As traditional sports team owners spend ever-increasing amounts to sponsor esports franchises and leagues, the ownership of the games themselves could start to move away from developers and publishers.
Come learn all about the Overwatch League before it's corrupted by horrible money.
This is the view - or at least a potential future - outlined by Ryan Garfat, an esports editor for ESPN, in a talk at GDC today. The panel, titled ‘Traditional sports meets esports’, discussed how team owners are likely to demand an increased influence over the games themselves, just as they currently exert over the more traditional sporting bodies.
Drawing multiple parallels between organisations such as the NFL and NBA and how these currently function, Garfat forsees a future in which team owners involved in, say, the Overwatch League start to hold sway over the development process.
Currently, games are patched for the wider playerbase first and foremost, but the amount of money spilling into the competitive scene may change that. “They will exact their influence to ensure that their pro teams are represented in those decisions,” Garfat says. “If I own a team, and I have a Lucio specialist, and all of a sudden Lucio’s nerfed, and I paid a hundred or two hundred thousand dollars for this athlete, that directly impacts my team. And I’m going to want a say, or at least an explanation from the developer, as to why that game is being changed, and how that might impact my $20 million investment into your league.”
This kind of scenario is akin to the NFL, where team owners collectively agree upon changes to the rules of the sport itself as well as the structure and format of the league. Just as they do in more traditional sports, esports team owners will want a “seat at the table” to discuss the development of games such as Overwatch, League of Legends, and NBA 2K.
This could lead to the development of future esports-focused titles being flipped on its head, Garfat explains. Whereas in the past developers hoped (or intended) for a compelling pro scene in order to encourage more players to buy their games, now people could start developing with the influence and income from potential sponsors explicitly in mind.
The obvious counter to all of this is that no-one ‘owns’ the actual sport of American football or basketball in the same way as, for example, Blizzard owns the Overwatch IP. The NFL is the collective, professionalised expression of a sport that exists independent of it; the Overwatch League can’t exist independent of the game itself.
But even that could one day change. When discussing possible future titles developed with an esports scene in mind, “I would not be surprised if an owner of a team buys an IP”, Garfat predicts.