How Blizzard convinced sports billionaires to buy into the Overwatch League

Members of the Philadelphia Fusion celebrate after making it to the Overwatch League finals. The most ambitious league in esports is about to celebrate its first season championship in a sold-out Barclays Center. Provided by Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Anson Jing was a New York Excelsior fan before the team played a single game. As soon as the applied math major at Stony Brook University heard about the Overwatch League, he was hooked.

"They said they were gonna make it like a real league, like a real professional sport," Jing, 22, said. "I was really excited for that."

Jing was so excited that he and two friends drove cross-country from New York to Los Angeles to catch the first two days of Overwatch League action in January. Their original itinerary including sightseeing, but as time ran short they made some changes.

"We had to skip some of the attractions on the way to L.A.," Jing said. "[Like] Yellowstone National Park. Because the Overwatch League was starting on Jan. 10, and we said we have to be there on the 10th."

All across the United States, fans of the newest league in sports gathered for watch parties. In Houston, more than 600 people were at The Cannon to see the Outlaws' first match. In Boston, supporters packed into The Greatest Bar to view the Uprising's debut.

Wearing their brand-new "NYXL" jerseys, Jing and his friends watched the Excelsior emerge victorious from their opening match, 3-1 over the Uprising. These were two of the newest teams in sports, yet in one important way, very familiar. It wasn't just the age-old New York vs. Boston rivalry. It was the names behind the teams.

With 12 franchises based in 11 cities across the U.S. and around the world, OWL boasts founding families such as the Krafts (New England Patriots), the Kroenkes (Los Angeles Rams) and the Wilpons (New York Mets).

Why did these American sports titans invest millions in a brand-new esports league? Because there had never been anything like the Overwatch League before. It is the most ambitious esports project ever attempted -- a truly global league whose success could transform the gaming landscape once and for all.

To pull this off, Blizzard aggressively recruited traditional sports owners like the Krafts, and now, on the first day of the Overwatch League finals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, that investment will reach its zenith. Here's the inside story of how Blizzard convinced one of the most successful owners in sports to join its very new, very risky venture.

Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 -- New England Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, 75, and his son Jonathan, 52, the team's president, sit in the skybox at Anaheim Convention Center, looking down on BlizzCon, an annual convention showcasing the best of Blizzard's video games.

They are special guests of Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, alongside a roster of men whose net worth totals in the tens of billions. Stan Kroenke and his son Josh, whose portfolio of sports teams includes the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Rams are here; Golden State Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber are also here; Milwaukee Bucks owner Wesley Edens, and perhaps most surprisingly, Elon Musk are also in attendance.

Off to the side are makeshift huddle areas, closed off by curtains, where business can be discussed in private. Up front, Kotick is introducing the potential investors to Overwatch for the first time at Blizzard's biggest event of the year.

Robert Kraft and Kotick first met at an Allen & Company conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2013 when Kotick had explored investing in an NFL franchise. Kraft, the owner who lifted Bill Belichick out of obscurity and pioneered a ruthless approach to roster building, saw a new opportunity for innovation in esports.

"We went out to BlizzCon [and] were blown away." New England Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft

"As a family, we like to always try to be involved in a lot of new, cutting-edge things," Robert Kraft said. "Wherever the market is going, we like to try to get there a little bit ahead."

The Krafts had explored investment possibilities for a few years before the Overwatch League but found the options unsatisfactory.

"We looked at some of the existing teams that were either completely for sale or looking for investors," Jonathan Kraft said, "but we couldn't really get comfortable with something that was grassroots, bottoms-up like that. ... We know what we don't know, and we wouldn't have done well with that.

"If you were interested in esports before [Overwatch League], you met with a person or a couple of people, and they'd be wearing their team jersey, and you'd hear which games they were fielding teams in. But it wasn't visionary. It was strictly about, here's how we compete, and here's what we do. But there was no vision for building a business."

But as Kotick explained his vision for the Overwatch League -- teams scattered around the world cultivating their regional markets and capitalizing on local loyalties -- the Krafts found what they were looking for.

"I always believed in this as a city-based, global opportunity," Kotick said. "A lot of esports were more virtual in their thinking that wasn't tied to one city or one location, and that's what we had experienced in the past. I really think local loyalty contributes so much to interest, enthusiasm and competitive rivalry."

