BURBANK, Calif. -- The fanfare was nearing its peak at Blizzard Arena before either team stepped onstage.
The arena split itself in two with cheers of "Wings out!" and "Shields up!" ebbing and flowing across the aisles and through the stands all the way up to the skyboxes. Half of the fans cheered for the Overwatch League's Los Angeles Valiant; the other half for the Los Angeles Gladiators.
The Battle of Los Angeles has always packed the arena full of hometown fans. Both L.A. teams have the good fortune of what are essentially home crowds every week. Each Overwatch League team represents a specific city, but due to the arena's location in Burbank, the L.A. teams' fan bases are some of the largest and most visible in the league.
This weekend, that will change.
On Saturday, the Dallas Fuel will host their first-ever homestand at the Allen Event Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. It will be the first Overwatch League game played outside of the Burbank arena since the inaugural season grand finals in New York City. Dallas' first opponent is the perennial hometown favorite Los Angeles Valiant.
"The only thing I'm worried about is the 5,000-man crowd for Dallas Fuel, so that's going to be hard to make sure our players are used to that," Valiant flex tank player Indy "Space" Halpern said. "That's my goal: to make sure that players are focused on the game and not worried about the crowd."
The Fuel, meanwhile, are more than willing to accept the change in scenery and the home-field advantage that the Los Angeles teams have enjoyed for almost a year-and-a-half. Other teams making the trip include the Seoul Dynasty, Paris Eternal, London Spitfire, Hangzhou Spark, Chengdu Hunters and Houston Outlaws.
"It's going to be incredible," Dallas Fuel coach Aaron "Aero" Atkins said. "It's completely sold out. It's going to be one of the most memorable experiences ever for these guys.
"I know from the World Cup Team USA experience what it feels like to have the crowd be on your side. With the World Cup, it was overwhelming how much support Team USA had, and I know it's going to be similar to that. I feel so lucky that we get to be the first team to experience that."
The Overwatch League has always billed itself as a global league. Ownership groups attached their names to cities upon joining the league, and according to Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer, the ownership group frequently decides the city, not the other way around.
With two teams representing Europe, four from China, one from South Korea, two Canadian teams and the bulk of the league representing cities around the United States, the Overwatch League seems committed to courting a global audience. Of the eight expansion franchises that joined the league for its second season, six claimed home cities from outside the U.S.
"It's the thing I'm the most excited about this year," Nanzer said. "The vision for the Overwatch League has always been full home-and-away around the world all the time, and we're working towards that, and 2019 is the bridge to that."
There is nothing organic about geographically relocating esports teams. Most esports teams and players travel to a circuit of LAN events or have leagues in one specific location -- in the United States, this location is usually Los Angeles. Esports teams and pros are in and of themselves products of a digital age and inhabitants of a virtual space.
Tying an esports team physically to a city is not at all necessary, but it can create a more loyal fanbase that will stick with the team through multiple iterations of talent. Fan retention can be a problem for esports teams, especially because esports viewers are much more likely to align themselves with the players rather than an organization. Geolocation gives the organization a little fan bump.
Until this weekend and Dallas' homestand, however, fans in non-L.A. teams' markets settled for organizing watch parties at various locales in their cities. Next year, they'll all have home venues in their respective cities and will travel for away games.
Currently, there's only one major esports league with geographically-located teams tied to cities: China's League of Legends Pro League.
In January 2018, outside of the Chongqing Expo in Chongqing China, an LED sign dominated the brightly-lit evening landscape. It read: "Team Snake Fights for Chongqing." Earlier that month, Snake Esports had moved from Shanghai, the central LPL hub, into their new home venue at the Chongqing Expo as part of the LPL's georelocation initiative.
The city appeared to embrace Snake immediately, as if they were a traditional sports team that had been there for years. At the same time, LGD Gaming moved to their venue in Hangzhou, and OMG followed suit by moving to Chengdu later in the season. Currently, the LPL has expanded their relocation efforts to six organizations total with two teams in Beijing (JD Gaming and Royal Never Give Up) and Team WE in Xi'an.
"When I first heard about specific geographical locations per team, I thought it was massively ambitious," former English-language LPL caster Don Roemer told ESPN in the spring of 2018. "In traditional sports, this works because of the wide support for the sport across the culture, and though esports is growing, I was initially dubious that any video game, let alone League of Legends, could possibly sustain anything of this scope.
"I'm proud to say that I was wrong."
