This past week we sat down with the Immortals CEO Noah Winston to talk about the Los Angeles spot in the Overwatch League. Noah had some fantastic answers and we are very excited to see this team grow in L.A. Here is the interview:
Overwatchscore.com – Con you give us a break down on how the League is shaping up right now. We’re seeing how things are branching out for the league overall, the gap between investors and endemic teams playing out. How do you see things moving forward?
Noah Whinston – I think that as more and more teams have joined Overwatch League, Blizzard has announced more and more plans not just for the league itself but for the future of game. I think a lot of the people who started off pessimistic are now seeing evidence that their initial pessimism was a bit overblown. At least from our perspective as one of the early movers to enter Overwatch League we do hear about some of this stuff before it goes public. In some ways that validates the faith that we put into Blizzard and Activision to kind of put together a strong league not just from a structure perspective but from an ownership perspective. Also, the ability to listen to the community about the features they feel are most important to be changed and updated to create a better play and viewing experience which they are doing. These changes are never going to happen overnight, sometimes it takes concerted effort to get them done as is with any significant changes to league structure or to game structure, but so far from my perspective the changes over the last few weeks have been positive.
Overwatchscore.com – How do you look at the make-up of teams being formed? You see players coming in from all over. Where do you see things going as the season gets ready to start?
Noah Whinston – It’s a little hard to anticipate how the League will shake out competitively for so long. I think people ported over the lessons from League of Legends and just assumed that Korea is the best and has been the best and always will be the best. I think, in a truly global league like Overwatch League is, you have more opportunities to practice against foreign teams. I think a lot of that inherent advantage will go away, like in League of Legends where Korea teams are segregated to Korea except for two tournaments a year. That kind of concentrates and distills down the better talents in that region. Where in a more global league that eliminates the barriers to allow other teams in other regions like Europe and North America to reach those same competitive heights. From our end, we have been pretty clear that we are a North American team who are representing a North American city we want to have North American players not just for marketing purposes, but because we care about not just who is the best team right now, but who is the best team in the long term. We feel like we’re starting to see in Counter Strike, like we have seen for a decent time in League of Legends, the best teams are the ones that can overcome cultural barriers and unite players from across the world based on their skill and personality. Day one, full Korean teams with very skilled players and no language or cultural barriers will have an advantage. But, that does not mean they will necessarily be the best team one, two, or three years down the line.
Overwatchscore.com – It seems like year two and three things are going to shake out a lot differently.
Noah Whinston – Honestly, I cannot give you a specific time frame. I think this thesis is going to have to adjust as time goes on. It will change based on the way that the league develops. Also, the way that players develop right? Obviously, North American players and European players are going to face a challenge from full Korean teams that are coming over to compete with them. There is a chance that they step up, or they don’t step up. We’ll be keeping the pressure on our guys to make sure they are ready for that challenge. Nothing is guaranteed. It is not just naturally that North Americans will catch up automatically. It is going to require a lot of work and concentrated effort from their side.
Overwatchscore.com – Curious about the adjustments in Meta. Team synergy is very critical. What is your philosophy going into the league on building these rosters?
Noah Whinston – Sure, I think we are one of the teams going into Overwatch League with a pre-set core. Given that we had a roster competing in Overwatch Contenders Season 0 and Season 1. I would say from our perspective, roster building is all about balancing the dual needs of a team. Between, natural talent with the ability to work hard, put in the hours, and focus. On the third point it is also about the personality, the culture fit, and the chemistry between teammates. It is rare to find all three in a single player. We have been lucky to have found some people in Overwatch and in other games that have a good combination of all three. Any roster building process is trying to balance those. Because with too much of one thing and not enough of the others the roster becomes unbalanced. A team with a ton of natural talent and a ton of chemistry that does not put in the hours or work hard is not going to be able to keep up with a team that has chemistry and works really hard but might not have the kind of day one natural talent.
Overwatchscore.com – We hate to ask, but you have to give us your thoughts on the second L.A. team.
As I mentioned publically, it was something we were aware of before we committed to our spot. I think Los Angeles is a very large market and frankly we would have a difficult time targeting all of it ourselves anyway. There is a ton of geographic diversity so having brand diversity in a market this big can be really important to give fans multiple points to latch onto. Not everyone wants to root for a championship caliber team, they may want to root for an underdog type team. Maybe they don’t like the underdog and they just want the championship team. Being able to balance that out and present multiple entry points for the Overwatch fans and the esports fans is Los Angeles can only be a benefit. I am pretty confident in our own abilities when it comes to being competitive and roster building, but also when it comes to brand creation and management. I am not anticipating that much of a challenge, but if the Kroenke’s step up to the plate then it is so much better. It raises the bar for everybody.
