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How Video Game 'Overwatch' Is Trying To Make The Leap To eSport

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Generations from now - maybe millennia from now - when archaeologists look back on our time, they may find evidence of the moment when we went from playing physical sports to e-sports. Videogame athletes are watched by millions of fans as they compete for millions of dollars in prize money. Promoters now want to move e-sports from living rooms into sports arenas. Jeff Landa follows one game company to learn how it's done.

JEFF LANDA, BYLINE: The Key Arena in Seattle, Wash., is sold out. The capacity crowds here for the grand finals of an e-sport game called "Dota 2." Two teams sit on stage behind large computer screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: OK, here we go. The International 2016 game comes up with its final game of the year. It's a big one.

LANDA: They communicate via headset as thousands of fans watch the game on Jumbotrons. The teams are facing off to claim their share of a $20 million prize pool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: They rip down the tier-three tower. W33haa wants to go out through the back lines and attack. Now the lasso. They found Saksa. W33haa ripped apart. The buy-backs - it won't be enough. Good game, well played. Wings are your International 2016 champions.

LANDA: For video game company Blizzard Entertainment, this is the type of success it wants to bring to one of its new games called "Overwatch."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "OVERWATCH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three, two, one. Attackers incoming.

LANDA: Picture two teams rushing to control an area on a battlefield. Each character is equipped with different skills. Some time travel. Others fire missiles from the sky. Use each character in the best way possible as a team, and you win. Nate Nanzer is the global director of e-sports for "Overwatch." His job is to help make that game into an e-sport.

NATE NANZER: First and foremost, for a game to become an e-sport, it has to be a great game. It has to be an engaging game that people want to play over and over.

LANDA: "Overwatch" must be fun to play and easy to watch. Part of figuring that out happens here at Blizzard headquarters. The games' designers play it themselves and watch others play online. After a number of these sessions, the team figures out what works and what doesn't. Producer Aaron Carter is here getting feedback.

AARON CARTER: But right now, competitive play is a major focus for the team. How does this play from a competitive factor when people are trying, when every second counts, when every single part of the match itself is 100 percent going toward a goal of winning the match?

LANDA: But even a game created with spectators in mind doesn't guarantee fans will rush to fill arenas because, as Blizzard's Kim Phan says...

KIM PHAN: I mean, a game can be a competitive game, but not any competitive game can be an e-sport. I've seen games that are really competitive in nature but very hard - they're very difficult to watch.

LANDA: Free online streaming services like Twitch and YouTube have made it easier for fans to discover what games are both competitive and watchable. Log onto Twitch right now, and you'll find the games with the highest viewers are also the top e-sports. These viewers are both fans and players. Brandon Larned is a professional player who gets more than 20,000 viewers when he plays the game "Overwatch" online.

BRANDON LARNED: At a certain point, it doesn't necessarily become about the game, but about the stories and the players behind it as well.

LANDA: Like creating e-sports superstars.

LARNED: If people really want to go see a tournament, they want to see it for the game, but they also want to see their favorite players playing.

LANDA: Blizzard is now teaming up with Turner Broadcasting to bring an "Overwatch" tournament to a national TV audience at the end of September. Both the creators of the game and TBS will depend on the broadcast to know if "Overwatch" can make the leap from video game to a major e-sport. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Landa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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