E-Sports is a billion-dollar, global industry. [Image: Cavan Images / Getty Images]

The United States and Asia’s Best FPS eAthletes Clash at the University of Hawai'i

China Korea Asia

From September 21st to the 25th, the top players of Overwatch, a competitive team-based shooter game developed by Blizzard Entertainment, competed over a $3.2 million prize pool at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. After defeating the San Francisco Shock, the two-time reigning champions, the Shanghai Dragons won the title in a 4-0 sweep over the Atlanta Reign.

The Overwatch League (OWL) chose Hawai'i as a venue for its position as a midpoint between the game’s two main markets of Asia and the United States. As Asian players faced challenges in traveling to the original venue of the 2021 Grand Finals at Los Angeles’ Galen Center, the university presented an ideal substitute as home to the world’s fastest internet connection between North America and Asia. The OWL paid a total of $80,000 for access to UH’s facilities and its undersea cable stretching from California to Japan.

The OWL’s sizable market share of the multi-billion dollar eSports industry made its investment in UH feasible. The league is unique in that it follows North American sporting league franchise conventions in the global world of eSports. Its distinctive branding has attracted investment from traditional sports figures, like the owners of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Sacramento Kings, who own the Philadelphia Fusion and San Francisco Shock in the OWL respectively. On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese internet provider NetEase and Chinese streaming platform Bilibili own the Shanghai Dragons and Hangzhou Spark franchises. Franchise slots cost prospective owners as much as $60 million, and player contracts pay an average of $106,000 a year.

The agreement between UH and the OWL also provided students with internship experiences in the high-value eSports industry. Students helped organize, produce, and live stream a broadcast seen by 1.68 million viewers worldwide, using their global stage to showcase Hawai'ian culture through skits and promotional content. One such video features students teaching pro players phrases in Hawai'i Pidgin English, a local creole language.

eSports is an industry already famous for its capacity for cultural export. Dedicated global fanbases have grown around teams and players with different languages and cultures than their own, relying on translators to hear from their favorite players. This year’s victory of the Shanghai Dragons, a team that went winless in the league’s inaugural season, is a storyline that surpasses language barriers and can resonate with any sports fan.

Despite a handful of sponsors cutting ties with the OWL amid a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit with the developer’s parent company, Activision-Blizzard, the 2021 Grand Finals broke viewership records. With the help of UH staff and students, millions witnessed a team of mostly South Koreans representing a Chinese franchise hoist a trophy for victory in an American video game. Sky Kauweloa, head of UH’s esports academic task force and coordinator for the OWL’s activities in Hawai'i, hopes he can use the event’s momentum to establish the school as a center for gaming, broadcasting, and content creation in the Pacific.

Chris Cooper is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science.