The Overwatch League is coming to ESPN, and I'm not talking about The Ocho: Disney and Blizzard announced today that pro league action, including the season 1 finals and next year's season 2, will be broadcast "in some fashion" on the flagship network as well as ESPN2, Disney XD, and ABC.
The deal focuses primarily on live broadcasting and full replays, but ESPN's digital platforms will also have rights to content that could include things like highlight packages or "supplemental content" aimed at ESPN viewers who may not be familiar with esports. It will not invalidate existing agreements, however, so existing fans will still be able to get their fix through familiar distribution channels like Twitch.
"It's a cross section that's a hardcore sports fan, especially on ESPN channels," Activision Blizzard esports leagues president and CEO Pete Vlastelica said. "They love watching competition, they love watching the best in the world compete at a great game. Maybe they have played video games. Maybe they know of Overwatch. Maybe they even play Overwatch or play it a lot. But they're fundamentally looking to be entertained by the highest possible level of competition around a great game. And that's what we've got."
This isn't ESPN's first foray into esports: Its broadcast of The International in 2014 was a resounding success that eventually led to one of my favorite headlines of 2016, when ESPN decided to become the ESPN of esports. It now provides extensive coverage on its website of major esports leagues, teams, and individuals. Even so, bringing Overwatch League play to ESPN's primary channel is a big step.
"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. "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."
ESPN coverage of the Overwatch League actually begins tonight, with the first round of quarterfinals between the Philadelphia Fusion and the Boston Uprising at 5 pm PT/8 pm ET, followed by the London Spitfire and the Los Angeles Gladiators at 7 pm PT/10 pm ET. The full broadcast schedule is below.