We're about halfway through the first season of the Overwatch League and yesterday I was able to watch a few games in person at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. Blizzard has always been a major player in the world of esports, but the Overwatch League, with its franchises and its plans for permanent stadiums in major cities around the world, feels different.
Yesterday felt particularly important for a couple of reasons. It saw Jeff Kaplan turn up at halftime to announce an upcoming PvE mission called Retribution and Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon made her debut for the Shanghai Dragons, marking her as the first woman to play in the Overwatch League. Plenty of people were watching.
And so, it felt like a good time to talk to the man running the whole thing: Nate Nanzer, the Overwatch League Commissioner. I only had a few minutes to chat with him, as the Los Angeles Valiant were busy trouncing Seoul Dynasty 4-0, but there was plenty to talk about.
So I remember last time we spoke, we talked about the original pitch for the Overwatch League with teams having their own arenas in their own home territories. Where are you up to with that?
Nate Nanzer: We're on schedule. It's still the plan. We want to do it as quickly as possible, however we also want to make sure that when we do it, it's high quality. Now that you've seen Blizzard Arena, you've seen what our quality bar is and we want to make sure that teams deliver a similar experience. We don't have an exact timeline to share at this point, but at some point in the next year we'll be able to make some definitive statements around exactly when that'll happen. Honestly, it's the number one strategic priority for us right now: focusing on our teams getting ready to host home games.
Is it unlikely to be in Season 2?
Nate Nanzer: I think Season 2 would be challenging for expansion teams that we're talking to now about joining. But I would say if it's not Season 2, it will be very quickly thereafter.
I heard suggestions from one team that it's proving too expensive to try and match the setup you've got here in LA. Is that proving an issue?
Nate Nanzer: I think it'll vary by city. Maybe in London, it'll make sense to start with a 1000-person theatre and maybe in Seoul, it'll make sense to start with a 7000-person gymnasium. I think it'll vary by the market. I suspect what many of our owners are thinking about is that maybe in the first year they'll start with something smaller and then over time, scale bigger and bigger and bigger.
Around a month ago a document claiming to be the code of conduct for the Overwatch League was leaked. Was that authentic?
Blizzard PR: We don't comment on leaked materials...
Nate Nanzer: I'll tell you it was old.
I believe it was labelled Version 1.0?
Nate Nanzer: I'll tell you what happened. We had a player summit before the season started. We had all the players out. We gave the players a first pass at the code of conduct and they gave us a bunch of feedback and so we actually made quite a few changes based on that feedback. I think it's easy for fans to look and say: why didn't you do that? Or why didn't you do it this way? At some point when you're building something like this from scratch, you have to say with the information that we have available, we think this is the best decision right now.
We value feedback from our players a ton, we value feedback from our owners, coaches and obviously, or fans too. We've been trying to be really receptive to that and reactive when we think a change needs to be made.
Is that why you haven't published it yourself yet? Because it keeps changing so frequently?
Nate Nanzer: Yeah, that's exactly why. It's a living document and we're still working on it. At some point in the future it'll probably be final, but even then I'm not sure it'll ever be 100 per cent set in stone. I think what's important is that our players know what the code of conduct is and I'm not so sure that it's important for anyone else to know.
One thing that caught my eye when reading through the leak was that you reserve the right to install cameras into a team house that could then run 24/7, potentially for a reality TV show. Obviously this isn't something you're doing at present, but why's it in there? Is that something you're considering?
Nate Nanzer: I wouldn't comment on the specifics of what was in the leaked document. What I would say is that with things like that, we want to make awesome content around the Overwatch League for Overwatch fans. What we hear from fans is that they want to know more about the players and see what it takes to be a pro gamer. Hopefully we'll be able to create content that does that in the future.
Today we saw the debut game for Geguri, the first female player in the Overwatch League. Obviously this was a fantastic moment for the league, but why aren't there more women already playing Overwatch professionally?
Nate Nanzer: I suppose you could ask that question of literally every esport. My personal opinion on this and I don't profess to know the answer, is that it's only in the last few years that you've started to see female gamers take a much more prominent role. That's because of things like YouTube and Twitch and the role they play in giving people a platform. When I was growing up, video games were considered, at least in the United States, a boy thing. That's totally not the case anymore. We know Overwatch is a game that's very appealing to men and women.
I think we'll continue to see more women become prominent esport athletes. I hope that at some point in the future, women make up a large percentage of the league. I don't see any reason why the league couldn't look like the playerbase, with similar percentages of women at the pro level. I think what's incumbent on us as a league - and when I say the league, I mean the teams, the owners, the players, everybody associated with the league - is to make Overwatch League as welcoming as possible. I think one of the biggest issues we have, when I speak to young women playing games, is that almost universally, one of the first things they say is that they'd play more, but it's really toxic. That's not unique to Overwatch, that's an internet problem. I think it's really incumbent on us all as gamers that we all do whatever we can to make playing games a more inclusive place, not just for women, but for everyone.
Logistically, what does the Overwatch League need to do to make that happen? I think most of us want games to be more inclusive, but what actual steps are being taken to improve things for women that want to play professionally?
Nate Nanzer: We're ready. I don't think there's anything we need to do. Everybody's very excited right now about Geguri being here, but we're treating her like every other pro player and that's how she wants to be treated. I think we're ready now. Female gamers that are good enough in Overwatch, they'll be welcome to play at all levels. I'll just go back to my earlier point: I think it's something that we all need to do as gamers to make sure that we're making safe, welcoming places for women and others to play online.