When New York’s newest professional sports franchise played its first official match, the largest East Coast crowd that publicly assembled to see it totaled between 20 and 25 people. Converging on the Lower East Side’s Ludlow Street in Manhattan last Thursday night, they walked into Waypoint Cafe NYC, which bills itself as “New York’s first and only esports café and gaming hangout.” There, they crowded around a single screen tuned into the streaming service Twitch and watched as the New York Excelsior beat the Boston Uprising, 3–1, in a matchup between Overwatch League founding franchises that took place in a futuristic arena in Los Angeles, 2,800 miles away. For the day-one devotees at Waypoint, the win was sweet even though no one on the Excelsior has ever set foot in New York.
“Being in L.A. is fine,” Richard Ng, the mastermind of the Excelsior fans’ grassroots gathering, tells me via Twitter direct message. A fast-growing industry that was worth $1.5 billion last year is waiting to see whether a worldwide audience agrees.
NYXL fans Richard Ng, left, and Frankie McConnell at the Waypoint Café
Photo courtesy of Richard Ng
The Excelsior (also known as NYXL) are a new type of franchise that presents an unfamiliar dilemma for fans and players alike: Can a team truly represent a city, and secure that city’s support, if it has no real roots in the region? Ng, 38, is a transplant himself, a Toronto native who moved to New York five years ago for his full-time management consultant job and until now hadn’t placed his sole support behind a New York team. He got into Overwatch only four months ago, but he’s so smitten by the game — and his adopted team — that he’s operating as an unofficial, unsanctioned booster for the franchise. In the days leading up to the Excelsior’s first match, the only message about a meet-up that he’d seen from the team was to “stay tuned for info.” When no info followed, he started tweeting at various venues, hoping that one would host a viewing party. When he heard that Waypoint was willing, he spread the word on the NYXL channel on Discord, a voice and text chat app that’s become a go-to for gamers. Thanks to a well-timed tweet, the small group that responded to his message got a shout-out on the official Overwatch broadcast, a triumphant moment for the few who were there.
“We gotta start somewhere, and I figure the team is probably slammed as hell, so why not just fill in the gaps ourselves?” Ng says.
Ng can’t single-handedly ensure the Excelsior’s success, much as he might try. But the Overwatch League’s larger fate matters, because the fledgling operation isn’t relying on an established esports template. Instead, it’s borrowing some of the structures and trappings of traditional sports, blending bat-and-ball with point-and-click in a crossover creation that might make the OWL a little less bewildering to football, baseball, and basketball fans who haven’t yet warmed to online leagues. And in the circuit’s most populous domestic market, the experiment’s future depends in large part on eight expatriate players on the other side of the country, homesick in a house in the Hollywood hills.
NYXL fans watch the team’s inaugural game at the Waypoint Café
Speaking of filling in gaps: If you’re not already an Overwatch or esports enthusiast, there are only a few facts you need to know to understand why the Overwatch League is intriguing. The first is that Overwatch is a multiplayer first-person shooter released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in May 2016 by leading developer Blizzard Entertainment, famous for its Warcraft franchise (which includes World of Warcraft and Hearthstone) and other popular series, such as StarCraft and Diablo. Overwatch distinguishes itself from many other online shooters in its emphasis on cooperative, team-based objectives like capturing control points and delivering payloads, as well as its reliance on player-controlled “heroes”: 26 cartoonish characters who have their own arsenals and skill sets. Each hero falls into one of four roles — offense, defense, tank, or support — and matches consist of six-on-six battles that play out on a variety of maps over four rounds (plus a tiebreaker, if necessary).
Last October, Blizzard announced that the game had passed “35 million players,” although that nebulous number likely includes inactive and alternate accounts as well as free trials. The Overwatch League, which launched last week, is the company’s attempt to follow in the footsteps of more established esports-oriented titles like Riot Games’ League of Legends and Valve’s Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which have already fostered thriving competitive scenes that have produced celebrity players and massive prize purses. Blizzard’s gambit may transform esports, but it may also prove premature: Although Overwatch is an extremely successful commercial title, its professional scene hasn’t yet been a big business, and not every online Blizzard esport has been a breakout hit.
