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The Shaky Future of Activision’s Overwatch League

Microsoft’s pending acquisition of the company adds to the uncertainty about efforts to take e-sports mainstream.

Trading cards showing assorted Overwatch League players on display at a competition this year.

Trading cards showing assorted Overwatch League players on display at a competition this year.

Photographer: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg
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During 2016’s BlizzCon, Activision Blizzard Inc.’s annual event to promote its biggest video games, Chief Executive Officer Bobby Kotick held private gatherings for a handful of sports-business billionaires and people involved in the business of competitive video games, or e-sports. He pitched attendees­—including his friend Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke—on his plans to start a league where teams would compete in his company’s hit game Overwatch.

The e-sports league would resemble traditional sports, with fans visiting arenas in major cities to watch live competition, while teams would make money by selling tickets, T-shirts, and hot dogs, and sharing in profits from sponsorship and broadcast deals. Activision Blizzard Esports later detailed what those guests had to do to get in on the ground floor: write a $20 million check for the rights to become one of the original franchises. Kraft was the first to agree. Kroenke soon followed, as did the Wilpon family, then owners of the New York Mets. (One prominent Overwatch fan who attended the meeting, Elon Musk, didn’t bite.)