The player enclosure at the Overwatch World Cup looks like a cross between the green room of a talk-show and a slovenly student apartment. A shantytown of brushes and wet-wipes clutters a line of hair-and- make-up stations. A trestle table sags under the weight of a buffet fit for a children’s party – buckets of luminous energy drink, crisps, chocolate, a rogue banana, more crisps – which is constantly replenished by a soundless brigade of staff. The most dedicated players at this video-game tournament, who have flown into Los Angeles from London, Seoul, Stockholm, Beijing and beyond, hunch in narrow computer cubicles, limbering up their fingers. Others watch a live feed of a quarter-final match which is taking place next door in a 7,500-person arena, filled almost to capacity, at the bland and immense Anaheim Convention Centre.
In the corridors outside the player’s enclosure, men dressed in black urgently whisper into headsets as they pad between banks of humming monitors. Engineers fiddle with wire nests to ensure that every competitor’s PC is running at full capacity, since the slightest screen jitter could be grounds for a rematch. Outside, in the blinding Californian sunlight, two monster broadcast trucks purr. These contain “observers” – the video-game equivalent of cameramen who operate invisible jibs and booms. A director knits together footage from the game, which is broadcast onto panoramic high-definition screens for the benefit of the audience in the arena.
The crowd watches as the American team squares up to South Korea. Even though around a fifth of the game’s fan-base is female, all the competitors at this event are men. Although most are in their early 20s (a number look as though they could enjoy middling success moonlighting in a boy band), they are veterans of Overwatch, which was only released in 2016. Despite the game’s youth, its makers have ambitious plans: they want to launch the world’s newest sport.
Fingers tap-dance across keyboards and fret plastic mice. A cyber-athlete’s skill can be measured by the number of actions they can perform each minute: the top players average ten inputs every second. Overwatch matches are fought in vibrantly rendered virtual neighbourhoods inspired by modern cities such as Hong Kong, and ancient civilisations, such as Egypt. Two teams of six players take turns to escort a payload – a type of nuclear bomb tied to a truck – to the score zone at the other end of a city. Each player chooses from a wide roster of characters with special powers. There’s Hanzo, a crack medieval Japanese archer, and Mercy, a winged angel of doom. It’s American football if American football was staged in the streets of Paris, every player was equipped with a gun and a couple of zany special moves and the ball was ten feet tall, weighed three tonnes and was primed to explode on touchdown.
A roar goes up. The athletically handsome Jake Lyon, one of Team USA’s star players, has shot down a string of opponents. The muffled chant of “Jake, Jake, Jake” reverberates through the green room, rattling the make-up jars.
Lyon is the perfect poster-boy for the sport as it tries to dispel the prejudice that computer-gaming is a lonely pursuit of wastrels and slobs. In Overwatch people compete with each other in online teams; the game’s publisher claims 35m players had signed up by the end of 2017. It is also a vast spectator sport: viewing figures on Twitch, a video-game streaming service, regularly exceed those of Netflix. Other e-sports regularly draw larger audiences than traditional ones. In 2016 some 43m people watched the world finals of League of Legends, an enormously popular strategy game, 12m more than watched the national basketball finals in America the same year.
Hundreds of thousands of people have tuned in on the platform to watch the Overwatch World Cup. None of them seriously expects the Americans to beat the South Koreans, who dominate e-sports. They have been playing competitively longer than other nations and exhibit a devotion to practice that their rivals have yet to match. But every time the Americans gain the upper hand, they are met with triumphant, hopeful cheers by the home crowd.
Similar scenes of taut atmosphere and drama have unfolded in sporting arenas around the world for decades. But computer-games publishers have only recently begun to explore in earnest the possibility of turning their products into professional sports.
E-sports is the slick brand that has been applied to the business of competitive video-gaming. But defeating or out-performing friends and strangers has always been a central part of the medium’s appeal. In the early 1970s players vied for the top spot on leader boards at local arcades. A smattering of nascent tournaments invited top players to compete at the hits of the day – Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders – for modest purses. The advent of broadband internet in the late 1990s allowed players on opposite sides of the world to compete with each other in real time. Competition moved from the local to the international.