““Who cares if they’re from South Korea? How many New York Islanders are from Long Island? How many Mets [are] from Queens?” —NYXL fan Richard Ng”
Blizzard’s big innovation — or, at least, update to an age-old idea — is making the OWL a geolocated league. Whereas most esports are dominated either by free-floating squads that don’t explicitly represent a region or tournaments organized by continent and country (including the Overwatch World Cup, which preceded the OWL, and a semipro OWL training ground called Overwatch Contenders), the OWL’s 12 teams have tied their identities to designated cities: One represents Seoul, one represents Shanghai, one represents London, and the remaining nine are tied to cities in the United States. In other nods to traditional sports, the OWL has a commissioner, guaranteed minimum salaries, a dedicated arena, and a logo so similar to those of other major sports leagues that Major League Baseball reportedly considered suing for trademark infringement.
Look a little closer, though, and the OWL’s nontraditional elements emerge: Unlike Roger Goodell or Rob Manfred, the OWL’s commissioner, Nate Nanzer, is active on Twitter and responds to DMs. The minimum salaries are only $50,000 (plus housing, benefits, and retirement plans), although some players make more and the winners will be entitled to a portion of the league’s $3.5 million prize pool. The dedicated arena — the newly renamed Blizzard Arena in Burbank, where The Tonight Show used to be filmed — seats only 450 and will house every match during the OWL’s five-month inaugural season, a prelude to future as-yet-unspecified seasons in which teams plan to play in their home cities. And the hero whose silhouette graces the OWL logo, Tracer, is dual-wielding guns, an image that most traditional sports leagues would want nowhere near their brands. Despite those differences, OWL’s potential for mainstream support enticed 12 ownership groups to pay franchise fees of at least $20 million, far higher than the going rate in rival esports.
Farzam Kamel, a partner at NYXL owner Sterling.VC — a fund owned by the Wilpon family, which also owns the New York Mets and regional sports network SportsNet New York — says by phone that Blizzard’s idea to sell permanent rights to a city-based esports team made the OWL an appealing investment opportunity. “It removed the uncertainty that you’ve had in other titles — risks of getting relegated, for example, or the risk that the publisher would revoke or change a license it gives to third-party tournament organizers for their game. So what we have here is an opportunity to invest in an asset without constantly thinking about short-term results. … And I think you’re going to see with the type of people that have joined … that level of commitment exceeding what’s been shown in this market to date.”
Reflecting its hybrid DNA, the OWL’s initial ownership crop is almost evenly split between preexisting esports organizations — such as Team Envy (which owns OWL’s Dallas Fuel), OpTic Gaming (Houston Outlaws), and Cloud9 (London Spitfire) — and traditional sports groups that were interested in adding an esport to their competitive portfolios, which is all the rage right now in what investor types habitually refer to as “the esports space.” In addition to Wilpon’s Sterling.VC, OWL’s ownership roster includes Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (which picked up the Los Angeles Gladiators to go along with Arsenal F.C., the L.A. Rams, the Denver Nuggets, and the Colorado Avalanche), the Kraft Group (which will pair the Boston Uprising with the New England Patriots), and Comcast Spectacor (which now owns both the Philadelphia Fusion and the Philadelphia Flyers).
According to Kamel, the metrics that most of those owners will be using to assess the league’s short-term success are also staples of traditional sports: sponsorship and viewership. While the true test of the OWL’s viability will be how those factors hold up over time, the league is off to an encouraging start. On the eve of the OWL’s launch, Blizzard announced a two-year Twitch streaming deal believed to be worth at least $90 million, which would make it the largest esports distribution deal ever. Twitch viewership for the first day of OWL action peaked at more than 400,000, a number that doesn’t include any spectators who tuned in via alternate channels.
Before a team can build a fan base capable of generating renewable revenue, though, it has to construct a roster that can contend, in a league where the oldest player is 28 and most are much younger. For many OWL squads, the Excelsior among them, that means casting a global net for talent and, often, signing players who’ve never been to the United States and are still in (or barely out of) their teens, all of whom have to adjust to a new language, culture, and city as they face increased public and professional pressure over the course of a 40-match regular season that will culminate in a championship tournament in July.
In these early days of the league, there’s little consensus on how a high-level Overwatch team should be assembled. On only one matter is every team in the league seemingly in lockstep: The OWL’s opening-day rosters are universally male, a notable embarrassment for an organization whose logo features a female hero and whose cast of in-game characters is consciously inclusive. The ensuing discussion has followed familiar grooves: Defenders point out that not many women are accomplished pro players (although one, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, made the South Korean Apex league, a professional precursor to the OWL); others observe that that’s not an excuse, but, perhaps, a symptom of systemic problems, pointing to a history of harassment. When questioned, OWL teams have offered a litany of explanations — some weaker than others — for their lack of gender diversity. The Excelsior, for what it’s worth, say they would “absolutely” sign a woman in the future.
