Video game competitions will now air live on ESPN
Esports are coming to ESPN.
The network will air the inaugural Overwatch League Grand Finals in prime time this month as part of a multiyear agreement to bring esports to the biggest sports platform on American television.
Disney and Blizzard Entertainment announced plans Wednesday to broadcast the OWL's playoffs and championship on ESPN, ABC and Disney XD. The Grand Finals on July 27 will be shown live on ESPN, marking the first time the network will carry esports in prime time.
"We think that really reflects the commitment they're making to the category," said Pete Vlastelica, President and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues.
Coverage begins Wednesday with the playoffs on Disney XD and ESPN3. There will be 10 hours total of Grand Finals coverage, including a recap show July 29 on ABC. Disney's networks will also broadcast OWL matches next season. Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed.
Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter, with two teams of six players competing over various objectives. The OWL has city-based teams in four countries, including nine U.S. franchises plus teams in London, Seoul and Shanghai. The league plans to expand after its first season.
"There's no doubt that this partnership will increase the reach of our league content," Vlastelica said. "And open up, have access to a new audience that maybe doesn't spend so much time streaming content online, but who has heard of esports and is familiar with gaming and who's a big sports fan."
The playoffs will take place at Blizzard's esports arena in Burbank, California, and the Grand Finals will be held at the Barclays Center in New York.
The OWL had been streaming all matches on Twitch, a livestream platform owned by Amazon, and it will continue to provide simulcasts there through at least 2019. The league signed a two-year agreement with Twitch prior to this season and drew 10 million viewers to the platform on its opening weekend, besting Amazon's NFL "Thursday Night Football" numbers from the 2017 season.
This won't be ESPN's first foray into events that aren't strictly sports. Its programming has included the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the World Series of Poker and the Drum Corps International championship. ESPN also aired part of the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series in 2017, and it previously partnered with Blizzard Entertainment on Heroes of the Dorm, an esports tournament for college gamers.
Esports have made headway into the mainstream over the past year, with the International Olympic Committee stating its interest in adding video games last fall. The IOC is set to host an esports forum this month to explore adding video games to the Olympics.—JAKE SEINER, AP