The Rising Tide: What Nate Nanzer’s Departure Signals for the Future of Esports

“The rising tide lifts all ships.”

Announced in the evening of May 25th, OWL commissioner and VP Nate Nanzer will be jumping the proverbial ship only halfway through the league’s sophomore season. After a heartfelt tweet confirming his upcoming departure, ESPN esports reported that Nanzer has accepted a position with Epic Games to spearhead the gaming giant’s new competitive esports initiative. So long to Overwatch; the greener pastures of Fatal Fields await.

From the moment OWL was first announced during Blizzcon 2016, nobody really knew what to expect. An esports league with Western-inspired geolocated franchising was unheard of in the industry. Many longtime members of the esports community scoffed at the mere notion. Hell, a very vocal portion still do. The entire league could have folded before it even began. “Seriously? $20 million franchising fee? What kind of snake oil are you selling here, Blizzard?” But despite the near immeasurable roadblocks of jump starting a franchise based league for a “ded espurt btw” the Nanzer regime has had some undeniable success. It’s not at all surprising that Epic wants in on some of the OWL scrim bucks.

Epic is a massive company with perhaps the strongest brand recognition and largest fan base is all of gaming and Nanzer’s newfound executive position within the was no accident. Despite the youth of the league itself, Nanzer has presided over some significant achievement. But what exactly from the league’s past success is Epic looking to replicate? Let’s take a look, shall we?

The first achievement would have to be legitimate orgs buying up franchises at the jump. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke own the Boston Uprising and the Los Angeles Gladiators respectively. If you want to start a franchise based league, legitimate owners are going to need to open their check books. Established team owners from the NFL brought some much needed legitimacy and financial clout.

The second would be recognizable brands as advertisers. The white whale of advertising demographics has always been males aged 18-34. The OWL’s main audience is a goldmine for advertising. As long as OWL maintains steady viewership, advertisers will be lining up to cut checks. Coca-Cola has signed on with OWL as the league’s official beverage. Toyota has produced a number of promos featuring OWL talent. And who can forget Jake’s voice telling us all about how our pupils race back and forth behind closed eyelids during HP’s Omen ads?

Lastly would be broadcasting rights. After announcing a streaming partnership with Twitch during the inaugural season, OWL struck a deal with Disney. The Mouse now broadcasts OWL matches on ABC, ESPN, and Disney XD. The Stage Two Finals earlier this month reportedly had an audience of over 500k viewers on the ABC broadcast alone. Half a million viewers during an OWL playoff match on broadcast television; I see this as an absolute win!

So why leave? Why only halfway through the league’s second season would the commish want to go drive the bus for professional Fortnite? How could the first and only commissioner in the league’s history leave so abruptly? One could assume that Epic backed up to Blizzard HQ with a literal truckload of cash, but that seems a just bit farfetched. While Fortnite is phenomenally popular, the Battle Royale genre has drawn little faith in the esports community at large. The pacing of the gameplay itself is slow, the loot system forces matches to be too dependent on RNG, its an absolute nightmare for spectators, etc. We have all heard the criticisms before. But these kinds of gripes aren’t just exclusive to Fortnite, or the entire Battle Royale genre in general.

Since Overwatch’s beta, the ire from the esports community about the game’s prospects at the professional level has not been exactly quiet. But Nanzer and Blizzard have been able to package Overwatch and make it attractive to both viewers and investors alike. The league certainly has its flaws, and the looming shroud of hard locked localization could spell a crisis for the league’s future. But that is an article for a later date.

The rising tide of the Overwatch League is lifting all ships, and in this case, a ship’s captain. Call of Duty has just recently announced a professional league modeled in OWL’s image, and it’s presumed that Nanzer will jumpstart similar ventures in both Fortnite and Rocket League within Epic.

The doomsayers amongst us have heralded Epic’s signing of Nanzer as a death-knell for OWL. The short term and long term implications of this admittedly abrupt departure are still up to speculation, but Blizzard could not have found a more suitable replacement for Nanzer in former CEO of Activision/Blizzard’s esports division Pete Vlastelica. Although Vlastelica has been oddly quiet on social media since the announcement, he has been extremely involved in OWL’s operation from the league’s inception. If anybody can stay the course that Nanzer has set, it’s our new commish. Nanzer himself has even publicly stated on his personal Twitter that he has been assigned too much credit for the league’s early success.

There is sure to be more info coming to light on this subject in the subsequent weeks following this article’s publication and we at Draftbuff Overwatch will be sure to keep you updated. But let’s all take a moment and hit an F in the chat for our former commissioner. We wish you the best of luck, Nate. You were a real one.