THE OVERWATCH VIDEOGAME LEAGUE AIMS TO BECOME THE NEW NFL
by DAMON CASAREZ.
STEFANO DISALVO IS a professional athlete.
He has the physical gifts of a professional athlete, the dedication and drive of a professional athlete, the monomaniacal schedule of a professional athlete. He wakes up at 6:30 in the morning and spends some time reviewing game tape of his own performance before calisthenics begin around 9—jogging, frisbee, soccer—followed by practice, seven straight hours of it, where his team plays against some of the finest competition in the world, testing new strategies. Then a team meeting at night to discuss the day’s mistakes and how to correct them, after which he will spend another few hours practicing alone or interacting with his fans or studying his rivals or, sometimes, all three. Then bedtime, before doing the same thing again tomorrow.
It’s likely you’ve never heard of Stefano Disalvo. You probably haven’t heard of his team either. You maybe haven’t heard of his sport, and even if you have heard of his sport, you wouldn’t know him as Stefano Disalvo—he’s known as “Verbo,” one of the top players in the world at a videogame called Overwatch. He’s 18 years old, and he has just signed his first major professional contract: He’ll get a nice salary, a robust health insurance plan, free housing, and a 401(k). And beginning this month, his team, the newly formed Los Angeles Valiant, will be one of 12 competing in a first-of-its-kind global esports league, a grand experiment involving some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment who believe Overwatch can rival traditional sports in audience and revenue. If this league succeeds—if its players, coaches, franchise owners, and front-office executives can overcome a skeptical audience, a complicated and sometimes baffling game, and big problems of inclusion and harassment—then gamers like Disalvo, who have mortgaged their entire adolescence for this one shot at glory, could be among the first athletes to get very rich playing videogames, in front of people, for money.
Welcome to the future of sports.
IF YOU ARE, like me, of a generation where videogames were not a spectator sport except for maybe gathering around the arcade to watch someone who’s really good at Street Fighter, then you could be forgiven for not knowing all of this was going on. The phenomenon of esports—people playing against each other in live videogame competitions—is still so new that there isn’t even consensus about how to spell it: I’ve seen esports, e-sports, E-sports, and eSports.
I should say, actually, that esports are relatively new—that is, new for some of us. But for the professionals who play, who are almost uniformly between the ages of 17 and 26, it’s something that’s been around for most of their lives and something they take for granted. When Disalvo was a 16-year-old high school student in Toronto, he already knew he wanted to be an esports professional. He knew this mostly through a process of elimination: He had tried every other thing, and none of them felt transcendent or even interesting. He played hockey and tennis, he swam. He took all the classes you’re supposed to take, and when people asked him what his favorite subject was, he’d say lunchtime. “I was trying to find something that I loved doing,” Disalvo says. “I honestly didn’t really enjoy anything.”
There was one thing he did enjoy, though, a secret he kept from almost everyone: He loved playing videogames, and he was extraordinarily good at it. And when he saw players winning tournaments for games like League of Legends, he decided that he wanted, more than anything else, to do that.
A basic problem, though, was that League of Legendsalready had a well-established and very competitive esports scene, and the path to becoming a pro in that game seemed very narrow. However, in November 2014, Disalvo saw that Blizzard, the company behind such massive franchises as Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo, was developing a new game. It was called Overwatch, and it looked to be a first-person shooter. Knowing that most of Blizzard’s games eventually generate big esports scenes, Disalvo decided to switch. “New game,” he says. “Everybody’s starting at the same level. It’s not as if I have to catch up to all the other professional players.”
I was surprised to hear this, as I’d assumed that pro gamers began playing a game because they enjoyed it and then gradually became good enough to turn pro. But Disalvo decided to make Overwatch his young life’s work before he’d ever even played it. “I saw the esports potential,” he says with a shrug. “I didn’t care if the game was fun.”
He got access to the Overwatch beta and committed himself to mastering the game. He stopped eating lunch with his friends, using that time to finish homework so he could go home and play Overwatch for seven hours straight. He didn’t go to parties, he didn’t go out with friends, he didn’t date, he wasn’t in any way social.
If you’re thinking that Disalvo fits the stereotype of a friendless, socially awkward gamer, disabuse yourself of that notion. He’s an affable and confident young man who’d been a swim instructor, a lifeguard, and an excellent hockey player. He has a good sense of humor, and when he laughs, he looks startlingly like James Franco. In other words, if he’d wanted to date, he probably could have. But he didn’t, and his classmates didn’t know what to make of it.
Playing the beta, and before Overwatch was even officially released in May 2016, Disalvo began competing in amateur tournaments. He started playing even longer hours, and his studies suffered. His mother demanded he focus on school, but he announced he was going to be an esports professional. His mother said no, he was going to college. He said no, he was skipping college to go pro in Overwatch. Looking back, he’s not sure how that standoff would have been resolved were it not for a job offer that came two weeks after his mother’s ultimatum. A professional esports outfit wanted him on its Overwatch team, and it wanted to move him to Southern California to live and train with his teammates.