As the Krafts watched the Overwatch World Cup, Blizzard's first attempt at staging a live Overwatch competition, and listened to Kotick, the seeds of a partnership were sown.

"We went out to BlizzCon," Jonathan Kraft said, "[and] were blown away."

Friday, March 3, 2017 -- In his new $6 million penthouse apartment overlooking Boston Harbor, Robert Kraft hosts a meeting of 15 key executives from Kraft Sports Group and Activision Blizzard. They all had just arrived from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where Kotick had presented on the Overwatch League.

Kotick knew he needed a big name to convince people to invest in his vision. Kraft was it. The two huddled in Kraft's bedroom to discuss the deal one-on-one. The Patriots owner wanted a most-favored-nation agreement, which would allow him to buy in at the lowest price. For now, that was enough. The pair sealed it with a handshake -- and celebratory margherita pizzas from Babbo Pizzeria across the street.

"We went back and forth on some key details, and we hadn't really nailed down all of the terms," Kotick said, "but I wanted to know we had him committed ... and to make sure other owners knew that Robert was our first owner."

"They were very complimentary and nice to us, probably more than we deserved, about what we've done in sports over the last 25 years," Jonathan Kraft said. "The meeting didn't last longer than an hour-and-a-half, and we were in."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 -- Activision Blizzard officially announces the first seven Overwatch League franchises, based in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Shanghai and Seoul. Among the new owners are the Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets, as well as endemic esports organizations like NRG Esports, Immortals and Misfits, who between them have investment from owners of the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.

As Kotick predicted, the Krafts played a major role in convincing other investors to sign up.

"I think between Robert and I, we must have gotten calls from at least 50 percent of the people that ended up coming in," Jonathan Kraft said. "Everybody that looked at it was excited. They saw what we had seen, which is the marriage of the traditional organized league model, with teams in geographies, so cleaning up some of the Wild West nature [of esports], but doing it with a game that was inspiring lots of passion and interest from young people."

Activision Blizzard finalized its buy-in fee at $20 million -- $7 million more than the North American League of Legends Championship Series, the most popular esports league in the U.S. at the time. The company pursued several other major sports franchise owners, including owners of the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Cowboys. But they all declined, or told Activision Blizzard that it was not the right time for them to buy in.

Five more franchises were sold between July and September -- a second one based in Los Angeles, plus teams in Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and London. Kroenke Sports & Entertainment took the second L.A. team, two owners of the Texas Rangers picked up Dallas and Houston, and Comcast Spectacor -- the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers -- put down for Philly.

The stage was set for Season 1.

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 -- Blizzard unveils the home of the Overwatch League, in Burbank, California.

The freshly christened Blizzard Arena looks brand-new, but boasts some serious history. The 50,000 square-foot studio is the location where legendary entertainer Johnny Carson taped "The Tonight Show" from 1972 to 1992.

"We're honored to bring the best in Blizzard esports to the same stage that some of the biggest names in entertainment have called home," said Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime in a press release when the studio's opening was announced.

Would Carnac the Magnificent have predicted this? Probably not.

While all 12 teams played in Burbank for the first season, they will eventually host games in arenas in their home cities, the arrangement that first enticed the Krafts to buy in.

"The home-and-away format is a big piece of the puzzle," said Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer. "The vast majority of the revenue that's coming in for someone like Manchester United is that they sell tickets, concessions, luxury boxes and all of the things that [come when] they're hosting home games.

"That is what's going to make teams profitable at the level you see in traditional sports."

The Krafts are looking forward to capitalizing on that future.

"If you go to a Patriots game or a Revolution match, there's a feel and a culture and a rhythm to it," Jonathan Kraft said. "The idea of growing something like that in a venue here in our home market was exciting to us."

Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 -- A couple weeks before the launch of the Overwatch League preseason, Robert Kraft flies from Boston to Burbank to meet his newest team, the Uprising.

Kraft enters the training room and shakes each team member's hand. Then he takes off his latest championship ring, from the Patriots' Super Bowl LI triumph over the Atlanta Falcons in February 2017.

