Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Over its first two seasons, the Overwatch League's city-based esports franchises played their matches in a designated arena in L.A. This year, the league goes local, with all 20 teams hosting competitions in their home cities. This weekend's hosts: NYC and Dallas.
Why it matters: This home-and-away format represents a giant leap in the maturation of an esports league that eventually wants to look like the NFL, except on an international scale, according to Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, which developed the game and operates the league.
Yes, but: That giant leap comes with the very real risk that franchises will fail to integrate into the fabric of their home cities and struggle to develop loyal fans and business partners.
How it works: The 2020 season will run from February through August, and each franchise will host weekend competitions called "homestands," with some featuring a festival-like environment (think: music, expos, food trucks, parties).
"You go to a basketball game and maybe hang out with your friends beforehand, then there's a cool intro, the mascot comes out, you have two halves of basketball, and you drive home. We had the opportunity to do something else. This was one of the main reasons we got into the Overwatch League from day one, there's not a structure that exists already."— Andy Miller, San Francisco Shock owner, per ESPN
- Structure: There are now Pacific and Atlantic conferences, which are made up of four divisions: Atlantic North, Atlantic South, Pacific East, and Pacific West.
- Format: Teams will play 28 matches over the regular season, facing everyone in their conference twice, and other teams once.
- All-Star break: After Week 12, the league will break for All-Star festivities, which will feature the best players competing in a series of fun game modes.
- Midseason tournament: During that same week, the two conference-leading teams and the next best two teams by record will meet in a midseason tournament.
The franchises: Preseason power rankings, via ESPN:
- San Francisco Shock
- New York Excelsior
- Vancouver Titans
- Seoul Dynasty
- Shanghai Dragons
- Philadelphia Fusion
- L.A. Gladiators
- Atlanta Reign
- Hangzhou Spark
- Guangzhou Charge
11-20: 11. Florida Mayhem, 12. Chengdu Hunters, 13. Washington Justice, 14. Dallas Fuel, 15. London Spitfire, 16. Paris Eternal, 17. Toronto Defiant, 18. Houston Outlaws, 19. L.A. Valiant, 20. Boston Uprising
The bottom line: For years, mainstream sports fans have been seeing photographs of sold-out esports arenas and massive crowds. If that same energy can be replicated on a local scale, it will only further legitimize the industry.
- But if this experiment fails, it could slow some of the momentum surrounding esports and bring into question whether it truly belongs in the national — and now local — sports conversation.
Go deeper: High school esports goes mainstream