The Future of Esports and the Implications for Advertising and Sports as We Know It

Activision Blizzard Leagues discusses the state of the industry

Headshot of Angela Natividad

CANNES, France—Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer, Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues CMO Daniel Cherry III and David “Nomy” Ramirez, pro gamer on the Overwatch League’s San Francisco Shock team, spoke today in the brand’s cabana about esports, Overwatch and the implications for advertising, women in gaming and the evolution of sports as we know it.

“Esports is a nice term, but it’s an industry term. We want to move beyond that,” Cherry said. That direction is “competitive entertainment—real-time and high energy, unlike baseball, which is a nice bang for your buck but takes four hours.”

For Blizzard, esports is “a new strain of sports” that sets itself apart from what Cherry called “t-sports,” his name for traditional sports.

To understand this, it’s critical for mainstream brands to rid themselves of a few stereotypes.

“There’s this idea that gamers are fat guys with pimples who live in their mom’s basement,” Nanzer said. “We hear that a lot; it couldn’t be further from the truth. Our pros don’t look like that.”

Pro gamers may skew younger than your typical NFL running back, but they’re pros with a lifespan like any athlete. Five OWL (Overwatch League) teams have personal trainers, which is par for the course. Pro gamers also are followed by nutritionists, have monitored sleep patterns and train rigorously.

“Their hand-eye coordination is some of the best in the world,” Nanzer said. “If you think of baseball, the best hitters in the world … their hand-eye coordination is faster than any of them.”

Nomy shed personal light on the subject. He’s from Mexico and came to live in the U.S. when he joined the Shocks. He goes to the gym regularly, eats “a lot of chipotle … protein, avocados, healthy meals,” he said. “I try to stay away from fast foods.”

In terms of what he consumes while playing, his response will surprise no one who’s watched a live tournament: water.

“Stay hydrated,” Nomy said. “It’s good for the kidneys, because you’re sitting down all the time.”

Nanzer described Overwatch as “a six-versus-six competitive game, similar to football.” It has offense and defense, and objectives. Pro players must be at least 18 years old, creating a pathway for younger players to prove themselves before going pro.

It’s “the perfect game to build a sports league on top of because it’s easy to learn and difficult to master,” the holy grail of great esports.

The result of this foundation is Overwatch League, “a global professional esports league” that could perhaps be the football of esports: a sport people can enjoy watching around a living room even if they don’t play. (Old Spice is already a sponsor.)

“Our goal was to create something easy to follow for fans that people would understand,” Nanzer said. “One issue with esports in the past 20 years is that it’s big, people have heard of it, but no one could understand it.”

Like traditional sports, and marking a sea change in esports, OWL has city-based teams (like San Francisco’s Shock team).

“That city-based anchor is something we’ve seen catch on quickly,” Nanzer said. “It’s given millions of gamers a reason to care. … If they’ve been on the periphery of esports but never engaged.” Suddenly it’s like, “holy shit—you guys have a New York team, and there’s Boston, so I know who to hate! Those rivalries are built in, and it’s caught on.”

Today, OWL is home to 140 players representing 18 different nationalities. Nanzer calls them “a group of global influencers,” and the power of that influence speaks for itself. “There is no live sport in the world delivering 13- to 30-year-olds,” he said. “That’s what we’re delivering.”

“I got signed because I was one of the best at the time,” Nomy said, noting that he devoted five to eight hours a day to playing before going pro. “It’s about practicing, committing, like any sport, but like your job as well. You want to work hard.”

For all that, Overwatch isn’t very old; it launched in mid-2016. A new esport can be born every few months (consider Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite), another difference between esports and “t-sports.”

Nanzer said they don’t want their own sport to be riddled with “a long history of corruption,” like some conventional sports organizations, so for OWL, Blizzard sought owners and operators across sectors—including sports, music, tech and entertainment—to bring best practices to their scene.

Notably, women in gaming remains a fraught question. Female gamers comprise about 50 percent of the gaming market overall (including mobile and casual games); while esports is expected to catch up, its current ratio is more like 30 percent women.

Curiously, many esports don’t have specific rules keeping genders from playing alongside or against each other—but often, teams and tournaments are organized that way anyway, with male teams and male-focused events generating the vast majority of sponsorship and attention, and female games getting ghettoized.

“In terms of playing games, women still underindex big-time … but on Overwatch they overindex” compared to the esports industry at large, Nanzer said.

“We have more women who watch Overwatch than actually play,” and there are many reasons for this. To wit: “There’s a female on the cover!” said Nanzer. “How many video games have had a woman on the cover?” Also, “our version of the logo is a woman”—a character called Tracer.

@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.