A major esports league is launching an experiment that could create a blueprint for traditional sports leagues eager to take their games abroad.
The Overwatch League will use a full home-and-away format beginning in 2020, making it the first professional circuit in esports or traditional sports to build a regular-season schedule spanning three continents.
The second-year esports league has franchises in Europe, North America and Asia, and those teams will begin hosting half of their matches in their home markets next season, commissioner Nate Nanzer announced Friday. The league has been hosting its teams and matches in Southern California during its first two seasons.
The NFL, the NBA and MLB have scheduled regular-season games in London and Mexico City in recent years, showing interest in expanding their footprint internationally. Concerns over travel, especially if leagues only add one city at a time to each region, have kept those leagues from attempting a full-scale global expansion.
The Overwatch League splits its regular season into four stages with breaks in between, which it hopes will allow for recovery from long flights and jet lag. And because each region has at least two franchises, teams can make multiple stops on each trip — so Atlanta might play Shanghai, Seoul and Guangzhou, China, before making the 20-hour flight home.
“Scheduling is an incredibly complex problem to solve when you add venue availability and travel times and wanting to make sure that you’re minimizing player fatigue and travel recovery time and things like that,” Nanzer said. “It’s something we’ve been working on for quite some time and feel like the schedule we’ve come up with that we’ll be announcing in the coming months, we think does a really good job of satisfying a lot of those conditions around making sure everyone’s playing everybody but we’re minimizing impacts on teams and players.”
The Overwatch League opened in 2018 with 12 franchises, many backed by traditional sports owners like the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft or the New York Mets’ Jeff Wilpon. Teams have occasionally visited their home markets for meet-ups with fans, but mostly the connections between cities and franchises have been in name only.
That’s set to change. Franchises have been working to establish home arenas — many with capacities of at least a couple thousand — while also finding housing for players, training facilities and local advertising partners.
Nanzer said teams are also working rigorously to study sleep and recovery habits for their players, who make at least $50,000 per season.
“We’re seeing a lot of that same sophistication around recovery and performance that you see in traditional sports,” Nanzer said. “A lot of our teams are building out that infrastructure.”
The league is experimenting this season with weekend homestands in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Nanzer said the league anticipates learning and adjusting to challenges presented by the travel — lessons that sports and esports leagues elsewhere will surely keep an eye on.
“The vision of the Overwatch League was always to get teams in their home markets,” Nanzer said. “We know there are millions of fans that want to engage with this content live. It’s a huge step forward not just for the Overwatch League but for esports.”
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