Is Houston The Next Call Of Duty Franchise?

TNL Take: Last week on Activision-Blizzard’s Q2 earnings call, CEO Bobby Kotick revealed that the 8th slot for the upcoming Call Of Duty League has been sold. However, while the previous 7 slots have all been named, there was no mention of which investor or investment team purchased this slot and for what city.

The Next Level has been investigating this a bit, speaking with several industry insiders and researching additional information sources.  We want to qualify this take by noting that we do not have direct sourcing or confirmation, but based on these industry conversations and piecing together the clues, the Next Level believes that Houston will receive 1 slot in the upcoming Call of Duty League. Let’s see how the dots connect.


(Photo: Activision-Blizzard)

(Photo: Activision-Blizzard)

As reported by Jacob Wolf of ESPN last June (who seems to breaks almost all Activision-Blizzard related news), franchise owners in the Overwatch League have been given a first right of negotiation for the upcoming Call of Duty League slots.

That’s exactly what happened in May of this year when Activision-Blizzard announced the first 5 cities:

  • Atlanta (Overwatch League Team: Atlanta Reign)

  • Dallas (Overwatch League Team: Dallas Fuel)

  • New York (Overwatch League Team: New York Excelsior)

  • Paris (Overwatch League Team: Paris Eternal)

  • Toronto (Overwatch League Team: Toronto Defiant)


(Photo: Infinite Esports and Entertainment)

(Photo: Infinite Esports and Entertainment)

As reported by Jacob Wolf in May, LA based Immortals raised a $30M series B funding round, rebranded to Immortals Gaming Club and were one of a few bidders looking at buying Infinite Esports and Entertainment, the parent company of OpTic Gaming and Houston Outlaws.

In June, Infinite Esports and Entertainment were indeed acquired by Immortals Gaming Club. However, Immortals Gaming Club already have an Overwatch League team with LA Valiant and Activision-Blizzard prohibits franchise owners to field 2 teams in the same league.


(Photo: Riot Games)

(Photo: Riot Games)

Following a similar pattern as the first 5 cities, Immortals (Overwatch League Team: LA Valiant) acquired the 6th slot for Los Angeles for the Call of Duty League in July. Immortals Gaming Club and Splyce are currently the only esports teams to have teams in all 3 current franchised leagues: League of Legends, Overwatch League and Call of Duty League.

The 7th slot went to Minnesota via acquisition by Wise Ventures, an investment firm founded by Minnesota Vikings owners the Wilf Family and VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuck. This is the sole slot without a companion Overwatch League franchise.

Also Minnesota is a state, why wasn’t it Minneapolis-St.Paul, unless location is still being determined?


(Photo: Activision-Blizzard)

(Photo: Activision-Blizzard)

2 weeks ago as reported by Jacob Wolf (seeing a pattern yet?), Houston real estate investor Lee Zieben agreed to buy the Houston Outlaws for $40M from Immortals Gaming Club. The deal has not been executed but is expected to close in late August.


(Photo: Complexity Gaming)

(Photo: Complexity Gaming)

While southern California was initially the leading geographical area for teams, developers and startups, north Texas has quickly established itself as the next dominant domain for esports. Envy Gaming is based in Dallas. Complexity Gaming opened a massive complex adjacent to the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Frisco, which was also home to OpTic Gaming prior to their sale.


(Photo: Heczquarters)

(Photo: Heczquarters)

This is the biggest wildcard of all.

I first met Hector “Hecz” Rodriguez 6 years ago during my time at Major League Gaming. Not only is he one of the nicest people in the esports industry, the growth of OpTic Gaming, his hustle and drive are inspirational and he deserves significant credit for where the space has gone.

How popular is Hector? Just read the thousands of Twitter comments made during the OpTic Gaming transition. His recently launched Heczquarters merchandise is already sold out.

