Q&A: Why former COC CEO Chris Overholt bet on Overwatch, esports

The London Spitfire taking on the Philadelphia Fusion at the 2018 Overwatch League Grand Final (Blizzard)

Chris Overholt is on a new team. After stepping down from his role leading the Canadian Olympic committee he will now lead Toronto’s new franchise in the Overwatch League.

OverActive Media won the rights to the new Overwatch League franchise awarded to Toronto. The team will play out of Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif., during the next season, with all home games to be played in Toronto in 2020. The Toronto franchise will be funded by the Kimel family, OverActive Media Group and Splyce.

Overholt has experience in pro sports as he was not only the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, but he previously worked for the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

Already making a dent on social media, fans immediately started using the hashtag #TorontoOWL and following the @TorontoOWL account but it will be Overholt’s job to harness that enthusiasm and make it profitable. Sportsnet caught up with the first leader of Toronto’s Overwatch franchise to find out why he took the job and what the future of the sport in Canada is.

Sportsnet: We’re starting to see pro sports leagues look at esports as a leader and innovator, the NBA is talking about changing their broadcasts to look and feel more like Twitch. In what ways do you think you can innovate more?

Chris Overholt: From a broadcast perspective, of course that’s the primary responsibility of our parties at the league. We certainly going to want to be tellers of stories around our players and coaches about the performance aspects of their skills related to helping our fans get to know them a little bit better.

We have to find what will make sure Canadians and fans of our franchise get to know them a little bit better and more personally. Which is exactly why I wanted to take on the opportunity.

SN: Why Overwatch?

CO: Overwatch was purpose-built for esports. Building that game was done with the notion of developing it to be played in arenas and viewed online. In that context it made perfect sense to myself and our owners to have a look at this and think long-term. That was a principal driver. It has a dynamism that has attracted fans and has been attracting sponsors in the past.

So excited to get started with Overwatch today in Toronto but the company is going to continue to look for opportunities to look for more upside potential.

SN: Does the stability of Overwatch’s past performance intrigue you or is it the growth potential?

CO: Well, it’s new. It’s not arriving it’s arrived. Right now, it’s not exploding it’s exploded and it’s still in the early stages of development. It’s published in
The projection of the number of fans should double by 2021 and among sport enthusiasts we should see double-digit growth and we’re excited to be on the front end of that.

SN: In traditional North American sports, allegiances start regional. There’s a civic pride that often comes with fandom. The beauty of esports is you can be a fan of a team or a player anywhere in the world with access from your phone or tablet. How do you build an affinity for a Toronto team in a borderless sport?

CO: I think that’s fair. We aspire to attract new fans first at home. We want fans that are engaged and loves our team, all the things that were true for the Raptors in those early days when I was involved. All those things you said are true for us as well. We need to have conversations about what that looks like and what we want to stand for as an organization.

That gets the brain going on things like what is the logo going to look like, of course, and what the team name is going to be, but those are just surface things in comparison to how you engage with the fans around those things.

I worked in a market with a franchise synonymous with the shield even though they haven’t been very good in the last 20-30 years. But it’s also true that the Dolphins have mad passionate fans in the region and beyond and at the moment that team does turn in the moment that fans will rally around the team like you might not see anywhere else in the world. And it’s also true that there are millions of people in the states across the country.

Some are just consuming on Instagram. And many fantasy players in Miami who, while they’re great fans of Miami, also follow their fantasy team with great passion as well. So, I think you know what you’re right. As the leader of a franchise I’m going to want to build my team but I don’t think the fact that you might cheer for another player in any way undermines our position at all. Quite the opposite, I think it feeds engagement.

SN: There’s talk of esports one day being in the Olympics. There’s a chance that your two worlds could collide. What are the chances that an esports athlete is on the podium at the Olympics during your tenure with the Overwatch league?

CO: I do think that chance does exist. Last week we watched the Asian Games had esports as a demonstration sport in their Regional games. I think it will be an evolving conversation.

I can tell you that I personally have been engaged by the IOC in this conversation just about a month ago on a panel discussing it invited by the IOC. It was a two-day weekend event hosted by Rick Fox, former NBA player and investor. Two days of the esports community and the Olympic community to talk about the potential of esports. So the IOC is quite aware of it.

The other thing that is happening in the new norms of the IOC as it looks at hosting games, the cities have an opportunity to think about the types of events they want to include in the program. So as the industry continues to explode on the world scene I think you’ll see the IOC express a growing interest in this and the cities show interest as well.


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