Nanzer, the Overwatch League commissioner, tells me via email, “I would like to see that one day, but it may take time,” adding, “what the League can do, and what we are doing, is professionalize esports in a way that’s never been done before, both in the competitive ecosystem and the fan experience. We believe that the more professional and welcoming esports as a whole becomes, the more women will feel empowered to participate — and ultimately succeed — at the highest levels of pro play.” He cites the league’s lower-level Academy Team feeder system, Path to Pro, as a possible entry point.
Beyond their unanimous current selection of all-male rosters, teams are divided on how best to build a lucrative contender: Unlike some “region-locked” esports that prevent teams from recruiting outside of their geographic regions, OWL teams can pick players from wherever they want. Only two teams — the Houston Outlaws and San Francisco Shock — have majority American rosters, and even they have four international members apiece, pulling players from Mexico, Canada, and a few European countries. The obvious downside for teams that have decided to prioritize all-Western rosters (as some have openly admitted to doing) is that they deny themselves elite talent from the rest of the world, specifically esports and Overwatch hotbed South Korea, which supplied 45 of the 113 players on the OWL’s opening-day rosters. The upside is that their players are more likely to speak English, which aids intrateam communication (a must during matches) as well as domestic marketing efforts that promote players’ public personae.
““If you don’t play games in [South Korea] then you’ll have no friends and you won’t be cool.” —Excelsior team manager Andrew Kim”
As provincial as it may seem to fixate on countries of origin in a global game played on virtual battlefields (and, for now, physically situated in centrally located, Blizzard-HQ-adjacent L.A.), some hometown fans still long for hometown (or at least home-country) players. As one would-be Excelsior fan posted on /r/OverwatchLeague late last year upon learning that the team would debut with an all-foreign roster, “Nothing against South Korea or these players, but this just feels wrong. How can this team be called the NEW YORK Excelsior?” But Ng has a ready rebuke: “Who cares if they’re from South Korea? How many New York Islanders are from Long Island? How many Mets [are] from Queens?”
The Excelsior, whose branding company crafted a name and logo that are intended to epitomize New Yorkness — “Excelsior,” Latin for “Ever upward,” is also the state’s motto — are one of three teams that are entirely South Korean in origin, and one of four whose rosters come from one country. The others belong to London, Seoul, and Shanghai, which makes NYXL the only single-country team to be based in the U.S. The Excelsior’s roster is also on the smaller side, totaling eight players, not counting Yeon-oh “Fl0w3R” Hwang, a 17-year-old prodigy whom the Excelsior signed but who won’t be old enough for OWL competition until Season 2. Head count is another area in which OWL teams have taken varying approaches, fielding rosters ranging from the minimum six players to the maximum 12. There are trade-offs here, too: 12-player teams have ample injury insurance and are large enough to split into two practice squads that can scrimmage against each other, but they also impose higher overhead costs and can make it difficult for coaches to distribute playing time.
The man who picks players for the Excelsior is Scott “Bearhands” Tester, the team’s director of player personnel. Before joining the Excelsior in July, Tester, who has more than a decade of video-game industry experience, worked for Blizzard for almost five years, starting in quality assurance and then graduating to esports and the early stages of planning for the Overwatch League. When the OWL’s structure was set, Tester told Nanzer that he thought he could be of more value to the league by working for a franchise and helping it form a foundation for long-term success. New York’s size and sports history made that market his first choice.
Tester’s first task for the Excelsior, he tells me by phone, was to tutor his new employers about the intricacies of Overwatch esports, after which he and Sterling jointly decided on a strategy to construct the team’s roster. It was important to Sterling that the Excelsior could win right away, and the owners determined that the surest route to victory would be to target players who were winners already. “We didn’t want to come and in Year 1 presume that we knew more than a lot of managers and members of the community who’ve been doing this,” Kamel says. “We knew there were successful teams, that there were successful coaching systems, and we wanted to look for the ones that had the attributes that we highly valued.” Consequently, they decided to sign an experienced team off the rack rather than put one together piecemeal. Importing an entire team as a unit would have the additional virtue of preserving some semblance of normality for players whose lives would largely (if voluntarily) be turned inside out. “I think we knew the transition for these players, particularly international players, to L.A. was going to be a tough one,” Kamel says. “So as much stability that we could bring to the table in Year 1, we thought was important.”
