Potential conflict of interest revealed in OWL franchise list
The first seven OWL names have been released, with the surprising news that Asian distributors NetEase have been allowed to purchase a franchise.
After months of speculation, many articles and even one single statement from Blizzard on the matter, today we were given our first look at the names that should be present at the start of the Overwatch League. Or at least, the money behind the names, as the company released a list of seven groups that have apparently already bought into the forthcoming tournament, due to get underway in the back end of 2017.
The list in itself is the same as the one published by ESPN’s Jacob Wolf last week, with one new group and a couple of extra details. The addition of the Miami-Orlando based Misfits group, headed by Ben Spoont and backed by the Miami Heat is interesting and new, and the new venture listed as the Seoul team could also be very intriguing, run as it is by Kabam founder and general Silicon Valley whizz kid Kevin Chou, presumably via his new KSV Esports startup. Many have also commented on the lack of a European franchise, but with only seven teams signed up we can assume at least one will be found prior to kick off.
However, the real headline is the name attached to the Shanghai franchise, which is massively problematic, or at least appears that way. According to the information released, the Shanghai team will be owned by none other than NetEase Inc., who are distributors of Overwatch in that part of the world, and therefore obviously a very close partner with Blizzard, the makers of the game. NetEase is the distributor and server operator for all Blizzard games in China, and also take an active role in organising Blizzard events in the region.
To be clear, all the partners in this league are technically working with Blizzard, but the fact one of them is owned by a company that has a direct relationship as distributor of the game, and is therefore making money for Blizzard themselves, is worrying in the extreme. Any dispute between the NetEase China side and another franchise will be open to massive scrutiny due to this conflict of interest, and rightly so. This is not the first time such a case has arisen, and it is actually something of a surprise to see less pushback from the other six teams.
To put it in perspective, when Twitch, the broadcasters of most esport, bought out the Good Game Agency and with it the EG/Alliance company, many in the esport world expressed concern that they would be given preferential treatment, to the extent that Twitch were eventually forced to throw their investment away. This is simple the worry when it is a broadcaster investing, so the idea of it being the owners of the league and game that have the conflict is magnitudes more worrying.
There are many other ways than just teams disputes that this could cause issues for Blizzard, and we await further news as to how they plan to prevent these accusations and issues. China is already a notoriously difficult place to achieve transparency and legal justice, but in this case the onus is equally on Blizzard to be more intelligent about how they run their events, and not allow these problems to arise.
Aside from this, there is also the issue of how these teams will be fed with new talent, if only the very elite are catered to, something a number of players are already worried about privately. The announcement has made a lot of people excited, but as is often the case, we’ll have to wait and see how it all works out, as to this point it seems like the company may have just revealed a problem in their attempt to solve one.
MLG speak to Nate Nanzer about the list
According to the SportBusinessDaily.com report, the following are currently committed to the OWL:
- Boston: Patriots Chairman/CEO Robert Kraft
- New York: Mets COO and Sterling VC co-founder Jeff Wilpon
- Los Angeles: Noah Winston, CEO of Immortals, whose backers include AEG, Grizzlies owner Stephen Kaplan and Lionsgate
- Miami-Orlando: Ben Spoont, CEO/co-founder of Misfits Gaming, backed by the Miami Heat
- San Francisco: Andy Miller, chairman/founder of NRG ESports and a minority shareholder in the Sacramento Kings
- Shanghai: NetEase Inc., the distributor of Overwatch in China
- Seoul: Kevin Chou, co-founder and former CEO of mobile game developer Kabam