What the Overwatch League plans to do is far more ambitious than the LPL. It involves multiple continents, travel visas and extensive logistical planning. The upcoming Dallas homestand, and in later stages this year, homestands at the Atlanta Reign's venue in Atlanta and the Los Angeles Valiant's new venue in downtown Los Angeles, are a small test for what's to come in 2020: a fully global league.
Unlike the LPL, which is also slowly integrating various home venues into the schedule through a more gradual expansion, the Overwatch League home-and-away system will happen all at once with all 20 teams.
"Honestly, it's what I spend 90 percent of my time on these days, working with the team on what that's going to look like," Nanzer said. "I think what LPL is doing is really, really cool. China's a big place, but still, the flight from Chengdu to Beijing is say three hours, not 13. Our challenge is the global piece. We've been working really hard with the owners on this, and we have a plan in place that I think is going to work out really well."
Dallas will serve as the league's first test as a handful of visiting teams prepare for their first in-season travel.
"We're getting there a day before we actually have to practice," Valiant team manager Mike Schwartz said, "giving them a better window to actually have the time to sit down, make sure they're settled in the hotel, have their regulated sleep and take care of everything on that first day so they can prepare and just focus on the game for the next two to three days."
Schwartz is familiar with travel logistics from his time with North American League of Legends team, Counter Logic Gaming, and organizing their boot camps along with international travel. He stressed that this will be a bit different because it will be for much smaller increments of time.
"It's kind of similar," Schwartz said. "You just look at the time cycle. How much time do we have the week before? How much practice can we have going in so we're adequately prepared that we can actually take that day to smooth out and then work our way back into a normal schedule? It's about keeping disruptions minimal in the transition period and sticking to a similar routine so that when they actually get into it. It's going to be, 'OK, we pack, we prep and then we play a match.' Routine, clockwork kind of stuff."
Away players like Space, meanwhile, already have their minds on the most significant on-stage factor: a hostile crowd.
"The main thing for me is that I want to go aggressive in the beginning and make sure that we keep the crowd quiet for as long as possible so our players can get used to it," he said. "I want to make sure that we control the tempo and keep the tempo so the crowd doesn't make a sound.
"We have good management and good players that all work hard, so travel's not going to be that hard for us. It's going to be about getting used to playing away and crowds rooting as hard as possible for Dallas or any other team that plays against us."
"It's the thing I'm the most excited about this year. The vision for the Overwatch League has always been full home-and-away around the world all the time, and we're working towards that, and 2019 is the bridge to that." Nate Nanzer, Overwatch League commissioner
Other concerns for Overwatch League players and staff include practice facilities and the unexpected exhaustion that travel brings. Traveling even domestically in the U.S. is draining and much more time-consuming than the simple flight duration. Then there's the question of how similar practice conditions and PC setups will be across all venues.
"It's been done before with sports teams, so as soon as we can get into the flow, I think that it will be fine," Aero said, looking ahead to next year. "Whatever the practice looks like, it's going to be a very important thing. As long as it's consistent from city to city, I think it will be really good, but those are the two biggest hurdles."
The travel fatigue is ultimately worth it for the larger fan bases that geographical locations can bring. Like many facets of esports, the successful examples of georelocation combine traditional sports frameworks with the entertainment and fan experience aspect of esports. The LPL venues are an experience, with everything from specific team halls of fame to shops to high-definition screens in the bathrooms so you don't miss a single play.
And locals have proven loyal to their teams at their venues. Most recently during the LPL playoff matches that were held at LGD's Hangzhou venue, fans started LGD cheers before matches alongside the competing playoff teams' opening cheers -- despite the fact that LGD finished well out of playoff contention.
"One of the main points of having the teams set up home venues in different cities while keeping the casters and production studio in Shanghai was really so the fans in other cities could experience the LPL atmosphere for themselves," then-LGD Gaming global media manager, Jenny Lee said in 2018. "For the fans who really want to see us play, visiting our arena where we have our merch store, theater, etc., is an experience, plus Hangzhou is only an hour from Shanghai by train. China is so big, and I think it means a lot for the fans outside of Shanghai to be able to watch their teams play live."
Nanzer echoed this sentiment when describing his ideal home venue setups for the Overwatch League.
"When you have opportunities for fans to come together, it's really powerful," Nanzer said. "So how do we create more of those opportunities all around the world? I couldn't be more excited to give the fans in Texas an opportunity to come and not just watch Overwatch League matches but meet each other and realize that they're a part of this bigger, broader esports fan landscape."