Esports scouting and talent evaluation aren’t exact sciences; most games’ stats aren’t as telling as, say, baseball’s, and communication and chemistry play important (and unpredictable) roles. Although Tester can consult an Overwatch stats site called Winston’s Lab for a first-pass appraisal of a potential player, that’s only a prelude to a more holistic deep dive. “We look at the social media and we interview them and just try and get a sense of what kind of person they are,” he says. “We also tend to invite them to tryouts and … just kind of see how they play together and fit together.”
The most successful Overwatch teams were in South Korea, because video games (and esports) are close to the core of South Korean culture. “If you don’t play games in [South Korea], then you’ll have no friends and you won’t be cool,” says Excelsior’s bilingual team manager, Andrew Kim. “Like, seriously. If you go to school and then you say, ‘I don’t play League of Legends,’ then you’ll have no friends.” Even casual play is uncool. “I think in America people just play for fun, but in Korea, people actually play to get better,” Kim adds.
““I think like half the team is kind of homesick.” —Andrew Kim”
Thus, that’s where Tester and Sterling focused their search. Eventually, they landed on LuxuryWatch Blue, a team that had consistently finished among the top contenders in South Korea’s prestigious Apex tournaments. “If you look at the history of LuxuryWatch Blue, I think players that know their strategy and know their style would probably call them an advanced dive team,” says Tester, referring to the “dive” strategy that’s become popular in Overwatch competitive play, in which highly mobile heroes pull off coordinated and devastating blitzlike strikes.
LW Blue checked every box: It had a high-level track record in events featuring OWL-esque pressure and a core that traced its roots together back to Team Fortress 2, a popular, pre-Overwatch online multiplayer title with analogous team-based objectives and a similar graphical look. They also seemed to have the adaptable, open-minded personae and mental toughness that Tester and Sterling wanted to cement as hallmarks of their blank-slate team. “We were looking for players that had positive mental attitudes and just an ability to compete at a high level without getting bogged down by defeat,” Tester says. “We wanted to focus on character, not background,” Kamel says. “So for us it wasn’t an issue that they were all Korean players, at all.”
Sterling signed LW Blue’s roster en masse, including coaches, with the players inking standard OWL one-year contracts with second-year club options. Because Overwatch is a recent entry to the esports world, Overwatch pros don’t have the massive earnings and online followings of League of Legends stars like Faker or Doublelift; the best-known and most senior member of NYXL, team captain Jong-yeol “Saebyeolbe” Park (who played for the South Korean team that won the 2017 Overwatch World Cup), has earned only a little more than $15,000 in his career and amassed fewer than 14,000 Twitter followers. The chance to play for a prominent team in the OWL, with its guaranteed salary, respectable prize purse, and high-powered promotional machinery, was an easy sell for players and their parents alike, even though it meant picking up stakes and coming to a country no LW Blue members had ever visited before last year.
The combination of the LW Blue core and a pair of supplementary pickups — support player Yeon-Jun “ArK” Hong and versatile, Zobrist-esque star Hae-Seong “Libero” Kim — gave the Excelsior a formidable lineup. ESPN esports reporter Jacob Wolf told me before the season started that he expected NYXL to finish in the top third of the league. The team’s 2–0 start hasn’t hurt his opinion of them, though he notes that New York has yet to be tested against fellow undefeated favorites Seoul and London.
NYXL in front of the team house in the Hollywood hills
Courtesy of NYXL
The Excelsior arrived in L.A. shortly before Thanksgiving and settled into a team house in the Hollywood hills, a 15-minute drive from Blizzard Arena. Some OWL clubs have opted against communal living, reasoning that such arrangements require yet another adjustment from what the players are used to, and that in a group setting one disruptive player can more easily distract the entire team. In NYXL’s case, though, the players were already comfortable in each other’s company, and were bound to be facing the same doubts and difficulties, which they could better tackle together. “Specifically because of the challenges of this roster, we thought it was important to have a player house,” Kamel says. “Having them all move to L.A. together and live together and be able to have the comfort of being around each other was important.”
