Franchised Esports Leagues: The Good & The Bad

Following months of speculation, competitive Call of Duty fans finally received official confirmation of a city-based Call of Duty franchised league. Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues have reportedly met with professional COD and Overwatch League ownership groups to recruit the very best. However, according to ESPN, investors and teams will be required to pay $25,000,000 to secure a spot in the upcoming league. Yes, 25 million dollars. During the inaugural launch of the Overwatch League, also launched by Activision, slots were available for $20 million. Second season costs are reported to cost anywhere between $30–60 million! This article will evaluate the effects franchised leagues will have on the growth of esports.

Franchising removes the seasonal promotion and relegation of teams, which alone is greatly beneficial to providing certainty for broadcasters, organisers, investors and teams alike. Without teams facing relegation, broadcasters can cover rivalries year on year, allowing teams to invest in building their rosters without the risk losing their league spots, and large fanbases, in the process. This introduction of stability will enable brands and narratives to be built. US major sports leagues like MLB, NBA and NFL have thrived under the franchise system; with comparisons to traditional sport, there is no reason esports would not thrive in the same way.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of franchised leagues would lean towards the financial benefits. If esports is to continue its rise to mainstream dominance, it will rely on long-term sustainable investments. In similar instances, the industry’s demand for astronomical fees to be paid for teams to secure rosters for franchised leagues have been somewhat justified through the level of commitment expected. For example, Overwatch teams participating in the Overwatch League (OWL) were required to pay franchise fees and also have financial capital to support them. If it were easy for teams to access elite leagues or competitions, there will be little incentive for them to remain dedicated. Lack of incentive can impact motivation and thus overall quality, consequently resulting in a declining viewership.

Developing on this, franchising provides the opportunity for the formation of regionalised leagues; fan and team relationships are typically formed through local ties. With this in mind, the comparison to traditional sports appears very apt. An increase in localised leagues essentially creates a fanbase that has a natural affinity to the team as we may begin to see spectators follow esports teams the same way we follow our favourite traditional sports teams. Additionally, we will see more casual gamers making the transition to the competitive gaming scene further accelerating the growth of esports.

Despite the financial reasons for franchised league, they have been commonly debated within the realms of esports, often receiving much scrutiny. On a basic level, it bears the suggestion that only those with the financial means of making a meaningful impact to the industry’s growth. In some cases, teams are not awarded their places at the top based on meritocracy meaning rosters are not always the best, they just have the financial means to be able to compete.

With such a small portion of investors and teams possessing the financial means to field rosters, they will remain the main beneficiaries of the industry’s success, naturally. In a game that is thoroughly enjoyed casually by millions of gamers worldwide, this provision, without a focus on the majority is a huge barrier. Most teams unfortunately do not have $25 million budgets for entering leagues — most operate on yearly losses, not even having the budget to consistently pay players! Therefore, the proliferation of further highly expensive franchised leagues will continue to provide limited access for the casual gamer seeking to make it to the highest competitive level. The revenue spread will thus continue to remain disproportionate, so a “bottom-up” franchise model is of equal importance.

Esports has the power to unite players globally through a common passion, but a bottom up approach is fundamental to ensuring accessibility and longevity. Without a focus on boosting the presence of grassroots gaming however, instances like these completely negate from the positive elements of esports. At the same time, if esports is to conquer the heights we know it is capable of, it must exercise its financial prowess and demand equal levels of dedication from their teams.

As we develop our competitive gaming ecosystem, we will ensure a platform dedicated to providing opportunities for casual gamers to support their dreams for esports careers; at the very least, we promise to cater to all!

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