Activision Blizzard officially confirms Toronto, Vancouver OWL franchises

New York Excelsior after winning the OWL Stage 2 Finals (Robert Paul/Blizzard Entertainment)

Major professional esports is officially coming to Canada.

Both Toronto and Vancouver have been awarded Overwatch League (OWL) franchises, league creator Activision Blizzard announced Friday.

As previously reported, the Toronto franchise will be run by an ownership group head up by OverActive Media, an organization that also announced former Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Overholt as its new lead executive.

The Vancouver franchise will be run by the Aquilini Group, also as previously reported, a business that also owns Canucks Sports & Entertainment and Rogers Arena.

“We look forward to growing the reach and influence of the Toronto franchise and the Overwatch League in Canada, and around the world,” Overholt said in a statement. “We’ll achieve this with the help and passionate support of our fans, who are already declaring their allegiance for our team. Our owners are fiercely committed to building a team of professionals and an organization that we know will quickly be considered a best-in-class sports and entertainment company.”

“Esports has seen extraordinary success and continues to be one of the fastest growing industries in the world,” said Francesco Aquilini, managing director of the Aquilini Group, in a press release. “The Overwatch League has visionary leadership, strong franchises, and connects with millions of players globally. We’re pleased to have the opportunity to expand into esports and we can’t wait to launch the team in Vancouver, which will also represent fans across the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and Portland.”

These two Canadian clubs are part of a wave of expansion that will see eight new teams join the 12-team OWL next season.

Overwatch is a popular first-person shooter video game from publisher/developer Activision Blizzard that pits teams of six against each other.

The Toronto franchise owner, OverActive Media, is a partner with multi-game professional esports organization Splyce, a match Overholt says will immediately make this new franchise competitive.

“[Splyce CEO] Marty Strenczewilk and his team at Splyce out of Rochester are experts in this space, they’re established in it and have a fantastic reputation not just for team operation, but for all the work that they do around marketing and promoting their team’s brand,” Overholt told Sportsnet over the phone. “So to have Splyce engaged in this way is really outstanding in all of this.”

This partnership with Splyce is rather interesting as Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs’ Delaware North Hospitality company are also investors in the esports organization. Despite this, Overholt says Jacobs won’t be involved with this Toronto team at all.

Given their expertise, Overholt also says Splyce will serve as the ownership group’s team operations group. This makes sense as Splyce already does the same with other esports, including League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and fighting games like Street Fighter V.

This multi-game know-how may prove valuable to Overholt and his OverActive Media down the road, as the stated goal of OverActive Media, according to Overholt, is to build an “integrated media company that was focused in on the development of esports in Toronto and Canada,” suggesting this venture into Overwatch esports is just the beginning.

“I think we’ll be looking at other opportunities as they present themselves, for sure,” said Overholt. “Our goal here is to build a best-in-class professional esports organization that operates franchises. And so, as we’re presented with those things I think we’ll look at them and carefully consider how it fits into our portfolio of holdings.”

When Overholt stepped down from the COC it surprised many, and there were likely even more shocked to learn he’s stepping away from one of the most successful Olympic periods in Canadian history that he helped orchestrate for a space that some may not even consider to be an actual “sport.”

However, as a sports executive with over 20 years of experience, Overholt has been keeping an eye out on this space and sees real opportunity within esports.

“I think we’ve all been watching esports evolve into the global business that it is,” he said. “So in that way I’m naturally curious anyway, and in that way I’ve just been watching it evolve.”

According to esports and video game market research firm NewZoo’s 2018 market report, the esports industry will see a 38.2 per cent year-over-year increase this year, raking in $906 million in revenue, with that number forecasted to increase to $1.65 billion by 2021.

Additionally, global audiences for esports content has continued to grow, with a 13.8 per cent year-over-year increase in audience growth for 2018 projected by NewZoo.

So, while the concept of esports is still foreign to many casual sports fans, Overholt and his team have done their homework and believe in this new endeavour because he saw similar trends in the 1990s when he was with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

“What we’re watching is a global explosion of interest in all of this, and that interest is growing considerably here in North America,” Overholt said. “So, while initially I think our fanbase would be what you would expect – those who are already engaged and enthusiastic about what esports represents, those that are likely gamers and engaged in playing one way or the other – the calculation that we’re making here is that we expect this to become mainstream.

“We expect that we’ll be able to grow that fanbase and start to grab the casual fan and convert them into passionate enthusiasts for esports and for Overwatch. … So as we go along in this, and as sponsors get more and more engaged, that converts fans. We’ve seen it happen countless times before. Certainly in 1995-96 as we were bringing the Raptors onto the scene. It was at that time a new sport for Canada, but in a brief time we watched it grow exponentially in those early years.

“So no reason to think that this shouldn’t be true for Toronto Overwatch League.”

Based on how last season played out, you can probably expect to see these new Toronto and Vancouver teams play in the pre-season in December with regular-season play beginning in January.

Last season was the OWL’s inaugural one with the London Spitfire emerging as champions, defeating the Philadelphia Fusion during the Grand Finals at a sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Prospective fans hoping to catch some live OWL in Toronto and Vancouver will have to wait one more year, however, as just as this past season, the 2019 season will see all teams play out of Activision Blizzard’s Blizzard Arena in California.

For 2020, however, all teams – including ones based in South Korea, China and England – will play their home games in their home cities. As it stands, between the two Canadian clubs, only the Vancouver franchise looks to have a home in Rogers Arena, a venue that just two weeks ago hosted The International 2018, DOTA 2’s annual grand championship that awarded more than $25 million in prize money.

The now-official inclusion of Vancouver and Toronto as new OWL markets is further evidence of Canada’s push into the burgeoning space of esports with such highlights as Toronto hosting the 2016 North American League of Legends Championship Series summer finals, the Toronto Raptors’ NBA 2K League team Raptors Uprising GC and the aforementioned The International 2018.

Canadian fans interested in Overwatch esports can track the Overwatch World Cup qualifier beginning Friday afternoon with Team Canada in action attempting to book its ticket into the tournament’s finals at BlizzCon in November.


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