Saebyeolbe, or “SBB” for short — Kim tells me it means something along the lines of “shooting stars at late night,” although he says it sounds a lot better in Korean — is the old man of the team at age 22. He took up Overwatch while recuperating from a broken knee suffered during South Korea’s compulsory military service. Befitting his veteran status, he serves as the roster’s main motivator (as well as its resident heartthrob). SBB, Tester says, “tends to be the one that kind of lightens the mood and brings everybody together. Like maybe before a match, or if things aren’t going the way we want in a match, he’s the one that kind of makes a joke or says something to bring everybody back together and sort of refocus our efforts.”
He’s also the one with the heaviest emotional burden to bear. SBB, a former pro bowler and barista, got married close to two months ago, and he and his wife have been separated since, save for a brief return to Korea in late December. The newlyweds FaceTime and play Minecraft together to stay in touch, but the distance has weighed on his mind. “Obviously he misses her a lot,” says Kim, paraphrasing Seoul native SBB’s responses to my questions. “Like, ‘His play doesn’t get affected at all,’ that would be a lie. But he tries his best to focus on the game.”
Publicly, the players seem to stick to a positive party line about their nominal host city: “Even before he came to America or joined New York, he always thought that New York was the best city in the world, because America is the best country in the world and New York is the best city in America,” Kim translates for SBB. Even if all of the players believe that, though, their excitement doesn’t always outstrip their sadness. “I think like half the team is kind of homesick,” Kim says. In the wake of missile scares and tweets about nuclear buttons, many anxious Americans would empathize if President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the regime just to the north of the NYXL players’ home country had added to their stress level, but according to Kim, the brinksmanship between leaders hasn’t preoccupied the players. “I don’t think anyone really cares about that,” the manager says. “If they do, they’re keeping it a secret.”
If the cure for homesickness is keeping busy, the Excelsior are following the perfect prescription. Every morning, they exercise or take English classes, breaking off into beginner, intermediate, or advanced sessions according to their proficiency with the language. Only ArK, who studied English in South Korea, is virtually fluent; SBB feels comfortable speaking English in most contexts, and he hopes to be fluent within the year.
“We wanted to make sure that they came here and were as well adjusted as possible in terms of their communication skills, so we spent a great deal of time crafting an English-language training program … that focused on their core needs, or their immediate short-term needs, which is how to speak with press, how to communicate within game in English when necessary, and how to just get by on a day-to-day basis in America in English,” says Kamel. “They’ve been in that for three to four months now and are showing pretty considerable progress.” Kim, who keeps the players plied with eye drops and other esports necessities, also helps remind them of American customs, like tipping delivery people. ArK also assists wherever he can. “I just try to help my teammates in all kinds of things, like getting Uber,” ArK says.
English is important not only for the players’ comfort, but for the team’s bottom line. “They are the face of the franchise,” Kamel says. “We’re there to grow it, to support them, and to be present, but in the end we rely on them to be out there representing our brand and evangelizing our brand with our fan base.” Although not all of NYXL’s players are as outgoing as ArK and SBB, they all understand that they’re expected to do double duty as competitors and showmen. “We’re players, but also entertainers,” says ArK, a former aspiring nurse who now fittingly occupies a healer role in Overwatch. “We should not only focus on the game but do something else for the fans.”
After their English lessons, the players practice and scrimmage in a structured way for several hours a day, and much more on their own time; when I ask SBB what he does during nights and weekends, Kim relays, “he plays Overwatch.” Some days, they break only to eat, which has also been an educational experience. “In the beginning we were experimenting, trying Chinese food, American food, Italian, all that,” says Kim. “But in the end, all the players like Korean food, so now they eat Korean food five days a week.” The exception seems to be Pine, a dabbing-prone player who’s come up big off the bench in both matches so far (inspiring amateur imitators) and whose precision with weaponry is exceeded only by his love of Mexican food.
Typically, players have one day off a week, which they’ve used to do some sightseeing: The Excelsior have visited Rodeo Drive, Koreatown, and Universal Studios, where they added a literal roller-coaster ride to the figurative one they’ve been on since they left home. Naturally, it will take more than a few months for foreign players in a new country to internalize the baggage that goes along with representing a city; the significance of New York’s first game being against geographic rival Boston, for instance, was largely lost on the NYXL. “In terms of them kind of grasping the intricacies of a division rivalry with Boston, I think maybe we’re not quite there yet,” Tester says. “But I think the players definitely do understand what it means to represent New York, and it’s something they take seriously.”
