The NBA and Overwatch League are both city-based team leagues currently enjoying off seasons. They also represent the first time that a traditional sports community has ever truly invested time, money, and attention to an esport. While Overwatch’s unique nature appeals to players, its league openly reflects the NBA’s model. On July 27th, the Overwatch League broke ground as the first esport to air on prime-time ESPN, capping off an inaugural season supported by investment from a list of NBA teams spanning the Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, and Denver Nuggets. With former NBA executives hired to handle Blizzard’s esport partnerships and management groups shaping its teams, the OWL is openly working to grow the first gaming league framed on the traditional sports model. A city-based league with guaranteed player contracts; team nutritionists, psychiatrists, and trainers; a Contenders system for player development (akin to the G-League); and a commitment to progressivism in its player and team public relations — the OWL seems built on the NBA’s blueprint. And the relationship extends past senior level collaboration, as NBA players themselves are getting involved in an esport for the first time.
First-person shooters and sports franchises have long filled post-practice leisure time. But Blizzard’s latest IP Overwatch has spawned a seemingly unprecedented wave of gamers, investors, and fans from the NBA in particular. The game’s unique nature, as a first-person shooter with the strategic team complexity of a MOBA like League of Legends, is innately more digestible and appealing for team sports players who are more familiar with FPS and sports franchises.
Amongst individual players, Boston Celtics All-Star Gordon Hayward opts to rain rockets from the sky as a noted Pharah main while young Serbian phenom, the recently drafted Dallas Maverick Luka Doncic is notorious for playing as Japanese brothers Hanzo and Genji. Brooklyn Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson was asked about his player Jarrett Allen’s off-court preferences: “I’m sure if you asked ‘Would you rather play Overwatch or watch a game?’ he’d probably say ‘Overwatch.’” Separately from the teams involved in the league and players who enjoy the game, Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson have also personally invested in Overwatch teams. As has new Golden State Warrior Jonas Jerebko. Even as viewers, Activision Blizzard can count Hall of Famer Chris Bosh, new Los Angeles Laker JaVale McGee, and young Brooklyn Nets upstarts D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen amongst its fans who have personally attended matches at Burbank, California’s Blizzard Arena and New York’s Barclays Center. Fortnite may be the most popular game in the world, getting referenced on the Staples Center hardwood by Los Angeles Laker Josh Hart’s sneakers and getting played by everyone from Drake to Norm MacDonald, but Overwatch is a team game and an esport framed after the NBA and that appreciation seems to be getting reciprocated.
Standing at 7’1”, NBA Champion and veteran locker-room glue guy JaVale McGee was asked in front of a raucous Blizzard Arena crowd how he thought the NBA differed from the Overwatch League, and he responded that “at first I thought there were differences… But it’s a sport. There are basically no differences.” A team-based game with six to a side that rewards the teams that have spent the most time practicing their accuracy, honing their communication, and preparing sophisticated lineups and plays that take advantage of the game’s different positions and character skill-sets — all while representing different cities. Even the mental fortitude required by star players is similar, as Gordon Hayward iterated: “I think it’s somewhat comparable as far as the anxiousness that you get during a game sometimes … just like in basketball there are times where if the game gets close the best players tend to really shine and the guys that tense up and get tight start to miss their shots.”
The NBA is invested in other esports, with Golden State Warriors and former MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant each invested in esports organizations while millennial gamers Josh Hart and Karl Anthony-Towns enjoy battle royale titles like Fortnite: Battle Royale and PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds. Conversely, other sports are invested in Overwatch, as the NFL’s New England Patriots, MLB’s New York Mets, and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche all own OWL teams. But the combination of management partnerships and player interest between the NBA and Overwatch is a particular testament to a future where esports can continue to break stigmas and find a home in the American mainstream.
To generalize, the NBA promotes physical health and teamwork while providing a roadmap for a progressive league with a strong player union and global appeal. The OWL promotes mental health and teamwork while evolving digital broadcasting for a rapidly growing new market. Nate Nanzer, commissioner of the Overwatch League has explained the logic behind following a traditional sports framework: “That consistency and stability are really important for what we’re endeavoring to do, which is to build a forever sport.” And given the NBA’s interests in expanding into esports, exemplified by their direct involvement in the NBA 2K League and experiments with streaming G-League games on Twitch, the exchange of value between each league should be mutually advantageous. With the NBA experiencing another record-setting season in 2017-18 and the OWL set to expand to 18 teams (from 12) in 2018-19, the two leagues are in a great position to continue bridging of the void between esports and traditional sports.