Activision Blizzard Esports CEO Pushes Back on Recent Overwatch League Criticism

Activision Blizzard Esports President & CEO Pete Vlastelica is pushing back on criticism leveled at Overwatch League in recent weeks, firmly denying reports depicting it as being in a state of disarray. Overwatch League is entering an important third season in 2020 with it being the first in which the property’s home-and-away, global-travel model will be fully implemented after playing the first two seasons in L.A. 

But the league has faced a spate of criticism on social/digital media in recent weeks for issues including several of its broadcast talent leaving, the lack of a new media-rights deal announcement yet, and over the amount of global travel its 20 teams will do. 

However, in an interview with Sports Business Journal earlier this week, Vlastelica strongly disputed several of the characterizations of a property struggling to find its footing, and he confirmed that a media-rights deal is close and will be announced before the season starts. Vlastelica said the early-season events on the 2020 slate are “tracking really well” in ticket sales, and New York Excelsior Owner Scott Wilpon told SBJ yesterday that the league’s season opener next month is expected to sell out the 2,200-seat Hammerstein Ballroom. 

Vlastelica, who came to Activision Blizzard from Fox Sports in late 2016, said that he feels “confident that the season is going to be successful,” but at the same time, 2020 is a “stepping-stone year toward our ultimate vision” and is not necessarily a make-or-break situation. He added that the league has seen an increase in interested bidders and “appreciation for the value” of its media rights for this cycle, which is part of the reason why a deal has taken longer to put together.

Still, with teams having paid eight-figure franchise fees to join the league and many still working to turn a profit, the league is under pressure to produce a hefty media-rights deal. Its expired streaming deal with Twitch was reportedly worth around $45M USD annually. Vlastelica said some of the criticism is because it has “been a while since we’ve had an announcement of our own, there’s a lot of anticipation for our media-rights announcement, and what has happened in the absence of our news from the league is certain segments of the community have filled in the discussion around OWL and it hasn’t all been positive.” But he added, “I would say we’re still pretty focused on what we need to do this year.” 

Much of the recent criticism has revolved around five broadcasters departing this offseason, including Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Erik “Doa” Lonnquist, and Chris Puckett. But while some of the talent who left have cited their displeasures with Overwatch League and certain decisions by its executive team as reasons for their departure, Vlastelica said that it was the property’s decision to part ways with some of the broadcasters. He said, “What (the departures) signify is that we’re putting together the best possible pool of talent that we think fits what our audience is looking for and our vision for the product we’re building. We’re bringing in people who we think know the game as well as anyone out there or better than anybody out there.” He added that Activision Blizzard tested different configurations at the recent Overwatch League World Cup, and that some learnings from the event will be applied to the new broadcast team for 2020, which has yet to be fully unveiled.

Vlastelica also responded to questions about the amount of travel that teams will have to do and about the culture at Activision Blizzard Esports, which has seen several traditional sports executives join its ranks in recent years as it built up a model that mirrors what’s seen with stick-and-ball properties. There have been some suggestions that with teams based in North America, Europe, and Asia, the amount of travel it will take some teams to get to away matches may be ill-conceived. But Vlastelica said that the league “built our schedule to maximize the number of consecutive matches that each team plays in a region,” so if a team travels to Asia, “generally speaking they’ll fly to that region and stay for a couple weeks in a row instead of making multiple trips back and forth between two regions.” 

The Excelsior’s Wilpon, whose family owns the New York Mets, confirmed that on his end, saying, “I know there is a lot of noise in the marketplace and some concern with people’s takes, but for us it’s a great opportunity for fans in other markets to experience our brand.” He added that the Excelsior “arranged our travel in partnership with the league and when we land in a designated region, we’re going to stay in that region for a period of time, so we’ve been planning for a long time and are not concerned.” 

On the culture at Activision Blizzard Esports, Vlastelica added, “The magic of what we’re building is the cross-pollination of traditional sports experience with esports/gaming experience. It’s not the case that our whole team is made up of folks from traditional sports or any recent gaming experience; we blended the two in a really nice way and I think that’s what’s led us to our unique approach.”

Editor’s note: Activision Blizzard has clarified that commentator Chris Puckett’s departure was his decision and not that of the OWL

Adam Stern is a staff writer for Sports Business Journal, where this story first appeared.

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