The stadium is roaring as athletes pass a ball, but the stars of the show have headsets instead of running shoes. This is the revolution of esports — and the creation of a massive global league could be the industry's biggest slam dunk yet.
Activision Blizzard is building a professional esports league around its popular first-person-shooter video game "Overwatch," creating city-based teams to compete in global gaming tournaments.
The league mimics the structure of traditional sports teams, right down to hiring big-time sports executives as team owners, such New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon.
"When we created Overwatch at Blizzard, it was always with the expectation that we would be able to celebrate and recognize our players in a way that would be consistent with traditional sports," said Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, in an interview Wednesday on CNBC's "Power Lunch." "The only way you really could accomplish that would be to have the very best traditional sports team owners participate in ownership in the league, along with these great entrepreneurs from esports, and that's what we've done."
What prompted these traditional owners to make the transition to esports was the broader shift toward technology as entertainment.
"We see in the NFL that the millennials and the 'Z' generation are consuming things differently through their mobile device," Kraft said. "They're playing games hours and hours a day, and not watching sports the way we did. So we wanted to go with the best and try to participate in what's happening in this whole new field."
And while many esports teams already exist, Blizzard's league would be the first system built around a city-by-city gaming spirit, which will then be extended to a revolutionary global reach, according to Kotick.
"We thought the most important thing in celebrating our players was getting local recognition and developing that local bond fans have with their teams in their local markets," Kotick said. "But it's never been done on a global basis. So the idea that Shanghai and Seoul can play Boston and New York, that's never been done before [...] This is the first time where you have global competition, city-based pairs where you're going to have that local level enthusiasm."
With revenue from esports expected to hit $1.1 billion in 2019 and roughly 76 percent of e-sports fans claiming the virtual tournaments are overtaking their time spent watching traditional sports events — according to research firm Newzoo — the market for computer-screen soccer matches and headset-heavy warfare endeavors doesn't seem to be slowing down.
"We try to go with things where the future is bright," Kraft said. "It's something that two to three years ago I could never relate to. But being around young people and seeing how they play this game for hours, and they've got to be physically fit. ... It's a whole new world out there."