For the past two years or so, the employees overseeing the esports division at Activision/Blizzard — the video game giant — have worked toward a goal they dubbed “Project 2020.”
When the company launched the Overwatch League (OWL) in 2018, it had the third season for 2020 already circled. The new decade ushers in a new era for the league, as it attempts to go global with the 20 organizations that range from China to London to Vancouver, playing matches in a more traditional “home and away” environment. Some teams will be traveling more than 50,000 miles throughout the course of the season.
That’s not all. Debuting in 2020 is the Call of Duty League, which features 12 inaugural teams that include many of the same North American cities involved in Overwatch.
“We don’t really call it Project 2020 anymore,” CEO of Activision Esports and Overwatch commissioner Pete Vlastelica said. “We just call it work, because now is the time to do the thing we’ve been designing the last three years.”
In regards to Overwatch, the league’s philosophy is shifting from an operation role to a support role, providing teams with everything required to put on successful events, and ensuring they can properly market those events.
“The exciting part for me is to sit back a bit and watch each team add their own flavor to the mix and produce events and experiences that are a little different than what others across the league are doing,” Vlastelica said. “Because that’s where I think innovation is going to happen.”
For example, Toronto Defiant owner Chris Overholt comes from a traditional sports background in the NHL, and as the Canadian Olympic Committee’s chief marketing officer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The principles in building fan excitement translate to esports all the same, he said.
“An Overwatch fan is not a Call of Duty fan is not a League of Legends fan,” Overholt said. “These are all subtly different in their own way. Their communities think about their teams and their leagues differently.”
The inherent differences between the two games are viewed internally as assets. Hamilton compared Call of Duty fans to hip-hop listeners, while Overwatch fans can be likened to EDM aficionados.
Overwatch has an audience split between the two hemispheres of about 50-50, Vlastelica said, thanks to its bright, colorful, optimistic, family-friendly and “cartoonish” world. Themes of inclusiveness and diversity among the hero characters players can select are appealing.
Meanwhile, Call of Duty has been around much longer and has more casual fan appeal because it’s easy to watch. Vlastelica sees a future in which Activision scales both leagues in two different ways.
“I think Call of Duty has this real potential to become a mainstream esport in a way that, not just Overwatch, but frankly most esports games haven’t had the opportunity to do,” Vlastelica said.
Activision benefited by partnering with ownership groups that have traditional sports backgrounds, such as the Wilpon family in New York (Mets) and the Wilf family in Minnesota (Vikings). Ten of the 12 Call of Duty teams also have Overwatch counterparts, which streamlined the creation of that league, and Activision didn’t have to build out a new staff to launch.
“Bringing the Call of Duty team into New York at the same time as the Overwatch League team was really very similar for us,” said Scott Wilpon, who is the co-founder of Andbox, the company that owns the New York Excelsior (OWL) and New York Subliners (CoD). “The challenge is just that none of this has ever been done before. Running large, local esports events is a very new business.”
During opening weekend on Feb. 8-9, the Excelsior sold out Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan with about 2,000 spectators.
This weekend, the Call of Duty tour heads to Atlanta, where local rappers Offset and Lil’ Yachty are expected to perform, according to Atlanta Esports Ventures CEO Paul Hamilton.
These events are attracting a different type of fan who does not normally attend games or matches in a public, stadium-like setting.
“To see these people get together and meet each other, who had only met online, is incredible,” Hamilton said.