One of the most-watched sports in the U.S. isn’t one that’s played on a field — or even standing up. According to Activate’s 2017 “Consumer Tech & Media Research Study,” it’s the most-watched sport among viewers ages 18-34, with 62% of sports viewers tuning in.

That sport is esports — in other words, competitive video gaming — and it has grown dramatically over the past few years, both in revenue and viewers. While video games and football seem to have little in common, the evolving esports landscape mirrors the patterns of major sports leagues like the NFL, especially with the addition of official esports leagues, tournaments, and championship events.

One of the most-established leagues in esports is Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL), which had its first official season last year. For those unacquainted with esports, the idea of watching other people play video games may seem unusual, but Daniel Siegel, head of esports licensing at Activision Blizzard, says that is far from the case.

“What are the reasons that anybody wants to watch an NFL game? They want to watch the best football players in the world play a game that they like to watch,” Siegel says. “In our case, we’ve raised a generation of fans playing and watching Overwatch, and so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that those fans want to watch the best in the world play. … So to me, it should feel familiar, and it’s a very natural sort of human thing that we all want to watch the best do something that we love.”

In fact, the OWL has plenty in common with traditional sports leagues. It’s made up of teams associated with different cities, and those teams go head to head in regularly scheduled games that fans can stream online or attend in person. The league has commentators, jerseys, star players, rivalries, a postseason with a major tournament — the Overwatch League Grand Finals, which took place last month in Philadelphia — and many other elements that fans will recognize from the NFL, NBA, and MLB.

New York Excelsior wins last year’s stage three finals in Burbank, California. Photo: Blizzard Entertainment

One unique part of the OWL, however, is its global scale. Of its 20 teams, nine are based in cities outside of the U.S. Next season, the teams will start traveling to each other for the first time (previous OWL matches have been held almost exclusively at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California). Steve Young, president of Activision Blizzard Consumer Products Group, says this will hopefully increase fan engagement at a local level, benefiting both the league and the game as a whole.

“It feeds back into the core game franchise and then, of course, the game franchise feeds the esports experience,” he says. “And we think that the tide kind of can rise all those boats.”

As the league continues to grow and expand, the OWL merch available for fans has evolved as well. As a brand, Overwatch partners with other companies, such as LEGO and Hasbro, for toys, games, and collectibles. But the league and its players present additional partnership opportunities that are more akin to traditional sports, such as trading cards and personalized jerseys. However, the OWL sets itself apart with its younger age demographic.

“The reason a lot of those partners are interested in working with us is because we deliver such a different audience than what they have from traditional sports,” Young says. “It grows the pie for partners like Fanatics, New Era, or all the rest. It’s pretty incredible.”

Activision Blizzard officially partnered with Fanatics, the worldwide leader in licensed sports merchandise, for fan merch earlier this year. The OWL was the first esports league to partner with Fanatics, and Alex Dean, Fanatics’ general manager of esports and gaming, says the choice was deliberate.

“Strategically, we were looking for the right partnership to enter this space,” he says. “And Overwatch League created, really, a traditional sports model — but in the esports landscape. It made a lot of sense and allowed us to use our best-in-class retail and operational execution that we do for our other league partners and align that very seamlessly with what the Overwatch League is building.”

While some of the products are similar to what Fanatics offers for other sports, the OWL leverages fan feedback to produce merch that best fits its community. Some of the most popular OWL Fanatics products so far include the limited-edition Third Jerseys, which the teams designed in collaboration with Fanatics and sometimes wear for matches, and the Hometown Collection, which features artwork and apparel inspired by elements of the teams’ home cities.

Siegel notes that the OWL fan base is especially diverse and that Activision Blizzard works closely with Fanatics and its other partners to be sure that is reflected in the merch.

hometown collection

Overwatch League Hometown Collection shirts

“It’s not the stereotypical gamer from 10, 15 years ago. We’re into fashion, we’re into culture, we’re into music. … We’re into all these influences just like everybody else,” Siegel says. “We push [these partners] into a direction that says, ‘Hey, you’re not just talking to a 40-year-old NBA fan. You’re not talking to a 60-year-old MLB fan. You’re talking to someone who’s probably around 24 years old, maybe a little bit younger, and they look at the world differently.’ And so, we have to talk to them differently and then deliver different products that make them happy. Because at the end of the day, this is a happy business.”

Young attributes the leagues’ wide appeal to the video game itself, which features a diverse group of 30 heroes to whom fans can relate. He says love for the game can get fans interested, but that the viewership expands as players share that love with others.

“People are watching with their children, they’re watching with their partners, their friends,” he says. “And that does grow the audience opportunity for us, for our games. And then the games continue to grow, and that feeds the audience for esports.”

Both Activision Blizzard and Fanatics agree the merch opportunities for OWL — and all esports  — will continue to grow. “There’s just potential everywhere,” Siegel says. “We’ve raised a whole generation of fans on consoles, and PCs, and mobile devices, and they’re influenced every day by what they see from their favorite teams and their favorite players who are playing their favorite games, which in this case is Overwatch.”

Since partnering with the OWL, Fanatics started producing merch for the NBA2K League as well. Dean says that, with the right opportunities, the company will continue expanding in the space. Speaking to the growth and broad appeal of esports, Dean points to its accessibility as a major contributing factor.

“Whether you’re almost any age or any athletic ability, you can, for the most part, sit down in front of a console or a PC and play the same games,” he says. “You can watch those players executing at a higher level, and you can honestly tell yourself, ‘If I were to practice hard enough and do it, I have all the tools in the tool bag to be a professional.’ There are a lot of sports where that hill to climb is a little bit harder. And I think that’s really appealing to a very broad base of fans, including myself.”


This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!