Burbank’s Blizzard Arena aims to take esports to the next level

On Wednesday, video-game company Blizzard Entertainment launched the inaugural season of its competitive Overwatch League, the first major test of its dedicated esports broadcast facility in Burbank since it opened last year.

Blizzard Arena Los Angeles is a roughly 450-seat, 50,000-square-foot, three-studio facility housed in the Burbank Studios, former home of “The Tonight Show.”

From January until June this year, Blizzard will host the Overwatch League, or OWL, the company’s push for an esports organization modeled after traditional sports.

Twelve permanent teams representing national and international cities will face each other in regular-season matches, then the best teams will later compete in playoffs to determine the first-ever OWL champion.

Along with competing for their share of a $3.5-million prize pool, each player who has a spot on any of the team’s rosters is guaranteed a minimum $50,000 salary, health benefits and a retirement plan.

Los Angeles is the only city represented by two OWL teams, the L.A. Valiant adorned in black, green and gold as well as the L.A. Gladiators in white, purple and black.

Like every OWL team, the Gladiators and Valiant depend on skilled players from different parts of the world, recruiting from as far away as France and South Korea. Valiant’s Christopher “GrimReality” Schaefer, 18, a Chico resident, is the sole California native on either team.

Schaefer said it’s a “big deal” to be part of one of the L.A. franchises in OWL, adding that the dedicated arena in Burbank provides a space that better connects players with their fans.

“[The arena] pushes esports to that extra step as being viewed from an online video-game experience to more of an orchestrated sporting event,” he said. “It gives it that extra push.”

Valiant’s chief operating officer and president Ari Segal adds to the traditional sports pedigree seen more and more in esports team leadership.

Segal previously served in leadership roles with professional hockey teams such as the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes and the AHL’s San Diego Gulls.

“There is something about congregating together, regardless of what that content itself is, that’s important for the sports and entertainment experience,” Segal said. “To regularly go with friends or family to a place and watch your team live is a new frontier for esports, and I think it’s really exciting.”

Jeff Kaplan, Blizzard Entertainment’s vice president, serves as the game director for “Overwatch.” Although born in New Jersey, he was raised in nearby La Cañada Flintridge and said the Blizzard Arena’s importance is tied to replicating the “special” moments he experienced in local arenas as a Los Angeles sports fan.

“I grew up an L.A. Kings fan and one of the most emotional sports moments of my life was at Staples Center in 2012 when they won [their] first Stanley Cup,” Kaplan said. “My brother and I had tickets in the last row of Staples — the lousiest seats in the building but one of the most special days of my life.”

Another important function of the Blizzard Arena, Kaplan said, is the ability to have complete control over the broadcast experience of its games.

Kaplan said the company is constantly striving for what he referred to as a “world class” broadcasting capability that rivals, and may one day exceed, what traditional sports leagues can do.

As a sort of trial run, the arena hosted the “Overwatch Contenders” for its up-and-coming players in October. Since then, the main stage underwent an overhaul, real-time stats were introduced and many small changes were made to the overall broadcast product.

“I hope that some day something like the Blizzard Arena … can bring that in-arena experience to families as well, that there is an in-person emotional moment for people,” Kaplan said.

jeff.landa@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffLanda

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