And it's a prime time, maybe the stars were right I had a premonition, it's gonna be my turn tonight The Alan Parsons Project – Prime Time
In what could potentially turn out to be the biggest deal to date in the history of the Overwatch League, Blizzard Entertainment and Disney agreed to a multi-year broadcast deal featuring the company’s flagship esport experiment, meaning the biggest American sports platform will be regularly airing what is trying to become the biggest esport we’ve ever seen. It’s also a developing story with most outlets merely regurgitating the initial press release, so expect more details to come out in the near future, but there’s already some fine print for us to dissect.
Make no mistake, this is a positive development. More eyeballs and a very different demographic are on offer for the OWL side who didn’t even have to blow up their existing distribution agreements with Twitch and the like in order to get this deal done – remember, their agreement with the now Amazon-owned giant in the scene lasts until 2019. As Pete Clastelica, the president and chief executive officer of Blizzard’s esports leagues put it: "It's a cross section that's a hardcore sports fan, especially on ESPN channels. They love watching competition, they love watching the best in the world compete at a great game. Maybe they have played video games. Maybe they know of Overwatch. Maybe they even play Overwatch or play it a lot. But they're fundamentally looking to be entertained by the highest possible level of competition around a great game. And that's what we've got."
From a broadcasting perspective, it’s a juicy slice of a rapidly growing pie and also a product whose logistical and financial considerations are a pittance compared to most regular sport events to appear on these channels. All in all, a low-risk proposition with a potentially astronomical reward for ESPN, which has already proved able and willing to expand their horizons in terms of what they are willing to put on air, ranging from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Drum Corps International Championship, a portion of the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship last year, not to mention Blizzard’s very own Heroes of the Dorm tournament. In a way, it’s a logical next step, though the regular TV audience doesn’t always have a favorable view of this kind of content just yet. There’s also the long-term issue with how difficult Overwatch is to digest for a casual audience – tackling the same issue for a non-gamer crowd will likely prove exponentially more difficult.
On the other hand, not that much of the actual Overwatch League will get real prime-time treatment, at least not for the time being. In fact, only the first day of the finals will be broadcast live on ESPN’s main channel with most of the other content relegated to ESPN2 and ESPN3 plus the already video game-flavored Disney XD that is primarily aimed at children between the ages of 6 and 15, which isn’t exactly breaking new ground demographically – a decent portion of them is likely already familiar with the OWL. Also, ABC’s involvement is negligible for now, only running a highlights package from the final on the 29th of July, by which time the event will already be over. As ESPN Vice President of Digital Media Programming John Lasker stated, „clearly by the way we're going to be covering it starting with the playoffs and the finals this year certainly speaks volumes to our excitement and our enthusiasm overall for esports moving forward." That is perhaps a more revealing statement than it was meant to be.
These are big moves by big players so I would recommend looking beyond the flashy headlines and the short-term implications: the OWL’s presence in ESPN’s scheduling at the end of Season 2 or 3 will tell us a lot more than anything we could be pinpointing right now, no matter how hard we gaze into the crystal ball. For now, just enjoy the presentation: I’m sure they will put on a hell of a show for us!