Hector is still based in Frisco, Texas and why wouldn’t you want someone who has been around the Call of Duty scene for many years and created the most popular team for that title. There is no confirmation on this but would fit perfectly. Yet another dot?

Hector created the OpTic Gaming brand and in my opinion the “new” LA OpTic Gaming is not the same without him.

This narrative is our hypothesis that Houston will receive one of the Call of Duty League slots. To end with the same qualification, while hearing from industry sources and putting together this thread, it’s still not 100% confirmed. 

The Next Level reached out to The Zieben Group for comment but has not heard back as of this publication.

But again, the dots we are threading are:

  • Overwatch League franchises tied to Call of Duty League franchises

  • Recent purchase of Houston Outlaws by a wealthy investment firm

  • The growth of the esports industry in North Texas

  • The potential involvement of Hector “Hecz” Rodriguez


Doesn’t it make sense?

eSports Week In Review | Franchising: Who Made The Cut, NBA 2K League, Twitch Top 10


eSports Week In Review (Photo: Pixabay)

eSports Week In Review (Photo: Pixabay)

TNL Take: The past month has seen a slew of eSports franchising news for both Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League and Riot Games' NALCS and this week we took a deeper dive into which teams made both leagues. Also the Twitch Top 10 for the past week and how the NBA 2K League is looking to drive success via SportBusiness.


MONDAY 10/23

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - NALCS

eSports Franchising: NALCS (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: NALCS (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

NBA 2K League (Photo: 2K Games)

NBA 2K League (Photo: 2K Games)


Have a great weekend!

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut Part 2 - Overwatch League


eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Overwatch League (Graphic: The Next Level)

TNL Infographic 062: eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

TNL Infographic 062: eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

Today we'll take a look at the teams currently announced for Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League.


In late September, Blizzard locked in the final franchises for their Overwatch League resulting in a final count of 12. There are several familiar faces in this list, but notably there's an even split between Endemic and Non-Endemic teams.



We'll begin with two teams that were accepted into both leagues: Cloud9 and OpTic Gaming.

Cloud9 is one of North America’s premiere esports organizations. Since the team’s inception in late 2012, Cloud9 has been a fixture in the scene. They also have the best designed logos in all of esports and Yes, I will fight you if you disagree.

Of all the teams to be included as franchises in both the NALCS and the Overwatch League, Cloud9 was the clear favorite. Cloud9 is one of the only esports teams that hasn’t operated at a loss during its lifetime, though it did receive a round of funding from a slew of athletes and pro team owners this past March

[Edit: To show how quickly this space moves, Cloud9 received $25M in Series A funding this past week from more athletes, owners and media.]

In League of Legends specifically, Cloud9 has consistently been at or near the top of the NALCS. They were the first North American organization to defeat a Korean team at Worlds and they are one of only 3 teams to ever win a NALCS split.

For Overwatch Cloud9 has had a bit of a rocky start. Since the game’s release, the team has had at least 3 different rosters including both EU’s Laser Kittenz and South Korea’s KongDoo Panthera (now Cloud9 KongDoo) in addition to an NA roster.

Despite this messiness, Cloud9 made a smart decision and acquired the London Franchise. This means the team holds the unique distinction of being the only team based in the EU. It is likely to give the team a significant marketing advantage as they will have little to no direct competition in their home region.



OpTic Gaming is one of the most recognized esports organizations in North America and arguably the most dominant team in Call of Duty over the past few years.  However, LCS fans may be less familiar with the team as they have exclusively competed in games from the FPS genre until recently.

With an investment lead by Texas Ranger’s co-owner Neil Leibman in September, OpTic gaming also met the traditional sports roots sought after by both Riot and Activision Blizzard.

While the team acquired a Dota2 roster in September, the team has no prior history in League of Legends. It remains to be seen how far the Green Wall will expand into MOBAs, but OpTic has the opportunity to reach an entirely new audience of esports fans.

When it comes to Overwatch, existing OpTic fans will be greeted with games that fits more closely into the team’s specialty - Shooters.