Armed now with an official contract, Disalvo went back to his mother, and she eventually agreed to let him leave school early, on the condition that he would finish his diploma online. Most of his classmates were mildly puzzled by his sudden disappearance. There were rumors about California. Were it not for a yearbook article about his new career, it’s possible that his classmates would still be asking: Whatever happened to Stefano Disalvo?
Mei is one of dozens of heroes in Overwatch
JEFF KAPLAN, WHO oversees all things overwatch at Blizzard, says that when developers began work on the game in 2013, they felt the need to create a world wholly apart from the trio of worlds that the company already offered: the high fantasy of Warcraft, the space opera of Starcraft, the gothic horror of Diablo. What would be the most unexpected, most fantastical place they could take gamers next?
The answer, they decided, was Earth.
The team ultimately began working on a game that would be Blizzard’s first entry into the popular first-person-shooter genre, and they would set it on Earth, sometime in the not-too-distant future.
But when they began researching other earthbound first-person shooters, they found a surplus of what Kaplan calls “cynical, borderline postapocalyptic dystopia.” In other words, morbidly dark, gritty, and depressing. Lots of blood and gore. Games you’d feel a little weird about if you played them in front of your kids.
This led the team in a different and sort of radical direction: optimism. “We wanted it to be a future worth fighting for,” Kaplan says. “So it’s a bright, aspirational future, and when conflict happens you have to go out and defend it, because this world is so awesome we can’t let anybody ruin it. So it really led us to a place of hope.”
The basic premise of the game is that AI robots, designed to usher in an economic golden age for humanity, try to take over the world. To respond to the crisis, the United Nations forms Overwatch, a team of fighters and adventurers recruited to quash the robot rebellion. The Overwatch forces defeat the robots, and then end up battling each other.
These characters—they’re called “heroes” in Overwatchlingo, and there are 26 of them as of this writing, though Blizzard tends to update this a lot—are the beating heart of the game. As opposed to many other first-person shooters, where your avatar is just a kind of anonymous good guy or bad guy, the heroes you play in Overwatch have personality. They have persuasive origins and very human hopes and fears and complicated relationships with the other heroes. There’s Mei, for example, a climate scientist who was stranded in her research station in Antarctica and has since become this gallant adventurer who nevertheless still wears these huge, nerdy round glasses and an adorable poofy coat. Or Bastion, an anthropomorphic machine gun who’s friends with a tiny delicate bird that he gently cares for. This game doesn’t just have backstory, it has lore, which is all explicated in animated web movies and comic books that are intended to drive “deep engagement,” to borrow the language of Blizzard’s quarterly reports.
Overwatch super fan Dorothy Dang as the tank hero D.VA.
Overwatch super fan Marcus Silvoso dressed as the healer hero Lucio
The game is team-based, six versus six. If you’re playing Overwatch, you are playing with and against other real people who are connected to the internet and seeing and hearing the same things as you. You can play as any of the 26 heroes, even swapping from one hero to another during the course of the game. Mostly, the game is played as a series of timed rounds: The attacking team has four minutes to capture certain areas or move a payload (think: the pigskin going downfield) while the defending team tries to thwart them. Once time’s up, attackers and defenders switch roles for the next round. Whichever team captures more areas or moves the payload farther wins the game, and if a player is killed in action, they have to wait 10 seconds (sometimes more) before rejoining the fight.
The formula—refreshing optimism plus interesting heroes plus shoot-’em-up action— was an immediate hit. Overwatch became Blizzard’s fastest-growing game ever, a best seller that, after a little more than a year, has 35 million players and generates more than a billion dollars annually.
Nate Nanzer, who was Blizzard’s global director of research and consumer insights leading up to Overwatch’s launch, says the game’s popularity comes, in part, from gamers’ love for the heroes, noting particularly the significance of a lineup that “looks like what the world looks like,” by which he means racially diverse, multinational, and equitably gendered.
The other thing Nanzer noticed early in Overwatch’s development cycle was a surge in interest in videogames as a spectator sport. Esports originated largely in South Korea, with the game StarCraft: Brood War, roughly 20 years ago, and eventually found its way onto Korean television. Then it jumped to Korean internet streaming platforms around 2003, which is when North American gamers began getting clued in. The popularity of gaming streams eventually gave rise to Twitch, a platform that launched in 2011 and specializes in videogame livestreaming. By 2014, when Amazon purchased Twitch for almost a billion dollars, the total number of minutes that people spent every year watching other people, mostly strangers, play videogames on Twitch was 192 billion. By the end of 2016, it had risen to 292 billion.
Even while Overwatch was in beta, fans and entrepreneurs were already organizing Overwatch tournaments, broadcasting matches live on Twitch. It was completely grassroots, seriously hardcore, totally decentralized, and kind of a mess. Nanzer wondered what would happen if Blizzard could take control of the tournaments. “If we structure a league the right way and put the right investment behind it, we can actually monetize it in a way that’s not too dissimilar from traditional sports,” he says.