The NFL for E-Sports: Overwatch League Launches

In the soundstage where Johnny Carson and Jay Leno spent four decades filming "The Tonight Show," a former Washington State computer science student named Seagull is pursuing a South Korean teenager with a very big gun.

Their characters' exploits inside Overwatch, the wildly popular multiplayer game not yet 2 years old, flicker above their heads on an enormous high-definition screen. Hundreds of mostly millennial fans in the renamed, sold-out Blizzard Arena put down their Doritos and roar for the combat between these six-player teams, eventually rising in ecstasy when the Dallas Fuel earn an unexpected point against the powerhouse Seoul Dynasty.

Here's the new Johnny. He plays video games for a minimum $50,000 salary, health benefits, a retirement savings plan and a chunk of $3.5 million in prize money.

Esports history was made Wednesday night with the debut of the Overwatch League, the first attempt to present elite computer gaming within a traditional North American sports structure comparable to the NBA or NFL. The league's 12 franchises represent cities from Shanghai to London, and they build teamwork and stress player development while competing on a weekly schedule stretching into summer.

If the esports industry is still in its adolescence, this well-funded venture is a significant milestone in its maturation. The Overwatch League is about to find out whether fans will grow along with it.

"It's a new frontier," said Ari Segal, the president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Valiant. "It is the biggest, boldest bet in sports and entertainment maybe since the NFL and AFL merged. Maybe since baseball introduced the designated hitter. I don't even know what it stacks up against, because it is so different."

Segal had a career as a hockey executive before he moved into esports last year. He is one of many seasoned professionals from traditional sports and...

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