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The future of esports arrives with Overwatch League launch

From FOX Sports - January 11, 2018

BURBANK, Calif. (AP)In the soundstage where Johnny Carson and Jay Leno spent four decades filming The Tonight Show, a former Washington State computer science student named Seagull is pursuing a South Korean teenager with a very big gun.

Their characters exploits inside Overwatch, the wildly popular multiplayer game not yet 2 years old, flicker above their heads on an enormous high-definition screen. Hundreds of mostly millennial fans in the renamed, sold-out Blizzard Arena put down their Doritos and roar for the combat between these six-player teams, eventually rising in ecstasy when the Dallas Fuel earn an unexpected point against the powerhouse Seoul Dynasty.

Heres the new Johnny. He plays video games for a minimum $50,000 salary, health benefits, a retirement savings plan and a chunk of $3.5 million in prize money.

Esports history was made Wednesday night with the debut of the Overwatch League, the first attempt to present elite computer gaming within a traditional North American sports structure comparable to the NBA or NFL. The leagues 12 franchises represent cities from Shanghai to London, and they build teamwork and stress player development while competing on a weekly schedule stretching into summer.

If the esports industry is still in its adolescence, this well-funded venture is a significant milestone in its maturation. The Overwatch League is about to find out whether fans will grow along with it.

Its a new frontier, said Ari Segal, the president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Valiant. It is the biggest, boldest bet in sports and entertainment maybe since the NFL and AFL merged. Maybe since baseball introduced the designated hitter. I dont even know what it stacks up against, because it is so different.

Segal had a career as a hockey executive before he moved into esports last year. He is one of many seasoned professionals from traditional sports and business who couldnt resist the opportunity to shape the future of professional gaming, which has expanded with all the cohesion of a pipe bomb.

Shortly after Blizzard Entertainment published this hero-based, first-person PC shooter to acclaim in 2016, the game developer announced plans for a league backed by deep-pocketed investors ranging from NFL owners Stan Kroenke and Robert Kraft to current giants of the esports scene.

They might not all know their way around a mouse, but they know a growing industry when they see it.

I come from traditional sports, and from the outside, it seemed like esports had grown up as this exciting, massive, organic, somewhat unstructured ecosystem that benefited from that fact, but was also held back by it, said Pete Vlastelica, the president and CEO of Major League Gaming, which operates the league for Blizzards parent company.

It felt to me a lot like boxing, added Vlastelica, a former executive at Fox Sports. Anybody can create a circuit. Anybody be a trainer. Anybody can sign a fighter. Anybody can win a belt. But whats the belt? I think boxing suffers from an ambiguity about whether any particular competition means anything, and it felt like that was really similar in esports.

The Overwatch League aims to end that ambiguity with traditional sports touchstones, and it made sense to the luminaries from sports, tech and business who dominate the list of investors.

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