Blizzard to create professional Overwatch League

If you had any doubt that Blizzard Entertainment was going all-in on esports, look no further than Friday's announcement of Overwatch League, to be launched in 2017.

Blizzard Entertainment, a division of Activision Blizzard, has a long history of tournament support for its games, but to run a league, something that takes place over the long haul, reflects a new level of support for Overwatch. Overwatch, still a young game with more than 20 million players within six months of its release, has already attracted a number of high-profile pros, especially the Overwatch Open that debuted on cable television rather than simply the streaming community.

"This is about doing what we can to allow Overwatch esports to achieve its full potential," Blizzard Entertainment president and co-founder Michael Morhaime told ESPN.com. "And I think we have a big opportunity with Overwatch since the game is newly launched, we don't have an existing ecosystem and we can really design our league upfront in a way that's best for players and teams."

Leagues indicate a deeper level of support, from the length of time they run to the need to establish the infrastructure necessary to support their continued play by the competitors involved. A league isn't something you can run in a weekend or even a week, so player compensation is necessary to ensure that the best in the world can afford to play.

"It's really important to us that our players are treated well," Nate Nanzer, global director of Overwatch esports, told ESPN.com. "We want to make this a professional career. We don't want to make this a risky bet that a kid makes to go become an Overwatch pro, we want to make this a real professional career."

For the debut season of the Overwatch League, Blizzard is taking a page from the playbook of traditional sports, in this case the NFL. Before the NFL runs its draft every year, it holds the scouting combine, which mainly consists of a battery of tests for players seeking to be drafted. These range from purely athletic tests such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump to more cerebral ones such as the Wonderlic test.

Overwatch League is taking a similar route. Blizzard will host a combine, inviting eligible players who have been high performers in competitive Overwatch to date. And it's not just for hanging out and talking. The players will be evaluated in a range of tests and the teams will be given the opportunity to sign players from their résumé and their performance history. When that combine will happen has yet to be announced.

"On that path to pro, there needs to be a step between 'I got No. 1 on the ladder' and 'I got signed to an Overwatch team,'" Nanzer said. "And the combine we think is a great opportunity to do that and a great opportunity to start the storytelling around these players."

Any player picked up during the signing period will receive a guaranteed minimum baseline salary and benefits package. Blizzard has not yet said how much that compensation package will be. Overwatch League's team structure will also guarantee that team ownership and the players involved will share in the revenues generated. Esports is a world in which, occasionally, payout issues from sponsors or individual team turmoil leads to players not getting all the compensation they deserve. Stability is a key factor for a successful league.

Speaking of those teams, Overwatch League's team structure also reflects traditional sports. Rather than the typical model of players representing their sponsored sports teams, Overwatch League teams will represent individual cities. And the city teams, when established, will remain in the league, eliminating the yearly shuffle as teams try desperately to guarantee their spots in next year's league -- that shuffle being something that has occasionally been a driver of controversy in other esports. Blizzard has already dipped its toe into running esports competitions without the traditional teams, such as Heroes of the Dorm, which focused on individual colleges and the Overwatch (and soon, Hearthstone) competitions, which are country-based.

"We definitely envision a world where if you live in a city where there's an Overwatch League team, you have regular opportunities to go see that team live," Nanzer said. "We think by localizing esports we can unlock [local] revenue streams for esports teams that exist for traditional sports teams but don't exist in today's esports ecosystem. ... We also think [localization] is going to create a stronger bond between the fans, the teams and the players."

Esports is a young field, so it's necessary for competitions to experiment with these different formats to see which ones grab and sustain the public interest. Whether Overwatch League captures the imagination of the viewers or not, there's little doubt that Blizzard is all-in on its newest and shiniest bit of intellectual property.

"I think the timing is very good to start up a league like this because we're sort of reaching this tipping point in esports," Morhaime said. "There's a ton of interest and a ton of demand. ... We want to provide an experience that spectators have been wanting and I think they deserve."