When the Overwatch League playoffs kick off tonight, fans will be tuning in to see which team will proceed to take on the league's top seeds, the New York Excelsior and Los Angeles Valiant. But while the diehards have been keeping up with the league's regular season via streaming site Twitch, they'll have some new options—ones that bring their passion squarely into the living room. In keeping with a multiyear agreement with Disney and ESPN Networks announced earlier today, the Overwatch League playoffs will air on DisneyXD and various ESPN channels, with ESPN's flagship broadcasting the first day of the finals live on July 28.
Esports coverage has thrived in the era of live streaming. Twitch has become the de facto home for competitive play in games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, with competitors like Facebook making inroads as well. But for a tournament championship to air live in primetime on ESPN—with highlights appearing on ABC the following day, no less—isn't just a major step for whether networks can get a piece of the esports pie: it's a test of whether esports needs television, or the other way around.
Why the Overwatch League? For one, it's a league made for a television in a way few games are. Overwatch developer and publisher Blizzard Entertainment, which oversees the league, created a league more reminiscent of traditional sports: Rather than organizations, teams are assigned cities, like the Houston Outlaws or London Spitfire. While the broadcast and teams are currently all situated in Burbank, California, the plan is to eventually have these teams play home-and-away in their towns in a regular league, not unlike the NFL or NBA.
But the structure would be moot if the game wasn't already a phenomenon. Overwatch, which pits teams of six players against each other to attack and defend on a series of maps, has managed to become a major player in the esports stage in the short time since its release in 2016. While Blizzard is no stranger to competitive gaming—it also runs leagues for its other multiplayer games, and was the creator of one of the ur-esports, StarCraft—the Overwatch League is its greatest undertaking yet in terms of scope and scale.
It helps, too, that ESPN has spent the past few years experimenting with esports on TV. The network has broadcast Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm tournaments on several occasions—to the bewilderment of many sports fans—and has aired more events for more recognizable games like Street Fighter. The network recently finalized a deal to air League of Legends’ franchised league play on its subscription service. Elsewhere in the Disney portfolio, DisneyXD in particular has become a haven for gaming and esports coverage, hosting bespoke shows from Vice’s Waypoint section and gaming network IGN, with a Nintendo-themed family showdown show on the way.
This step isn’t about one-off finals and spectacles, though. Broadcasting not just marquee games but a regular season is a significant move, especially in an age of declining cable subscriptions. It's rare for any network to be able to tap a new audience; becoming a regular destination for the eyes that would normally be watching a Twitch stream would be a significant get for ESPN.
Growing pains are likely, however. For ESPN, a network that has already made Street Fighter players change their characters' attire, the Overwatch League's frequent brushes with player controversy could pose a challenge—even without factoring in the pressure to present a stable, TV-friendly league that parents can endorse. Esports has long struggled to to reconcile its grassroots base with the allure of stadiums and broadcast finals, and sometimes the scrying light of greater viewership illuminates things that had been left in the shadows.
And for esports itself—for the game studios, the players, even the fans—the question remains whether the deal offers something beyond just validation. Online viewership is well-established: Blizzard says that the opening week of the league's inaugural season drew in 10 million viewers, though the average seems to hover in the 100-200k range during the regular season. Is it nice to know that ESPN recognizes your game of choice as an esport worthy of broadcast? Sure. But esports doesn’t need linear broadcast to keep thriving. It just makes it easier to tell your less esports-savvy friend to turn on ESPN to see the games.
Besides, those friends might be exactly who the networks are aiming for. "Together with our telecast partners at ESPN, we look forward to growing a legion of new Overwatch fans across the next two years," said Marc Buhaj, Disney XD's Senior Vice President, Programming and General Manager, as part of the announcement.
Cord-cutting stream fans. Cable subscribers who are used to conventional, corporeal sports. The communities are distinct, but they're both potential windfalls for networks. Will you be able to walk into a sports bar on some future Wednesday night to find like-minded local fans cheering on the Philadelphia Fusion or New York Excelsior as fervently as the 76ers or Yankees? Only multiple seasons will tell—but Disney is laying the foundation to ensure it’s at the forefront when it does.