LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Blizzard's new eSports league gains instant traction in Houston

Blizzard's Overwatch eSports league is off to a fast start. Courtesy photo

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Blizzard’s highly anticipated Overwatch League (OWL) and the Houston Outlaws were among its twelve original teams for the inaugural season. Despite a strong effort, the Outlaws dropped their first two matches, losing 3-2 to the Philadelphia Fusion and 3-1 to the New York Excelsior.

The new eSports league is seen as an ambitious independently produced project by the video game developer, Blizzard Entertainment, creator of the critically acclaimed, fast-paced, team-based, first-person shooter Overwatch. Unlike other shooters in the genre, Overwatch separates itself by blending elements of role-playing games with character-specific abilities and the necessity to balance said abilities during team composition.

Each team is comprised of six players and match modes used in league play include escort (one team escorts a payload while the other attempts to prevent it from advancing), assault (one team attacks a point and the other defends), capture (a king of the hill type mode), and a hybrid mode consisting of both capture and escort elements. There are four rounds to each match, consisting of one round of each mode. The team that wins the most rounds wins the match. In the event of a tie, a randomly selected tie-breaking round is played.

Houston’s first match on Thursday sent the league into its first tie-breaker round, after coming back from down two matches to one to draw even. Both teams volleyed wins back and forth, but Philadelphia would take the overtime win after sweeping the Outlaws when a control map--Houston’s apparently weakest game mode--was selected.

In their second ever contest, the Outlaws dropped to 0-2 behind a far less competitive 3-1 defeat to the New York Excelsior. Houston was able to claim the first round, an escort mode, but dropped the final three rounds in succession.

Blizzard announced at the conclusion of the first week that its season premiere online only viewership peaked at over 425,000. Online video game streaming service Twitch is reported to have spent over $90 million dollars for streaming rights to the league, which leaves OWL free to eventually pursue possible television broadcasting contracts in the future.

Locally, the official watch party on Thursday was located at The Cannon, a co-working space located just west of beltway 8 on I-10. Original predictions of 50-100 spectators were shattered when over 600 fans arrived Thursday evening, according to KTRK Channel 13.

The season itself consists of four five-week stages, with cash bonuses going to winning teams of each stage. The ensuing playoffs consist of the winners of each of the two current divisions or the top 6 teams overall. The winning team claims a $3.5 million dollar payout.

The new eSports league is a departure from traditional leagues in that its franchises are recognized geographically--much like a traditional sports league--and not by traditional team or clan names. This form of geographical franchising helped lure well-funded owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who now owns the Boston Uprising Overwatch team. Rosters are not restricted to any territory, however, which allows teams like the London Spitfire to field a team of mostly professional Korean players.

The league has also established precedent in terms of player stability throughout the season. Blizzard has mandated a base salary of $50,000 for all team members with a minimum one year stipulated in the contract. Owners are also required to furnish healthcare insurance, options for retirement savings plans, and furnish housing during the Overwatch season, which spans over 20 weeks.

For the first season, all matches will be played in a Los Angeles-based studio, however plans are in place for each of the franchises--including the internationally-based London, Seoul, and Shanghai teams--to establish their own “home field” of sorts.

While the Houston Outlaws may not have began their season with a win, the team has plenty of time to right the ship in the coming weeks. Regardless of the team’s performance, the Outlaws have already captured the attention of Houston’s gaming community, which may be the most important win of the weekend.

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