However, OpTic has not actually competed in Overwatch until now. 

Given the brand’s prestige in other games, they may be able to attract talent familiar with their dominant record. But unlike Cloud9, OpTic will find themselves in a crowded market. It’s no surprise that they acquired the Houston franchise given the Ranger’s backing, but they’ll have to compete with Dallas’ Envy for regional fans.


Now on to the teams just in the Overwatch League



NRG  is one of the first organizations that brought in traditional sports teams and owners into esports. Both co-founders, Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov also happen to be co-owners of the Sacramento Kings as well as other sports organizations. The team has weathered many setbacks including the loss of their LCS spot in 2016, but they have also seen many highs. The team made headlines when they announced several prominent investors including Jennifer Lopez and Marshawn Lynch this past month.

Despite the team’s roots not being located there, NRG’s Shock will be based in San Francisco. While they have cleverly tried to obscure this by claiming they represent the entire Bay Area, it is doubtful that Activision Blizzard would hesitate to include a franchise based in San Jose or Oakland should the opportunity arise.

[Edit: Since release, a representative of NRG has clarified that their territory covers a wider area that we thought. Other teams may have more difficulty acquiring San Jose or other Bay Area locations in the future]


Team Envyus has about a decade worth of history behind it, making it one of the older teams endemic to esports. Similar to OpTic, their past mainly lies in Activision’s Call of Duty series. However, they are also one of the 4 teams that were not accepted for NALCS franchising despite currently holding a spot. Their generally poor record may be the cause, but no official reason has been given as of now.

However, signs point to future success for Envyus’s Fuel. Their current roster took home the grand prize in Overwatch Contenders Season 1. Additionally, they also have picked up Seagull, one of the game’s top streamers right out from under the nose of NRG.

The team’s formidable record points to future success, but marketing will be critical to the team’s success. Based out of Dallas, the Fuel will have to contend with OpTic’s unnamed Houston franchise.



One of the original 7 teams announced by Activision Blizzard in July, Misfits acquired the bizarrely large region of “Miami-Orlando.” While Miami makes sense given the team’s major investment from the NBA’s Heat, Orlando seems to have come along for the ride.

Similar to their EULCS roster, Misfit’s current lineup is made up of all European players, mostly Swedes. Recently, the lineup took second in Overwatch Contenders Season 1: EU.  This chemistry may serve them well given the short timeframe until the official start of Season 1.



Now, it’s time to address to obvious elephant in the room: Immortals. To the surprise of many, Immortals were rejected from NALCS franchising despite the team’s strong brand and performance in recent splits. There’s tons of speculation for the reasons behind this decision, but no officials ones have been given. Some have pointed to monetization issues, while others cite their Los Angeles spot to be in conflict with the LA-based NALCS. Regardless, this came as a shock to fans and players alike.

However, not all is gloomy for Noah Whinston’s team. Los Angeles is a coveted market and in most leaked early documents it was listed as the most expensive. They are also backed by AEG who own the Staples Center. Whatever advantage LA may have conferred is diluted somewhat by it being the only location to be claimed by 2 of the 12 inaugural teams.

This week, Immortals revealed the branding for their newly dubbed Valliant. Cleverly they have made allusions to their original branding in their new logo. Afterall, heroes (and strong organizations) never die.






Stan Kroenke may be familiar name to some as the owner of the newly re-relocated Los Angeles Rams. You may have also seen this fabulous picture of him, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cloud9’s Jack Ettiene from almost a year ago spectating the first year of the Overwatch World Cup before the announcement of the Overwatch League.

Along with his son Josh, Kroenke acquired a second Los Angeles franchise in August. While not an endemic team in the traditional sense, the two have reportedly brought on Phoenix1 to operate their team. Notably, P1 is another team that lost their NALCS spot.

Competition between them and Valliant is sure to be fierce as they look to embed themselves into the fabric of Los Angeles.