Overwatchscore.com – Did you find it odd that a second team is L.A. happened as soon as it did?
Noah Whinston – Not particularly, we knew about it well beforehand. Every investment group has their own priorities so it has less to do with Blizzard want a second team in Los Angeles. It is more to do with the Kroenke’s owning the L.A. Rams they are building their own facilities in Englewood. It makes sense to me that they would want to stay in the Los Angeles market.
Overwatchscore.com – Right now you have dive meta which is really big, but how do you see the meta changing over different seasons?
Noah Whinston – Sure, I think very explicitly, one of our goals is to construct a roster that is more than just the core six members. We have already done that. We already have seven and we’re looking to add more for the start of Overwatch League. Based on my philosophy, I think it is far more effective to have players that specialize rather than players that try to be generalists. I think rather than having a core six players that you are expecting to master every single hero so that for every single meta change you are already adapted. I think more likely, what’s going to be a better solution is having you know eight to twelve players that are all focused on sub sets of the hero pool so you can swap players on what the meta demands. Not just what the meta demands, but also what the map pool demands. In Overwatch maps demand very different team compositions. Not every map is for Pharah/Mercy, not every map is suited for full one take dive comp. So, have that flexibility in the same way that you want it in a sports team where you can have say in hockey a shutdown defense pair compared to a more offense, scoring pair. That is the type of flexibility that is really important to preserve in an Overwatch roster. To not just add additional players who are good, but don’t bring an additional level of strategic or tactical depth that the roster does not already have.
Overwatchscore.com – What steps are the Immortals taking to really bring together a local fan base in L.A.?
Noah Whinston – I think we are still in the ideation stage here. There are the obvious parts that every team is going to have to do. When you host local events at your own venue, how do you turn them into something more than just a match? I think one of the most impactful and effective live events in esports is the International for DOTA 2. It is so great because the International is not just about, go in and watch the match then leave. It is like a festival. It is a celebration of DOTA and the community that allows it to exist. We are starting very early stages in planning our live event strategy for Los Angeles, we are thinking years out. How do we make this a kind of holistic experience that is more than just show up and watch the match and leave an hour and a half later? It needs to be more of an experience for fans. Maybe have celebrations of the community via cosplay, or awesome food and concession options that is more than what you would find at a normal game. We want to encourage people to come early and spend time with each other. Talk about the teams before the match starts. The second part is how do you identify and target your local fan base? We are doing that right now with a lot of internal analytics and data tools. These help us track the impact of our on our digital streams. It helps us with all our content. We plan to port that over to the local fan base as well. The last part is, how do you take traditional event, venue, concert, live spectacle concepts and translate them over? As much as everyone views this first live audience of esports as this digital first generation. That is not necessarily the way the local fans base is going to engage with you. So from my perspective, I don’t think the way to get people to come out to a stadium is to Tweet at them. That is not how you do it. You cannot just target that subset of hardcore 18-24 year old fans only through digital means and hope that it does the trick. You also have to figure out how are you going to get the 40 year old mom with kids to bring her whole family out to an esports event? How do you market the same way WWE and Monster Trucks market? These are very appealing to young people, very similar demographic to esports, but marketed and sold in a very different way. The thing that WWE has figured out and Monster Trucks or even NASCAR, is what do you that is different than digital? Esports is better than any other sport at using the digital sphere to reach its audience. It is much worse at finding ways to convert that digital engagement to a live event experience.
Overwatchscore.com – News has been sparse and all over the place. How do we centralize news and get to where not just hardcore fans on Reddit are finding out about announcements?
Noah Whinston – I don’t think you ever, well, I think it is easy given that all of us exist in this kind of internal view of the industry right now. So it is easy to assume that what we see is what everyone sees. Best example is that, without any confirmation, because I don’t have any info on this, you can look at ESPN Jacob Wolfe’s article about LWBlue taking the New York spot. For people that are in the know and already engaged in Overwatch community. It leaked, right, we’re not sure if it is real, but for people already in the know if it is true, great. I guarantee you it is going to be a massive surprise for a bunch of fans when there is an official announcement made. Not every fan is as engaged in we might be. It may be tricky or deceiving for people on the inside when they just assume someone has heard the story. For industry insiders, news is always going to decentralized because they are leaks or pre-announcements, there is gossip. I think for most fans they will see it in a more centralized way.
I think the individual teams will certainly build up their own presence. I think Blizzard will build up their own presence. There could be strategies out there, but well, I am not their PR director.
Overwatchscore.com – What has your relationship with Blizzard as the league continues to grow?
Noah – I talk all the time with a lot of qualified people whose only job is to run Overwatch League. Their only job is to help me and give me information about what is going on. They plan with us about the future. It has been great!