The number of professional events increased from around ten in 2000 to 260 by the end of the decade. Some of these, such as Evo, the Las Vegas-based fighting-game tournament that started in 2002, coalesced around particular genres. Others exist to serve a single product, such as the Call of Duty World Championship, which started in 2011. Soon e-sports started to have hall-of-fame moments. At the 2004 Evo championship, for example, Daigo Umehara, a Japanese player of Street Fighter, parried his opponent’s special move 14 times, a feat that required the joystick to be tapped in an arrhythmic sequence with preternatural timing. Footage of that moment has been watched on YouTube more than 10m times.
The rise of online video services over the last ten years has enabled crowds to watch matches in real time from their computers. Video-game publishers have begun to build professional leagues around their flagship titles as they look to milk this ever-growing audience. These tournaments have a dual purpose: to market the game itself and to garner additional revenue through sponsorship and broadcast deals.
Still in their infancy, e-sports mimic the jostle of sport at the beginning of the 20th century, when the boundaries between amateur and professional were porous. The best members of the playing public are scouted, plucked from obscurity and offered contracts that promise significant prize pots. In 2017 e-sports’ top-earning team, the San Francisco-based Evil Geniuses, accumulated $15.4m in tournament winnings.
The open-door ethos is deeply appealing. Sports like tennis and golf increasingly require deep-pocketed parents to fund coaching and travel to tournaments from an early age. But anyone with a copy of a game and a semi-decent computer has the chance to become an e-sports star.
Lyon, a charming and articulate 21-year-old, is one beneficiary of these low barriers to entry. He cut his teeth in competitive video-game playing while at high school. As he saw players around him entering semi-professional tournaments, he realised he could transform his hobby into a career. Attracted by Overwatch’s colourful teaser trailers, he set his sights on playing the game professionally, even before it was released.
At Denison University in Ohio, Lyon majored in economics and philosophy and minored in Overwatch. He raced through the leagues into the Contender division, where top players are frequently scouted by professional outfits. After Lyon became, for a brief moment, the best player in the world, he formed a team with a group of friends under the moniker “Bird Noises”, a name picked to indicate that they were yet to find a sponsor.
Once they began to win matches, a modest sponsorship deal followed with Hammers Esports, a Hollywood-based startup, which offered $1,000 a month to each player. Two months later, Luminosity Gaming, a larger e-sports company, bought the team out of its contracts. The players’ salaries were doubled and Lyon was given a top-of-the-range PC and a bed in a training house – dedicated homes rented by team sponsors. Here they exercised with the same intensity as other athletes: practising their marksmanship, learning how to multitask, developing muscle memory.
In January 2018 Lyon took another step up when he signed for the Overwatch League. Along with 112 other young e-sports players, he moved into a luxurious Los Angeles apartment complex. Now he draws a minimum annual salary of $50,000 and is guaranteed a share of any tournament winnings. He has health and life insurance, and a cook to prepare his meals. More significantly, he is part of the most concerted attempt yet to transform a video game into a viable sport.
The rapid growth of e-sports caught the large computer-games companies by surprise. Blizzard, which published Overwatch, is keen to succeed this time because it is still smarting from missed opportunities. In 1998, it released Starcraft, a strategy game, which became one of the earliest e-sports hits, particularly in South Korea. (According to urban legend, the South Korean Starcraft team was once invited to deliver words of inspiration to the country’s football team.) Leagues and teams sprang up and attracted sponsors. But Blizzard, which is based in California and employs around 5,000 staff, did not see a penny. It was as if the inventor of Scrabble had been forced to watch as his game was transformed into a multi-million-dollar competition without his input.
Overwatch is a calculated solution: a game that Blizzard has designed with the intention of creating a professional e-sport. This time the company will control the competition. The profitability of the business model has yet to be proved. It could lie in broadcasting rights (which the most popular traditional sports largely rely on), sponsorship or merchandise – or a combination of the three. But whatever the solution, Frank Pearce, one of Blizzard’s founders, believes that someone, soon, is “going to crack it”. Overwatch is a way for Blizzard to get in at the beginning. The 2017 World Cup, at which 32 nations competed, was the precursor to the 2018 Overwatch League (OWL). Blizzard drew on the franchise model employed by American football and basketball leagues. Investors buy a team and then buy a spot in the league, making money from ticket sales, concessions, local sponsorship and merchandising.
During the past two years Nate Nanzer, the league commissioner, has met dozens of team owners and investors from traditional sports. He managed to attract franchisees with sound track-records in the industry, including Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder of Arsenal, an English football team, and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, an American football team. Each paid a reported $15m for a spot in the league.
