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E-sports goes pro, as Comcast buys a professional 'Overwatch' franchise for Philly

Comcast and other pro sports franchise owners are looking to the booming growth of video game-based e-sports and want part of the action. The cable giant has acquired a Philly franchise for the Overwatch league.

Fans cheered at the Overwatch World Cup in Anaheim, Calif., last November.
Fans cheered at the Overwatch World Cup in Anaheim, Calif., last November.Read moreTaylor Global

Could e-sports — young people who watch other young people play video games — be the future of sports?

Some powerful sports-media people think it could play a role.

Flyers owner Comcast Spectacor has acquired a Philadelphia franchise for a new professional e-sports league based on the futuristic Overwatch game from Santa Monica, Calif.-based Activision Blizzard.

There are a dozen global teams in the new league, among them teams in Shanghai, Seoul, and London. U.S. franchise holders include the owners of the New England Patriots (Bob Kraft), Los Angeles Rams (Stan Kroenke), and New York Mets (Jeff Wilpon).

Organizers say they modeled the Overwatch League after pro baseball, football, and hockey with city-based teams and, thus, potentially, local fans. An estimated 22 percent of American male millennials watch or play video games.

The Overwatch League doesn't have a TV rights deal in place and is seeking one, an official said. The league anticipates over time to generate revenue through ticket sales, concessions, sponsorships, and merchandise. All the games for this year's competition — preseason will begin in Dec. 6 with the regular season kicking off in January — will be played in an Activision arena in Burbank, Calif. Home games could migrate to Philadelphia and respective franchise cities in the second or third years.

"We know how to run teams and build fan bases. We have a long history in sports," Dave Scott, the CEO at Comcast Spectacor, a unit of the cable and entertainment conglomerate based in South Philadelphia, said in an interview.

Comcast Spectacor hasn't yet decided on a name for the Philadelphia team, or an arena that could seat 3,000 to 5,000 fans. A name could be announced in the next 10 days, according to the company. Scott mentioned that Comcast Spectacor could initially look at local universities as venues.

Comcast Spectacor would field a competitive Overwatch team for the multiplayer game, Scott said. Based on league rules, the teams have to pay their Overwatch players a minimum of $50,000 a year and offer health benefits and performance bonuses.

The Overwatch League is owned by Activision Blizzard itself and Scott said he was encouraged by "the depth of the ownership group with people who look a lot like us," or part of traditional pro sports.

Paul Vlastelica, a top executive at Activision Blizzard, said that 430 million people globally play the company's video games, such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, in addition to Overwatch, and that 285 million people globally watch e-sports.

Overwatch, a multiplayer game with participants fighting in the near future, carries a teen rating. Activision released the game in May 2016 and it has an estimated player base of 30 million.

"We are reaching a tipping point in the culture where watching video games is as important as playing video games," Vlastelica said. "There also is a generational story. Young people are not watching sports like they used to, and part of that is that they are watching gaming. E-sports is a very compelling alternative to traditional sports."

Activision Blizzard put together the list of cities that had the most Overwatch players and Philadelphia was one of them, Vlastelica said. He did not say how many young people played Overwatch in the Philadelphia area. Scott estimated it in the "hundreds of thousands."