<p>The Blizzard Arena in Burbank is home to the Overwatch League (OWL), a professional esports competition that takes the American sports model and applies it to the first-person action game Overwatch, resulting in weekly matches between franchised teams that are broadcast all over the world.</p>
Los Angeles is a city known for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In particular, the Burbank area is home to some of the biggest production studios in the entire world. In a few blocks, you can walk from the gates of Walt Disney Studios, past NBC and then stroll around the Warner Bros studio lot. However, hidden in plain sight between these studios is a building broadcasting a rising form of entertainment: esports.
The Blizzard Arena in Burbank is home to the Overwatch League (OWL), a professional esports competition that takes the American sports model and applies it to the first-person action game Overwatch, resulting in weekly matches between franchised teams that are broadcast all over the world. The OWL is a first for the esports genre. It not only takes a traditional sports league format and apply it to esports, but also features geolocated teams, whose spots were bought out by investors for the alleged sum of $20 million apiece. The result is akin to the AFL or NRL here in Australia—teams representing cities, such as the Houston Outlaws or the Shanghai Dragons, go head-to-head each week in an attempt to climb their way up the ladder to make the end-of-season playoffs.
The OWL broadcasts weekly around the world. Now just in its first season, all matches take place at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, with a goal to expand to each team’s home city in the coming years. For now though, the Blizzard Arena hosts 12 matches per week. The arena itself is an absolute masterclass in esports production. The experience is a sensory overload—a variety of 4K screens show more information than you can process, the sounds of the characters’ guns vibrate through the floor, and the flashing lights sync up to any progress a team makes in the game. At half time and between games, the analysts’ desk provides insight into the strategy behind teams’ gameplay and hosts run raffles for the audience and throw t-shirts into the crowd. At the end of each day, one team will stay behind and sign jerseys or pose for photos with fans. Just like any other sports arena, there’s a concession stand for food and drinks and team merchandise for sale, including the team jerseys and caps.
With three games played each day and games lasting up to two hours, sometimes even longer, you’ll be exhausted by the time the last in-game shot is fired. Whilst absolutely amazing to experience, the arena can you leave you exhausted from the sheer amount of constant audio-visual stimulation.
While backstage, I was able to speak to Scott ‘Custa’ Kennedy, the league’s only Australian player, who moved from Adelaide to America to compete as a professional Overwatch player. “The amount of support I’ve got [from other Australians] has been overwhelming. I have a lot of fans that have given me a lot of push forward to be my best. I’m really hoping that in the future we have a lot more Australian players coming through, so we can represent the league more.” A team representing an Australian city might not be too far off, with the league looking to expand internationally in its second and third season.
That also means that more international arenas are definitely a possibility. For now though, the only way to experience the Overwatch League live is in Los Angeles. If you’re a fan of video games, esports or Overwatch and you find yourself in LA, you have to stop by the Blizzard Arena. After five days, I still hadn’t had enough. Tickets are dirt cheap compared to other sports events, at only $20 for weekdays and $30 for weekends. It’s an experience you absolutely should not miss, and something you’ll want to say you visited before it goes truly global.
The Overwatch League broadcasts matches at Twitch each week between Thursday and Sunday in Australia, 9am–5pm. Tickets to watch the games live at the arena in Burbank can be bought here for US$20 on weekdays and $30 at weekends.
While at the arena, I was also able to interview a variety of players, coaches and analysts involved with the Overwatch League. You can check the interviews out on my Medium.
Photo by Robert Paul and released for publication by Blizzard Entertainment.