Blizzard knew that it needed to mitigate one of e-sports’ glaring weaknesses: they are perilously top-heavy. Glitzy annual finals attract enviable viewing figures and lucrative ticket sales. A league is different. How can you convince fans to tune into a late-season, mid-table clash of no consequence? Until now, e-sports teams have tended to be named after their sponsors. But fans need a better reason to stick with their side than the fact that it shares a brand with their mobile phone.
Blizzard decided to base the teams in cities around the world. “It had to be regional,” explains Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director. “We had to give fans a way to identify with teams. It’s something e-sports have never had.” The initial slate, though undeniably American-centric, includes the London Spitfires and the Shanghai Dragons. For the first season, their designation is purely conceptual; all matches will be hosted in Los Angeles. But the long-term plan is for teams to host matches in their geographical region, tapping into local income streams (the “financial lifeblood”, as Pearce puts it, of traditional sports).
Overwatch’s diverse cast of characters, some of whom are presented as openly gay, have also been designed to attract fans of all stripes. It follows that Kaplan and his team want that same sense of identification to extend into the sport itself through local allegiance. Detractors might argue that there are good reasons why e-sports teams have never identified themselves with a particular city. When modern sports teams emerged at the end of the 19th century, they had a natural catchment area. The only way to see them play was to attend a game in person. By contrast, e-sports’ success is due to the large numbers of people watching online across the world. As such, the adoption of a regional model seems ill-fitting and anachronistic at best, cynical at worst.
Yet the same charge could be made against professional football in its current guise. How many of Manchester United’s millions of overseas supporters know anything about Manchester? The crucial lesson from football is that successful clubs attract fans from Tokyo to Tijuana. The revenue these supporters bring in allows the dominant teams to maintain their supremacy. Overwatch will need to kick-start a similarly virtuous cycle if it is to stand out from rival e-sports.
Once fans have been lured in, the next challenge is keeping them engaged. In 2016 Blizzard hired Pete Vlastelica to take charge of its own broadcasting arm, Major League Gaming. With his gleaming smile, uniform stubble and jeans-and-suit-jacket combo, Vlastelica looks as if he could have played a corporate love interest in an Aaron Sorkin TV show. He previously worked at Fox Sports, which broadcasts many leagues and tournaments in America including Major League Baseball and the FIFA World Cup. There Vlastelica’s role was to work out how to future-proof the company.
Sports administrators and broadcasters have begun to worry about the health of traditional sports. The typical basketball fan is now in his early 40s. Viewers of American football have aged with the sport – in the past ten years the average age has increased from 40 to 50, suggesting that younger viewers are turned off by the sport. The average baseball fan is now in his 60s. People don’t go to, or tune into, live sporting events, as much as they used to. Today, teenagers are more likely to watch computer-game tournaments online than mainstream sports on TV.
Vlastelica is a true believer who is convinced that e-sports will one day replace traditional ones, as they will draw viewers into the action in a way that has hitherto been impossible. “At Fox we would always dream about a day when we could put a camera on Tom Brady’s head to see what the game looked like from a quarterback’s perspective,” he says. “Did he see the line-backer rushing out of the corner of his eye before he got sacked? But we can’t do that. In e-sports none of those barriers exist. You can watch a match from any point in three dimensions.” Even the laws of physics are no constraint. The virtual camera can zoom in on the face of a virtual player, before sweeping up to a bird’s-eye view of the field of play. What is lost from traditional sports footage – the players’ reactions of ecstasy or despair – is compensated for by the cinematic visual sweep.
Fans of e-sports love a spectacle. The 2017 Overwatch World Cup took place during a much larger event, Blizzard’s annual BlizzCon convention, a celebration of the company’s entire catalogue of games. Around 35,000 superfans attended. The closing ceremony was held shortly after the South Korean team was crowned as Overwatch champions. Muse, a British band which composed the official song of the 2012 Olympics, was incongruously accompanied onstage during its final number by a gaggle of fans dressed as their favourite characters from Blizzard games. One man roasted inside an axe-wielding bipedal wolf costume. Across the auditorium, hundreds of other attendees dressed as characters from Overwatch rhythmically bobbed up and down.