"There's five Super Bowl trophies there," he said to the players, pointing at his ring. "When we bought the team, we had zero. So I hope we have a chance to do it here, with Boston Uprising."

The Krafts have hired Chris "HuK" Loranger to run the Uprising as their president of gaming.

"I was a pro StarCraft player. I'd been a manager. I'd owned a team in Toronto. I'd been a general manager," Loranger said. "I'd also been talent, a [broad]caster. I'd played on Team Canada for the World Cup in Overwatch. And I'd done project management consulting. So I'd kind of done almost everything in esports."

"He sold us on a vision of putting a team together of people who had that mix of talents, but who he [also] thought -- from a personality and a competitive standpoint -- would morph well together," Jonathan Kraft said. "Because six guys playing a game together, that chemistry is critical. And it sounded a lot like Bill Belichick."

Loranger called it "a big moment" when Robert Kraft met with the team.

"I think the players really appreciated someone of his status taking time out of his busy schedule to do a little face time and really support Boston Uprising," he said.

Robert Kraft had a few more words for his new team.

"In getting Chris to come and head up the operation. We charged Chris to go out and get the best people he could find to compete," he said. "So I wanted to welcome you all to our family, and let's go kick some butt."

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 -- Blizzard Arena is open, and Day 1 of the Overwatch League preseason is about to begin.

The first thing you see when you pass through security and walk through the doors is a merchandise store in the center of the lobby. These teams haven't played a game yet, but you can already purchase a jersey.

There's a concession stand to the right, and a walk up the stairs to the second level reveals the "Hall of Champions," an exhibit featuring team jerseys and the Overwatch League trophy behind glass.

But the most impressive sight is the actual playing space. Three large overhead video screens immediately catch the eye. The team logos are splashed all over them, in vibrant colors. A broadcast desk is located in the middle of the room on the left side when looking toward the stage, with a host and analysts ready to beam commentary around the globe. There's even a luxury box right above them.

The first of three games that evening pits the Florida Mayhem against the San Francisco Shock. But the highlight is the finale, featuring the Seoul Dynasty -- then pegged by many as the best team in the league -- against the Shanghai Dragons. As the starting lineups are introduced, Seoul owner Kevin Chou stands up from his seat a few rows from the stage and shoots video on his phone as his six players walk up and take their places at their computer stations.

"To see it all come together -- the players on stage, the logos on the screen -- it's just awesome, really awesome," Chou said.

The arena's 530 seats are nearly all filled, mostly with young people, but also some parents with small children. Some fans are holding up handwritten signs; others seek autographs and selfies. One young woman looks overwhelmed when Kim "KuKi" Dae-kuk, one of the Seoul starters, walks by.

It's all rather strange, yet familiar at the same time. Kotick was pleased by what he saw.

"The production is superb, and while we may still have work to do, I was blown away," he said. "That's the case with all of the owners. I've gotten feedback from almost everybody now, and people look at it as the dry run, but the enthusiasm and excitement was really palpable and really gratifying."

The Krafts are excited, too.

"Our vision would be that [the Uprising], from a fanbase and a business standpoint, grows even bigger [than the Patriots and the Revolution]," Jonathan Kraft said. "That's what it's about.

"We're treating it, and the people across the Kraft Sports Group understand, that this isn't some trivial venture that we have. That these teams are gonna be important franchises in the future."

Some would say they already are important -- one of them being Anson Jing. Driving across the country and skipping Yellowstone, for an esports event?

Bad news for the National Park Service, perhaps. But for Robert Kraft & Co.? Music to their ears.

Thursday, July 26, 2018 -- Speaking of journeys, the Overwatch League has certainly come a long way.

The competition has moved from Burbank to Brooklyn, where the Barclays Center will host the Overwatch League final over the next two days, pitting the Philadelphia Fusion against the London Spitfire.

And the landscape around the competition has changed dramatically.

The final will be broadcast on ESPN, after Disney and Blizzard announced a multiyear broadcast deal earlier this month. New York Excelsior star Jong-ryeol "Saebyeolbe" Park threw out the first pitch at the New York Mets' game at Citi Field on Wednesday. And there's already widespread speculation about expansion teams entering the league in Year 2.