I recently interviewed Nate Nanzer, Blizzard’s Overwatch Commissioner for all things Overwatch League, for this story in the Australian Financial Review. Stories like that only use a handful of quotes from a lengthier discussion, so, with permission from AFR, I’m sharing the full transcript of the interview here for those eager to get every drop of info from Nanzer on what’s happening in Overwatch esports.
Nate: I think it’s a super interesting time. I think a lot of people, certainly a lot of business leaders, still don’t understand that videogames is a mainstream activity.
Just software, not even including hardware, just software sales globally in the video game industry is over $100 billion a year in revenues. Over 2 billion people on planet Earth play some form of video game every year, right? It’s a huge mainstream activity.
When people play, especially when they play our games, which are these really deep, immersive experiences, they play for several hours a day, right? When you spend that much time doing something, it becomes a huge part of your life. It’s a huge hobby.
It’s only natural in the same way that a lot of the people who read your publication [AFR] probably spend a lot of time playing golf or tennis, it’s only natural that when you spend a lot of time doing that activity, you want to see who’s the best in the world with this hobby that I have, right?
That’s really all esports is. Playing video games is huge part of their lives. People who play Overwatch spend countless hours playing Overwatch. It’s only natural that they want to see the best in the world compete at this thing that they love.
What we’re seeing around esports is because it’s such a big part of gamers’ lives, this content now is really becoming one of the key things that they consume.
I have a son who’s seven and a half years old. He has zero interest in watching television. He just wants to watch people play video games on YouTube and Twitch. The fact that consumers now have the ability to watch content on demand around these games, all of that is converging at this time where you have outside investment now coming into esports.
You’re starting to see professional structure and ownership. I think what we’ve put together from a structure standpoint mirrors, in a lot of ways, what a traditional sports league would look like in terms of franchise spots and league and revenue sharing and all the rights associated with that.
We’re seeing these professional owners come in and invest. The guys like Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke and Kevin Chou and the types of folks that we have invested in our league, they’re not doing this passively, right? They knew this is a huge business opportunity.
I’m sure there’s lots of people who read your publication that works for brands that are dying to figure out how to talk to 12-25 year old males. The only place to find them in our content.
Seamus: What were you looking for from team investors? It wasn’t just their money, right? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what separated some of the people that maybe you did say no to, versus the ones you said yes to?
Nate: At the end of the day, it really came down to capability, right? I think it wasn’t about cash for us. It was about capability. We wanted to make sure that we had owners that had a proven capability in creating a fan base, right?
I think if you look at the owners from traditional sports they have done an incredible job, not just winning championships, but building huge fan bases around their teams.
The owners that we have that are endemic to esports have also done an amazing job building huge brands like OpTic Gaming and Cloud9.
Then you have other investors in our league like Kevin Chou and like Netease and the Shanghai Dragons that have done amazing jobs building fan bases around mobile games.
First and foremost is that capability in building an audience, growing an audience.
I think from there, we wanted owners that had capabilities that are complementary to what we bring to the table. We know how to organise events really well. We know how to make great games.
We can make great esports content, but local sponsorship, local marketing, ticket sales, all those things I think are really complementary capabilities to what we bring to the table, and we wanted to sort of marry the best-in-class owners and operators from traditional sports and media and pair those with best-in-class owners and operators from esports.
Our expertise brings all that together, and we think that will ultimately build something that’s a pretty powerful partnership that will really help take esports to the next level into the mainstream.
Seamus: With season one it’s all based out of Blizzard Arena in LA, but could describe more about what teams will need to build out at their home cities to be ready for the future of Overwatch League?
Nate: Putting on an esport event is actually incredibly complex. The live traditional sports experience is still pretty analog, right? If you go to an AFL match, the scoreboard is still operated by a guy sitting with a laptop in a booth, right? He’s like pressing the button when someone scores.
An esport event requires significantly more IT infrastructure than that. We wanted to make sure that we gave our teams time to build the local capability needed to host events to the level of quality that we in the community expect.
That’s the reason we’re not doing the home and away routine out of the gate, to give the teams time to build that capability.
What the capability is, is really finding suitable venues in the home markets. We don’t have any expectation that it’s going to be 50,000-person stadiums out of the gate. We think we’re going to start with a smaller footprint, finding appropriate venues, building out the local sponsorship capability.
I think one of the things that’s really important and one of the things that I think like you and your publication plays a really important role in is educating people on what this is.
Right now, most of the writing that’s done around esports is done by folks like you [as an AFR writer]. It’s written about in the business section, right?
But really I think as this evolves, when does it start getting written about in the sports section? When is it covered as a sport? Because I actually don’t think it matters if people think it’s a “sport” or not. At the end of the day, it’s competition, and people love to watch competition.
I think the debate on whether or not it’s a sport is kind of moot, but I think educating people on this opportunity, educating people that this content is premium content that has an incredibly premium audience that you literally can not reach any other way. That is one of the hardest to reach audiences in all of media, and they’re incredibly engaged.
I think this is a really important thing that I know we’re out in the market constantly trying to tell that story and not just for us, but to the benefit of the entire industry.
Seamus: You guys haven’t announced anything around broadcasting yet, but do you think mainstream sports broadcasting is going to be an important part of this effort to bring that city-orientated, mainstream fandom to what’s going on in esports or do you think the online side of it is still going to keep growing as the focus area?
