Esports and the Mainstream

2 March 2018
Robert Kraft by Asher Karahasan

Robert Kraft loves sports. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he played football for the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity at Columbia University and has been a New England Patriots season ticket holder since 1971. Kraft doesn’t just love sports though—he’s also in the business of them. He’s CEO of the Kraft Group, a multi-billion dollar company which acquired the Patriots in 1994, founded a soccer team called the New England Revolution the following year, and operates a football stadium. Kraft’s now 74, so you might think he’d be ready to relax, hand the mantle of his empire over to his son and settle down for the last few years of his life.

In 2016, Kraft was approached by Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, a video game development company famous for World of Warcraft. Kotick was gauging interest from investors in a new esports league, a competitive gaming competition, centred around Overwatch, a first-person shooter developed by Activision Blizzard. The game had been released in mid-2016 to critical acclaim and by the end of the year had over 30 million players worldwide. The gameplay sees two teams of six players pitted against each other—each allowed to pick from 27 characters, or “heroes”—battling for control over a landmark or object.

In late 2016, Kotick invited Kraft to BlizzCon, his company’s annual convention in Anaheim, California, where fans of Blizzard games gathered to meet one another, watch esports tournaments and see the company announce new games, updates and initiatives. At BlizzCon, as part of the convention’s opening ceremony, the company announced the Overwatch League, a six-month annual esports league that would adopt features from the American sports system. Many were critical of the announcement, citing concerns about Overwatch’s viability as a spectator sport. The game can be confusing to new viewers—the action is chaotic and fast-paced, with a multitude of hero-specific abilities and individual strengths and weaknesses to keep track of.

A few days after the announcement of the league, Kraft was spotted in the crowd at BlizzCon with Kotick, watching the Overwatch World Cup, a tournament similar to a sports world cup, with players drafted together to represent their country. Many people wondered whether Kraft’s attendance at the World Cup was related to the league announced a few days earlier. Their suspicions were confirmed seven months later, when Kraft was announced as a league team owner, along with other prominent sports businessmen and investors. The alleged buy-in Kraft paid for the team was US$20 million.

The league was not the first potential esport that Kraft could have invested in. It was, however, the first that offered the potential of franchised teams. As seen in American sports, franchising meant that business moguls like Kraft could buy a spot in the league, grow the team and its fan base and sell the the team to an interested buyer for profit in years to come.

The success of Kraft’s investment will depend on the longevity of the league. Although it’s similar to Kraft’s purchase of the Patriots 20 years earlier, the esports league doesn’t have the stability that the NFL did in 1994. If the league’s viewership drops off, Kraft would find his investment quickly depreciating.

When the 12 teams participating in the League were announced, it was revealed that Kraft’s team was the Boston Uprising, continuing his Massachusetts-centric investments. The league’s franchise system, with teams representing cities, was a first for esports and one of the major traits it would adopt from the American sport system in an attempt to combat some of the criticisms esports faced about its tendency to isolate the casual viewer. Matches would be played at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, a custom-built facility that houses around 450 people.

Once the teams’ player rosters were announced, the Uprising came under scrutiny. Kraft had signed a variety of lesser-known players to the roster, leaving many excellent and well-known players unsigned. Signed players were rumoured to be receiving six-figure salaries, excluding potential bonuses from prize money, which itself goes up to $3.5 million. In addition, team owners were providing share houses for players to move into, along with other services such as personal trainers, physical therapists and chefs. All of this was backed by a minimum one-year contract, with the option for a second. With all of these player benefits, people couldn’t understand why a man like Kraft would invest $20 million and yet sign second- or third-tier talent over some of the big names in the Overwatch esports scene. But people were ignoring another element of the American sports system that the league would try to adopt—the coaching culture.

With the new league, Kraft was given a privilege that had rarely been offered to esports teams—stability. If you look at a sports system like the AFL, the list of teams is consistent between seasons, which run for months at a time. Most importantly, perhaps, the system allows new talent to be fostered within teams, meaning that the next star players can be coached up rather than just purchased. In contrast, before the new league, esports teams rarely had a guaranteed place in a tournament and teams frequently disbanded, with new teams taking their place. This unpredictability was typical not just for Overwatch, but for esports in general. Kraft and the Boston Uprising team brought a new approach when trialing players—they were looking for players who were coachable and ready to learn, not those who were already regarded as the best in the game.

Members of the wider esports community criticised these infrastructure changes, saying that they had tried to separate themselves from the sporting community and foster their own individual culture. Naysayers claimed that city-based teams would never work for esports and that the complexity of Overwatch as a spectator game would turn away potential fans, even with all infrastructure behind it. Many also pointed to teams like Boston, who didn’t sign any well-known players, as teams that would have a low number of supporters.

On the league’s opening week in January, it was clear that they couldn’t have been more wrong. Viewership for the first week was higher than expected, with a total of 10 million views online from around the world and an average live viewership of 600,000 people. City-based teams attracted instant fan bases. Viewing parties were hosted at several cities to huge turnouts. The Uprising, for example, held a viewing party at a bar in Boston, where fans went wild during the team’s games, despite the odds for victory being being against them.

This wasn’t just the case for Boston either—the Houston Outlaws managed to fill up a warehouse full of fans during their matches, with over 600 in attendance. The league also garnered the attention of the mainstream media in the United States. Commercial broadcast station CBS ran a feature on the league during the evening news and the monolith sports conglomerate ESPN began weekly ‘power ranking’ articles for the league teams, ordering them from best to worst in a similar fashion to articles written for other team-based sports. Although the league has only just started, it’s clear that it’s a massive success. This tournament could be the push that sees esports come into the mainstream.

Kraft will no doubt be happy—he’s invested in a Massachusetts team which has had an overwhelmingly positive response from people in the Boston area. Much like in any sport, the goal is that fans will be loyal to their hometown team for years to come and that loyalty will mean a return investment. This is only just the beginning—subsequent seasons will only see the Boston fanbase grow larger.

Activision Blizzard has indicated that the goal is to a have an arena in each team’s home city, with teams playing games in different cities each week. The Uprising might play a home game in Boston against the Shanghai Dragons one week and fly to England to play an away game against the London Spitfire the next. This structure, which has never been attempted in esports before, is huge for local fan bases. Blizzard has also announced plans to roll out seven minor leagues internationally, called Overwatch Contenders, which will provide new and upcoming players with a path to the the league, including a division specifically for Australia.

Once you break it down, it’s clear why Robert Kraft was happy to invest $20 million in an Overwatch League team. First the New England Patriots, then the New England Revolution and now the Boston Uprising: Kraft has expanded his collection of Massachusetts-based teams to include what he sees as the next big thing in sports—and when it comes to sports investments, he’s rarely been wrong before. Slowly but surely, the Overwatch League is creating change by making the esports genre more community-centric and accessible. This isn’t just any other esports league—this could be the league that sends esports shooting into the mainstream.

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