ESPN secures Overwatch League broadcast rights, continuing esports’ mainstream surge

The rise of competitive video gaming received even more fuel as ESPN, Disney and ABC are set to broadcast matches of the new professional league based around the game Overwatch.

ESPN, Disney XD and the game’s publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, made the announcement Wednesday in a joint release. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, although it will at least extend into the league’s 2019 season as well.

The broadcasts will begin Wednesday night with coverage of the opening rounds of the league’s inaugural playoffs on ESPN3 and Disney XD. The opening night of the Overwatch League Grand Finals from the sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., will be shown on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, July 27. The concluding night of the finals will be shown live on ESPN3 and Disney XD the following evening, with a rebroadcast airing on ESPN2 Saturday, July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

ABC will air a recap show featuring highlights from the finals Sunday, July 29.

“We’re excited to be working with ESPN and DisneyXD to bring Overwatch esports to an even wider audience,” Pete Vlastelica, President and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues, said in the release. “We’ve seen incredible passion and support from fans during the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, and we’re looking forward to capping it off for them with an epic Grand Finals at Barclays Center later this month.”

The announcement continues a wave of growth for the burgeoning esports industry. Financial services company Goldman Sachs just issued a comprehensive report predicting revenue from esports will approach $3 billion by 2022. More and more games are embracing competitive gaming and the formation of esports leagues.

The Overwatch League was one of the newest, launching in January after securing franchise investments from prominent owners in the traditional sports world like Robert and Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots, Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams and Steve Kaplan of the Memphis Grizzlies, among others. The buy-in for each of the first 12 franchises — which span the globe from Shanghai to Seoul, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and London — was $20 million.

In April, the NBA held a full-on draft to launch its own esports league around the popular NBA 2K game. Major League Soccer announced plans for a league based around the EA Sports-produced FIFA series. The NHL also recently signaled its desire to ramp up its efforts around esports to “build more interest and a greater connectivity to our game through the hockey video game,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a recent interview with ESPN.

The Overwatch League has enjoyed a good deal of success in its first season. Twitch purchased streaming rights for the league just before its first matches for $90 million over two years, and the league’s channel has had over 107 million total views. The new deal with ESPN and Disney will not replace the league’s previous deals with Twitch.

“We are turning the corner here in terms of our interest and engagement in the esports category,” ESPN Vice President of Digital Media Programming John Lasker said in a report published Wednesday on ESPN.com. “We’ve had an interest and have been watching pretty closely how the first year of the Overwatch League has been progressing, and we’re really excited to be a part of this. Clearly by the way we’re going to be covering it starting with the playoffs and the finals this year certainly speaks volumes to our excitement and our enthusiasm overall for esports moving forward.”

The Overwatch League Grand Finals broadcast on ESPN will be the first time the network’s main channel has aired competitive video gaming in prime time, according to the release. The event carries a prize pool for $1.4 million.

ESPN has previously aired events such as “Heroes of the Dorm,” occasionally enduring internal criticism in the process. ESPN also holds the broadcast rights to popular esports properties such as the North American division of the League of Legends Championship series.

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