Love them or hate them, the Patriots have long been a force to be reckoned with in the NFL. Now, Robert Kraft is looking to similarly dominate the Overwatch League. Perhaps he is one of the less surprising tranditional owners to have bought into the league. He too was wooed personally by Bobby Kotick a year ago at Blizzcon after all.


Very little information about the Patriots roster or organization has been made public. So far, our only clue is that Chris “HuK” Loranger of Starcraft II fame is the President of Gaming at the Kraft operation.

While Kraft obviously understands the Boston Market, time will tell if he will be able to adapt his NFL success to the world of gaming.

[Edit: After publication, this Franchise's name was revealed to be The Boston Uprising. This fits the theme of Boston's revolutionary past and coheres with the Patriots branding. Overall, this is a smart move by the Krafts.]


New Yorkers rejoice! You too will be represented in the upcoming Overwatch League.

Jeff Wilpon, COO of the Mets, was one of the original 7 owners announced in July. Despite a lack of experience with both gaming and esports, Wilpon has stated that Bobby Kotick was the primary reason for his investment.  Wilpon's Stirling VC will be integral in helping run the organization and investment.

In an Interview from August, Wilpon stated that he believes his experience running the Mets facilities and operations will translate into a successful esports franchise. Little news has surfaced from the NY team, but given their premiere market they may have a useful advantage compared to smaller market teams.



In September, Activision Blizzard announced the final teams to be included in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League. As one of these late additions, very few details have emerged about the Comcast Spectacor organization. We do know they acquired the Philadelphia franchise which makes perfect sense. They already own the Philadelphia Flyers and their stadium, the Wells Fargo Center. Likely this will also exclude the 76er’s Dignitas for the foreseeable future as well. 

With Blizzcon around the corner, expect a lot more details to emerge on teams that have revealed very little so far.



Chinese Internet powerhouse Netease was perhaps the most out of place in the 7 originally announced teams. Given China’s protectionist economy, most western companies must partner with Chinese operations to do business within the country.

It just so happens that Netease are the company that distributes Blizzard’s titles in China. 

Many have cited this as potential conflict of interest, but no actions have been taken on this claim as of now.

In fact, very few details have emerged about the team, its owners and its potential players. As of now, were merely know the overarching owners, the location of the franchise, and the team’s name, logo, and color scheme. However, they do have the largest market in the world for esports viewers all to themselves which should prove to be a significant advantage (especially if the passion from the crowd at Worlds 2017 is anything to go by).



Kabam CEO Kevin Chou acquired the Seoul franchise as one of the original 7 owners announced in July. While his roots are in the gaming industry, he does not have a personal history in esports.

However he may be in the best position to dominate the league. Seoul is already a hub for eSports internationally, but that may just be icing on the cake. In August, KSV announced that they had acquired Lunatic Hai’s roster which had won Overwatch Apex seasons 2 and 3 and recently took the Seoul Cup over Cloud9 KungDoo. Not only are these excellent players, but they are also all originally from South Korea. They are perhaps the best embodiment of a “home team” in the Overwatch League.


They may be the safest bet as of now for the Overwatch League’s most dominant team.

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Part 1


eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Part 1 (Graphic: The Next Level)

eSports Franchising: Who Made The Cut - Part 1 (Graphic: The Next Level)

By Feature Writer Jordan Fragen

TNL Take:

Franchising continues to be one of the hottest topics in esports and we’ve already analyzed the differences between Riot’s North American LCS and Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League.

TNL Infographic 053: NALCS vs. Overwatch League (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

TNL Infographic 053: NALCS vs. Overwatch League (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)


And this is with good reason.

In recent years, the instability of the NA LCS and many other esports leagues have deterred potential investors. Afterall, nobody wants to see their team get relegated and their investment lose value. Two perfect examples are NRG and German soccer team FC Schalke 04 who both lost their LCS spots last year.

