a day sharpening their skills, reviewing game footage, and discussing strategies. “I would say the production value around this is on par with what you see in traditional sports,” says Nanzer. “Beautiful, downtown Burbank,” as Johnny Carson used to joke. It’s a massive space that looks a bit like the setting of a TED talk, with stadium seating for about 500 people facing a main stage. It’s a gamble, but Nanzer is keen to point out that there’s momentum — a natural inertia from fans, pushing the industry forward. “Maybe one of their common things is to shift blame: ‘It’s not my fault,’ it’s always someone else’s fault. Roberts, front, takes a daily walk with his team to get some exercise and time away from screens. (Blizzard Entertainment)

According to Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer, 35 million people play this game. “Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal — those are all cities that are really, really interesting, and are ones that we definitely have our eyes on for future expansion.” Gladiators. In the Overwatch League, teams have two-year contracts — an eternity in the world of esports. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

“There’s a real tradition and history here of entertaining people,” says Rob Moore. “Yeah, that’s where the stress comes in … it’s definitely hard. “If you spend any time at all with any kid in North America who is between the ages of nine or 10 and high school, all they do is watch YouTube, watch Twitch, they watch these things,” he adds. Now, about 15 minutes outside of Los Angeles, these television studios are where millions of eyeballs — much younger ones — are focused every week, soaking up the newest esports league to hit the scene: The Overwatch League. “And what they’re doing is they’re watching other people play video games … it’s an incredibly common thing.”
Nanzer sees the league getting bigger, and he has Canada squarely in his sights. “When you sit in this arena, the energy in the room, you’d have no idea what sport you were watching. Commentators in the Overwatch League’s Burbank studio review the performance of the Gladiators after a game. Gladiators. “I never had the goal to become an esports player,” he says. There is a level of commitment and skill that is on display.”

I ask Surefour how much he gets paid to showcase such skill: “Safe to say you make a six-figure salary?”

He laughs, and with a smirk, says simply: “I make a good amount.”

The League

Surefour is just one of 113 of the best Overwatch players on the planet, representing franchises from 12 cities around the world. For example, one team might be trying to escort a payload through a city street, while the other team tries to stop them. But it’s still a job? Gladiators. What this is not, however, is a get-rich-quick scheme. “I make it so you can perform better,” he adds. Indeed, from the long admission lines and the security screening, to the array of pricey merchandise, and even the zig-zag of snack vendors in the stands, a live game of Overwatch has all the hallmarks of any other traditional, professional sporting event. “If you can connect your product into that world, there’s the opportunity to really connect with a young audience.”

The Job

Calgary-born Lane Roberts, 23, is a member of the L.A. There are more than two dozen playable characters — a Japanese assassin, an American cowboy, a Mexican hacker, a robot monk, a genetically-engineered gorilla — and each character has their own backstory. Some of the diverse characters from the Blizzard Entertainment shooter Overwatch. “We are playing video games for a living, so it’s kinda like a dream job in a way,” he admits. Each side has six players, and depending on what level you’re on, there’s a different objective. “There is no [other] sports league in the world where Shanghai plays Los Angeles in the regular season,” says Nate Nanzer, commissioner of the Overwatch League. And the grand prize for being on top when it all ends: another $1 million. Enforcing the latter, he admits, can be a challenge. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Within the first season, he was ranked No. But instead of empty space for a single presenter, there are 12 computers lined up — all facing the crowd — each station equipped with web cameras so spectators can see the players’ faces as they play. They sit at a computer half the day, fueled by a steady supply of Coke Zero and instant noodles. Even restaurant chain Jack In The Box sponsors a team. “Pretty chill,” Surefour says about the life he’s carved out for himself. What has arguably given the game a broader appeal than many other shooters is the sprawling universe in which it’s set. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

And despite the fact Overwatch is generally played online, the league wants its teams meeting face-to-face. The Venue

For almost 40 years, the biggest attraction at The Burbank Studios in California was The Tonight Show. The head coach plays the role you might expect: someone who cracks the whip, runs plays and builds strategies. In future years, the idea is for each city to develop a local venue; think along the lines of Rogers Arena for the Vancouver Canucks, or the Air Canada Centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As for why so many people pay for the privilege of watching Surefour tap, click and flick his way across a virtual battlefield, the Gladiators’ team manager Moore puts it this way: “I see it as the people who are the best in the world at something. That diversity of gender, culture and race may be why major companies like Intel, HP and Toyota are comfortable investing as league sponsors. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

“So maybe they stonewall, and all of a sudden they don’t want to talk about anything,” explains Blake Panasiewicz, the team’s performance coach. It’s not easy. Step into Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League studios, and you’d never know you’re about to watch a bunch of 20-somethings get paid to play computer games. Rob Moore, seen here at the Overwatch League studios in Burbank, Calif., is bringing his years of experience building movie franchises with Paramount into play to manage the L.A. Rams, own the L.A. In-game, he goes by the name “Surefour.”

Soon after Overwatch was released in 2016, he began climbing the game’s built-in competitive rankings. But this is 2018. The crowd reacts to on-screen action at the Valiant-Gladiators Overwatch League game. The Gladiators have a daily coaching and game-review session to go over performance and strategy. That put him in good stead when it came time to build a team to represent Canada at the Overwatch World Cup, a Blizzard-backed event showcasing the highest echelons of talent in what was, at the time, a nascent game. The Kroenke brothers, owners of Arsenal FC and the L.A. It’s mandatory, part of a routine set out by his performance coach. Kids hold signs and cheer on their teams at the January Overwatch League game between the Gladiators and Valiant. Neither the additional merchandising, nor broadcasting revenue, are enough to sustain the league. Nate Nanzer, commissioner of the Overwatch League, says his organization is eyeing Canadian cities as expansion opportunities. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

These are, after all, 20-something gamers. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Right now, at $20 US a pop ($30 on Saturdays), ticket sales are a drop in the revenue bucket. “That happens in our league.”

Across eight months of the year, there’s a preseason, regular season, playoffs, finals — even an all-star weekend. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

It remains to be seen just how big esports can become, and whether the Overwatch League is the right vehicle for that growth. Gladiators, a professional team in the Overwatch League. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Surefour has parlayed that “roll-with-it” attitude into a full-time job playing Overwatch competitively. He gets paid a salary.