Nate: I think one of things that’s really compelling about esports is it’s a digital sport for digital natives. This is content that they consume digitally. I think people can expect that we’re going to have a lot of content available digitally. I think when it comes to broadcast and traditional sports broadcast and linear, there is a role there I think. Certainly, the approach that we’re taking is looking at it market by market. Every market is different.
If you look at somewhere like Australia that is obviously incredibly, a developed country, but lags behind basically every country on the planet in terms of broadband, which I probably don’t need to tell you. It’s probably one of the painful parts of living in Australia, but maybe some linear does make sense in a market like that, right, where broadband isn’t as good.
Or maybe in a market like Brazil where broadband penetration is still relatively low. So I think we’re kind of taking it on a market by market basis and making sure that we come up with distribution strategies that make sure that our fans are able to get the content the way they want to consume it, based on where they live.
Seamus: I hope internally you guys felt that the World Cup was a real success, particularly in the second year, but for me, watching it, it felt like it was a great evolution on how viewable the game is as a sport. My wife was a great example. She struggled to follow the qualifying round when it was happening in Australia, but then at BlizzCon with all the new presentation features, suddenly, she’s all, “Oh, I can tell what’s happening now,” and she got a lot more into it. How do you feel the reaction was to those features and how much more watchable it’s helped to make Overwatch as a sport?
Nate: Yeah, I think BlizzCon was a huge … I think all those new features were really well received and really well needed. I mean to your point, I think the teams always wanted to make sure that Overwatch is as fun to watch as it is to play. I think all these new features go a long way to doing that.
Our game is incredibly fast paced. One of the things that makes it so fun to play and such a great spectator sport is how much action there is, right? We really wanted to make sure that we spend time to develop tools that would give the audience the ability to digest that action in an easier way.
We feel like out of BlizzCon, we got a ton of momentum around that. We are really excited to show the world what we have in store for Overwatch League. Some really cool new features around our stage that we’re really excited for people to see. I don’t think we feel like we’re done making the viewing experience great. I think that was like a great first step, but we want to make sure that every season is better than the last.
Seamus: Yesterday, you really clarified the whole ‘Path to Pro’ idea, It really shows people how you can pursue the pro esports dream. How important did you feel it was to have that structure in place before we kick into 2018 and the full launch of the league?
Nate: It’s very important for us that we make this an aspirational league for everyone who plays Overwatch, right? In the same way that if you think about how many kids live in Australia, growing up, wanting to play for the Sydney Swans or something, right? You have that dream, right, and the very clear steps in traditional sports where I can join an academy team and move my way up the ranks and someday, play in the AFL or play in the EPL in Europe or play in the NFL in the US.
Esports for a really long time, it had been very … there wasn’t a lot of structure, right? And so with what we announced yesterday, we really want to make it clear where I start playing in the game, I start getting good, and I know the clear steps that I need to take to start playing organised play and move up through the ranks and ultimately make it.
Regardless of whether or not you think it’s a sport, you’re a professional athlete. You have a contract. You’re getting paid. You have benefits. There’s all sorts of things that come along with that. You’re a famous player of this game. You have millions of fans all around the world. We really want that to be an awesome aspirational goal at the end of the journey, but it is important for us to lay out the journey.
We’re really excited that we’re expanding Contenders, which is our, sort of, minor league system to Australia and New Zealand and South America, which would be the two new regions that we’re adding next year.
Seamus: Do you think there’s going to be a growth in grassroots stuff as well? Like high school? At the moment, personally, I am keen to see schools introduce the opportunity for my kids to participate in esports and get those values out of their school. Friendships and playing with people they know, not just playing online. Do you think there’s going to be that grassroots element that develops over time as well?
Nate: Yeah, for sure. I think we’re already starting to see a lot of activity around colleges and universities in the United States. We’ve also had a really successful collegiate programs that we’ve run in Korea and in China.
I think high school is a really interesting idea. I think it’s something that we’ve been talking about. I think it’s something we’re already starting to see pop up organically, and it’s definitely something we want to support. I think the best experiences that you can often have as a gamer is when you get to play with other people, right? The Internet, back in the day, we had to go bring our computers over each other’s houses and have LAN parties, right?
Seamus: Yeah. Exactly.
Nate: The Internet has made that not a necessity anymore, but there is something that’s really fun and really special about playing together live and even if it’s online, playing with people you know and are your friends. That’s definitely something that we would look to continue to foster.
Seamus: One question I had around merch. Any sport, it’s a very big deal. You guys are working hard on it. I’m curious. Are we going to be wearing merch for the pre-season or is it going to be under the Christmas tree? How far away are we from being able to buy it all?
Nate: Yeah. We’re going to start to have some limited merch available around the time of the pre-season. I’m actually headed to the Burbank studio right now. We have our players’ summit tomorrow and on Thursday this week.
We have all the players out. We have two full days of stuff planned for them. We’re going to talk through the rules and the code of conduct and what it means to be a professional player, how to build your brand, and sort of kick off the season and also do some fun media day activities with the players as well.
It’s all starting to become real. I think we’ll have some limited merch available in the pre-season and expanding the offering throughout the year. But yeah, fans should be able to get some Overwatch league jerseys under the tree in time for Christmas.