Ultimately, though, believing that Boston sucks isn’t what will most endear the Excelsior to their adopted future hometown crowd. Excitement and winning would leave a lasting impression. “For me, teams are about play style and plays,” Ng says. On that score, the Excelsior deliver: “We make some really stylish plays,” ArK says with pride.
Ng also says the Excelsior have “a bit less of the hard esports attitude” than the typical team, meaning that they’re more sympathetic and less self-aggrandizing and combative. He adds that “they sound like regular people,” in contrast to divisive Dallas Fuel tank xQc, whose streams were recently described by Dot Esports as “often high-energy and filled with screeching.” Ng’s perception would please Kamel, who characterizes the public persona that Tester and Sterling envisioned for the Excelsior as “confident but not arrogant.”
Tester, too, thinks the team has struck the right tone. “I think the guys that we have on our team now, especially if you look at like ArK’s stream or Saebyeolbe’s stream, those guys are super positive and always interacting with their fans and the community in like a really uplifting and engaging way,” he says. But that community is still finding its footing.
Main tank Dong-gyu “Mano” Kim savors a preseason victory
Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
Although Ng and his pro-NYXL Discord crew went back to the Waypoint for the Excelsior’s Saturday game against Houston, I wanted to see if the Excelsior could survive in a sports bar. A tipster had told me that the Offside Tavern, which bills itself as “Chelsea’s newest sports bar” despite a dilapidated-looking façade, might be showing the match. When I called to confirm on Saturday morning, the bartender told me that they had showed the first game on Thursday, that “a couple people” had come, and that the NYXL would “probably” be on again that afternoon.
When I got there a few minutes after the match’s start time, Overwatch wasn’t on any of the bar’s 15 TVs. When I inquired, the bartender obliged and put Blizzard’s broadcast on the screen behind the bar, above an Islanders flag. Flanked by playoff football on both sides, the screen displayed New York’s second 3–1 victory, much to the indifference of the fans who were there for Falcons-Eagles. When I held up my phone to take a picture of the only-in-2018 tableau, the man next to me asked if I was the one playing the game. “I can’t even keep up with it,” he told a companion after I explained that my camera wasn’t controlling the Overwatch League. “That shit is crazy.”
OWL at the Offside Tavern
Comments like that could be Blizzard’s worst nightmare. Although Blizzard has made major strides in improving the spectator experience by incorporating team colors, instant replays, and pop-up maps, among other measures, into broadcasts, Overwatch’s frenetic action still isn’t easy to follow, especially for baseball or football fans accustomed to glancing at their phones between pitches or plays. Viewers who haven’t played the game themselves may find the fast-paced carnage particularly unintuitive and tune out. “I am not the core demographic,” Ng concedes. “In fact, a lot of my contemporaries really look down on esports.”
Kamel, who’s in his mid-30s and wasn’t an avid esports consumer until the past few years, has become a complete convert. “When I watch I get the same joy and excitement that I do when I watch a Mets playoff game,” he says. “And it’s kind of a cool thing to see, because this general sort of experience was a very foreign concept to me a while back.” He assures me that the Wilpons watch, too. Of course, it’s one thing to watch when you have millions invested in the Excelsior’s success, and another entirely to tune in just for fandom’s sake.
Clearly, Sterling.VC has its work cut out for it as it tries to carve out a corner of the crowded New York sports scene. It’s hard to imagine an NYXL fan calling WFAN to complain about Pine’s lack of playing time, although I wish Mike Francesa had delayed his departure long enough to cut off that hypothetical caller and deny that the Excelsior exist. For younger fans whose tastes haven’t hardened, though, the Excelsior are an easier sell.
““We’re players, but also entertainers.” —NYXL team member ArK”
NYXL Discord participant Aaron Weil, 25, is a lifelong Mets fan from Forest Hills, Queens, who also started to root for the Islanders later in life. When he started watching League of Legends in 2013, he learned from his mistakes with traditional sports and decided to follow the front-runners. “I wanted to root for the ‘good’ teams in one aspect of my life,” he says via Twitter DM.
For fans of esports that predated Overwatch, rooting for players of different nationalities competing many miles away is already routine. Weil’s years of watching League of Legends conditioned him not to worry about where in the world the Excelsior actually are. “In the NYXL Discord we’re already meme-ing on Pine and SBB, so to me they’re already as near and dear to my heart as … David Wright,” he says. “In the end, it’s the name on the front of the jersey that you root for, not the back.” Technically, NYXL jerseys don’t have a city or team name on the front, but the principle is the same. Fondness for an OWL team is just the most extreme version of “rooting for laundry,” which most sports fans already do.
