With all eyes on the Overwatch League Wednesday, Blizzard hit a home run during the opening day (that went deep into the night) in its newly built esports arena in Los Angeles.
At BlizzCon 2016, Blizzard announced the Overwatch League, promising to bring esports to another level never before seen in the industry. And over time that promise turned from a feeling of anticipation to apathy. A year is an eternity in esports, and when the 12 franchises were finally announced and the regular season was set to begin in January, a sense of relief washed over me rather than excitement.
Even if it were a disaster, it would still happen. There were multiple times in 2017 where the announced launch date in "Quarter 3" and the subsequent pushing back of the date made me think twice if the Overwatch League would ever happen. Big name commentators such as Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist were signed, owners like the New England Patriots Robert Kraft had bought into the league, but until the opening day came, I was still skeptical. Even when the preseason went off without too much of a hitch (talking about you, Philadelphia Fusion), it was a question of how many people would tune in to the opening games featuring both Los Angeles franchises and a primetime matchup between title contenders Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty.
In a span of two days, Blizzard landed the perfect first impression for the world to see.
Starting at its official media day at the Sheraton in Universal Studios, it was announced that Twitch would be the official streaming partner of the Overwatch League for at least the first two seasons, putting to rest the fear that the biggest video game streaming website in the world would not be hosting the competition. On opening day, the arena was polished and ready in every aspect, a sellout crowd filing through the doors to buy merchandise in the front room, grab concessions, and sit down in the 450-seat theater-like arena to enjoy the games. Fans stayed throughout the day, the seats still full past 9 p.m. when Dallas and Seoul were still waging war in an early frontrunner for best Overwatch series of the year. People were waving South Korean flags, fans who dyed their hair Fuel blue were jumping into the air at every kill, and the setting felt like any professional sports game you could watch in America. When the Dynasty finally overcame the Fuel, the crowd showed appreciation for both teams, the South Koreans narrowly escaping with a tightrope victory in its debut.
While viewership was seen as a major concern coming into the day, fans on Twitch showed up in droves to watch the first professional games of the Overwatch League era, peaking at over 400,000 concurrent viewers in the English, French and Korean broadcasts.
Back in the press room, Blizzard had both the winning and losing teams hold press conferences after the games for the over 80+ outlets that showed up to the opening festivities. Losing players and teams are often given the chance to reject interviews in esports, but Blizzard treated their competitors like any other athlete in the NBA or NFL. Even after a close and difficult loss like in the case of the Dallas Fuel, players showed up after a long day to answer questions for 10 minutes before taking their leave.
When it felt like it couldn't get better for the league on opening night, the MVP of the marquee matchup, Seoul's ace, Byung-sun "Fleta" Kim, started to weave storylines for the future, showing respect for one of America's brightest young talents from the Houston Outlaws in Jacob Lyon.
"I think it's too early in the season to say I'm the best DPS. Personally, I think the best player is Jake."
Jake, who impressed on Team United States at the Overwatch World Cup, will make his Overwatch League debut on Thursday against the Philadelphia Fusion.
Storylines. Fans. Personalities. Big-time games at the highest skill level. Huge viewership. In every category, Blizzard delivered. Although we won't know how much it matters until it's mid-season on a Thursday night with a matchup between two bottom-feeders, that was always going to be the case, success or disaster. Blizzard took a gigantic step in the right direction, and regardless of what happens in the future, that can't (and shouldn't) be denied.