Vlastelica believes that there is serious money to be made from such passionate feelings of identification. “Imagine I’m watching an Overwatch match and one of the players is using my favourite character, dressed in their team’s colours. I’d like to be able to play as that character in those colours. What if I could just click a ‘buy it now’ button by hovering over their character?” The idea of little digital uniforms may seem quaintly peripheral, a marketeer’s impoverished view of sports fans’ psychology. But Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, reportedly made $1.7bn in 2016, principally from selling digital costumes, or “skins”. “We have a chance to imagine,” says Vlastelica.
The enthusiasm that greeted the Overwatch World Cup masks a particular vulnerability of e-sports. Fans have the power to make a game a success. They also have the power to break it, because e-sports are so closely related to each other. At BlizzCon, one man carried a sign bearing the slogan “Nerf Mercy”, a plea for the developers to make one of the game’s most popular characters less powerful. Arguments about a game’s balance are the staple chatter around e-sports. According to Adam Simmons, a former Paralympic athlete for Great Britain who now works as an e-sports commentator, this is what differentiates physical sports from e-sports. “While small rule-changes do occur in other sports, the changes in video games can be completely game-altering,” he says. “It can be comparable to gravity’s effect being altered in a football game every few months.”
Tweaks in the game are a major source of friction. Professional players believe that the larger, louder community of amateurs has an undue influence. “The developers ruin the game by listening to the public, because the public doesn’t truly understand the game,” Jake Lyon says animatedly. “They call for a certain character to be made less powerful based off playing one game where they got owned. They don’t play nearly enough to have reasonable feedback.” Lyon believes that developers favour casual players because the bulk of their revenue comes from selling them items during the game. But he is hopeful about the future. If e-sports turn into a proven money-maker, he reckons that the balance of power could shift to the pros.
Blizzard argues that changes are necessary to keep matches competitive. “Players are smart and good at identifying winning strategies,” says Kaplan. “Then there’s a snowball effect, when a particular strategy spreads.” Format changes happen in traditional sports too. Kaplan points to ice hockey in the 1990s, when a new defensive technique spread through the professional game, slowing the scoring rate. In response, the sport’s authorities moved the goal lines and defensive zones two feet closer to the centre of the pitch. Most major sports have seen hundreds of such tweaks to their rules over the decades. The difference in video games, Kaplan says, is that players “live in a world of hyperbole”. Browse any video-game forum and you’re sure to see players discussing game changes in exchanges laced with invective and, often, slurs.
Harassment is a particular problem with video games because it is such a pervasive feature of online behaviour. Passions can often spill over into abuse and Overwatch is no exception. Last May, one player posted a 16-minute-long clip of a verbal tirade she received from other players on her team, in order to expose sexism in the game. “You’re a woman, do you even have a right to give your opinion?” asks one team-mate.
All sports have had to grapple with antagonism between teams and among fans. It took decades for hooliganism to be marginalised in English football. The finite resources and attention of a studio can soon be consumed in moderating audiences. Since Overwatch was launched, more than half-a-million players have been disciplined in the form of automated temporary match suspensions for a variety of offences from cheating to trolling. Kaplan hopes that the professionalisation of the game will have a trickle-down effect, though he admits that “toxic behaviour will never completely go away”. First, the league will need to put its own house in order. In January, one of the London Spitfire’s players, Park “Profit” Joon-yeong, flipped the bird in response to a joke made off-camera, unaware that his computer’s face-cam was still broadcasting. Blizzard fined Park $1,000 for the gesture.
In some respects Blizzard has unprecedented power as a sports authority. It is a gatekeeper for Overwatch in a way that FIFA cannot be for the game of football, which any gaggle of school-kids can play using jumpers for goalposts. Blizzard owns the game’s intellectual property. No one else can set up a professional league without its say-so. But this level of control disguises an inherent fragility. E-sports rely on profitability for their continued existence, which makes them particularly exposed to the whims of their fans. If Blizzard fails to keep them entertained and they defect en masse to other games, the team owners will pull the plug. A server switch will be flicked and an entire sport will die.
Lyon is already contemplating what may happen when his own stardom wanes. The physical toll on a cyber-athlete is less than that on their track and field counterparts, but some professional video-game players fear a decline in reaction times as they age. Lyon believes he has five to 15 years left as a pro player. When he retires he plans to work in the industry. He even hopes to design his own e-sport. One of Overwatch’s great players may yet become its nemesis.