The Excelsior win their second regular-season match at Blizzard Arena
For Weil, who jokingly describes himself as a “glutton for punishment,” the Mets connection was enough to make him support the Excelsior, but he doesn’t think that attachment will transfer smoothly to Mets fans who don’t share his affinity for esports. “Without a push from the Mets it’s gonna be a hard sell,” he says. “Like showing them off at Citi [Field], selling XL merch in the club store, advertis[ing] them somewhere on the wall, to really show, ‘Hey, you root for the Mets, you need to be checking these guys out and giving OWL (and esports) a chance.’” Weil has even been stymied so far in converting his little brother, who in true Mets-fan fashion is worried about NYXL siphoning funds from the Wilpons’ already-reduced baseball payroll. To this point, NYXL hasn’t played up its ties to the Mets and says it has “no concrete plans for cross-promotion,” although some may develop when the baseball season starts; the Kraft-owned Uprising’s players recorded a pro-Patriots message (with widely varying levels of enthusiasm), but NYXL haven’t opted to congratulate the Mets on re-signing right fielder Jay Bruce.
Mets fans aren’t the only native New Yorkers who are acting out the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme with their old teams and the Excelsior. Brandon Seidman, an 18-year-old from Staten Island, has added NYXL to a stable of New York fan affiliations that already included NYCFC and the Yankees, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers. Although he’s a dedicated Overwatch player, he wasn’t an esports fan until the OWL launched. “I have never been very into esports because I always felt it was so different having connections to an esports team vs. a regular sports team,” he says via Twitter DM. “When it comes to sports you can root for your hometown … and you have plenty of people around you who will watch and talk about your team all the time, whereas with esports for the most part it’s private teams like Cloud 9 or Titan, which doesn’t provide the same connection.” Seidman says that the Overwatch League has changed his mind, even though the people around him who follow the Excelsior are mostly online acquaintances.
Having inherited old teams with long histories and also — in NYCFC and NYXL — adopted new teams in their debut years, Seidman prefers the latter, telling me, “I think it’s definitely more fun to follow a franchise [from] the start.” While the Excelsior don’t have any past titles for their fans to gloat about, anyone who adopts them today will get to follow their story (and any future trophy runs) from the get-go.
Based on what we can assess, NYXL doesn’t seem to be doing the best job of building its brand, despite being blessed with a large market. Of the 12 OWL teams, the Excelsior rank fourth in YouTube and Reddit subscribers but eighth and ninth, respectively, in Instagram and Twitter followers. Almost all of the marketing for the team has been online-only, with the sole exception of an OWL-financed rotating digital billboard in Times Square, which — somewhat perplexingly — doesn’t name the Excelsior or indicate that they’re a New York–affiliated team.
OWL ad in Times Square
Because the Excelsior haven’t held their own watch party, Ng says (perhaps hyperbolically), their local turnout has “pale[d] in comparison to … every team everywhere.” (A much bigger crowd of more than 100 Uprising fans watched the Excelsior’s first win at a Boston bar, drawn to an event that the Uprising organized and promoted; a team-sponsored Houston event drew more than 600.) Ng is hoping for some official support — in the form of signal-boosting and/or merch for decorations and giveaways — for a bigger event he’s trying to put together for the team’s Week 3 showdown with Seoul. Drawing on his day job as a consultant, Ng offers the Excelsior some unsolicited advice. “Work on developing audience outreach and start to identify common interests with other touchpoints in the city,” he says. “No team survives on its own, and finding other properties where there is a shared fan base can help them better identify collaboration opportunities, brand/ad partnerships, and inform creative design. Most of all … be there for New York and showcase the real city.”
Kamel says that the team has hired (but hasn’t yet named) a promoter who “has been effectively running events and communities for the last 12 years in the esports market for a pretty large brand.” He also vows that the team will visit New York and hold local events at some point during its first season, whose next batch of games begins Wednesday. Like every other OWL team, the Excelsior (who’ll return to action on Thursday) are feeling their way forward without much of a map, no more certain of their surroundings than the expat players who are still learning the layout of Los Angeles. Among the many stereotypes of New Yorkers: They hate L.A., and they love a winner. The Excelsior, and Blizzard, have to hope that New York will even love a winner that plays, at least temporarily, on what most sports fans would consider enemy turf.