This year, both Riot and Blizzard offered brands the chance to acquire permanent franchises in the NALCS and the Overwatch League respectively. Many of the lingering questions were finally answered this past week. Today, we’ll bring you a quick overview of this recent burst of news and the landscape of the upcoming leagues set to start next year.



Riot Games' LCS (Photo: Riot Games)

Riot Games' LCS (Photo: Riot Games)

This week, Riot ended the speculation as to who’s franchising applications they would accept.

While many were initially concerned that Riot was actively seeking to partner with non-endemic teams, it appears that this is not the case. 6 of the 10 teams currently control spots in the NALCS.

So who’s in?

TNL Infographic 062: Franchising - Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)

TNL Infographic 062: Franchising - Who Made The Cut (Infographic: Jordan Fragen)



Off of a 3-year streak of not making it out of the group stage at Worlds, fans were itching for some good news. Turns out they wouldn’t have to wait for long.

Given the team's dominance with Bjergsen and the management’s ability to remain profitable, TSM was perhaps the most expected team to meet Riot’s requirement. However, nothing is guaranteed in the world of esports. Fans can rejoice though as TSM will remain as one of NA’s permanent teams.



CLG was one of the original teams in the NALCS and for years they dominated the North American scene. Today, they are not as prominent as they once were, but with an investment from the Madison Square Garden Company, it appears that Riot is confident in the team’s future.



After finishing 2 splits in a row in 9th place, Team Liquid has not necessarily met everyone’s expectations. Given that the team received a huge investment from Axiomatic and it’s many investors, including the majority owner of the Washington Wizards and a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, the team’s performance has not followed suit. However, this does not appear to have deterred Riot from accepting their application.



If anyone had a good week, it was Echo Fox. Along with announcing that the team had just received an investment from the New York Yankees, Echo Fox’s future in the NALCS was confirmed. Likely, these two stories were very much related to one another, but it’s unlikely that official sources will confirm this any time soon.



As the newest team in the NALCS, Flyquest’s acceptance is probably the biggest surprise on this list. As Wes Edens owns both Flyquest and the Milwaukee Bucks, they have the traditional sports pedigree that Riot clearly was looking for in franchises.

The team is also investing in other esports such Rocket League and the upcoming NBA 2K League. This commitment to the industry may have also played a factor. Either way, Flyquest will also remain a permanent fixture in the NALCS.





While Peter Guber is an investor in Axiomatic and by extension an owner of Team Liquid, the majority owners of the Golden State Warriors have not yet been involved in esports.

That is until this week when the Lacob family’s application was accepted by Riot.

Given the recent success of the Warriors, it is no surprise that of the traditional sport teams that reportedly submitted applications, they would be one of the lucky few to be chosen. Additionally, they are also participating in the NBA 2K League though the branding is not likely to overlap.



Way back in December of 2016, the Houston Rockets hired Sebastian Park as their Head of Esports. It was truly only a matter of time before the team was involved in the ecosystem.

While they are not one of the 17 teams in the NBA 2K League, they did show commitment to the space through his hire and entrance into the NALCS.



Like the Golden State Warriors, no one can deny the success Cleveland has had since Lebron returned home. Similarly, they are also participating in the NBA 2K League. 

But that wasn’t the only announcement coming from Cleveland. Former competitive Call of Duty player for top team OpTic Gaming and successful streamer Nadeshot is reportedly involved.

While initial reports have him serving as the Director of Esports, sources close to the Cavs say that his role may not be one you are currently seeing across other teams.  Regardless, Nadeshot being attached in any capacity to the Cavs is very meaningful for the team’s content strategy in addition to the opportunity to help monetize his upcoming apparel line.

[Edit: Dan Gilbert via Courtside Ventures has made several investments in the space with the most being the super successful exit for Beam]


In Part 2, we will look at who made the cut for Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League and the two teams that made both - Cloud9 and OpTic Gaming.

Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League (Photo: Blizzard)

Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch League (Photo: Blizzard)