Could NYXL's homestands mark the rise of a New York esports renaissance?

Stewart Volland/Blizzard Entertainment

NEW YORK -- At 8 a.m. Saturday, hours before Hammerstein Ballroom opened, hundreds of fans began to wrap around 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, awaiting the debut of the third season of the Overwatch League. Clad in New York Excelsior gear, signature blue and black, the sense of fulfillment and excitement radiated from one of the city's most populated areas.

In 2019, not a single large-scale Overwatch event took place in New York. The year before, 2018 saw the inaugural finals set up shop at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but fans remained disappointed after an early playoff exit from the Excelsior that ultimately saw them fail to make it to their hometown. Now, after two years of nearly 2,800 miles of separation between the Excelsior's professional players competing and the fans they've looked to connect with, Saturday marked the start of something new, closer and more connected. Finally, New York's team was home.

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As the Overwatch League begins the most ambitious project in the esports space -- operating 54 planned homestand events across North America, Europe and Asia between January and August -- New York set a high bar. Fans were engaged, the venue was packed and the experience, one aligned with the city's well-documented sports history and fandom, lived up to the two-year desire to see it happen.

Not all Overwatch League homestands in 2020 will sell out. In fact, most likely will not. But New York -- on the back of tedious and hard work by NYXL parent Andbox, their staff and a host of marketing and event companies -- said they did and ultimately, the experience showed that.

Historically New York has been an esports ghost town. New York has been there for many large events, such as the 2015 League of Legends Championship Series Finals or the subsequent 2016 world championship semifinals at Madison Square Garden; the annual ESL One New York at Barclays; and the Fortnite World Cup at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2019. But compared to the likes of Los Angeles, the esports capital of the U.S., New York has had far fewer events.

What it does have is community and history. Fan groups for League of Legends, Overwatch and other games and smaller competitions at arcades for fighting games often draw significant numbers of people. In the past two and a half years, three gaming centers have opened up in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, the same neighborhood where Chinatown Fair -- a highly-regarded arcade that served as a famous meeting spot until it closed down temporarily in 2011 -- still stands.

Consumers have undeniably desired more esports events in New York. But the money that takes to run these events often prevents them from occurring. That is, until the Overwatch League came to town.

"It took a franchise-based model with the local homestand approach to sort of justify building a foundation and building infrastructure in this market," Andbox president and NYXL co-founder Farzam Kamel told ESPN. "When we saw that, our eyes opened. We see this being the beginning of the next wave of investment in esports. It does come with expectation and you need patient capital -- this kind of stuff takes time to build."

Under Kamel and his team, Andbox has not just engaged Overwatch or Call of Duty fans (they also own the New York Subliners, the Call of Duty franchise that will host its first local competition in June). Andbox has supported titles like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Tekken 7, Fortnite and even Mario Kart. And for that, several who went to Saturday and Sunday's Overwatch event weren't necessarily Overwatch fans. But they were Andbox and NYXL fans.

That community engagement -- from frequent watch parties and competitions at OS New York City and Waypoint Cafe in Chinatown to a multi-week pop-up shop in Brooklyn near the Barclays Center -- paid off in spades this week. The New York Excelsior, by the accounts of many around the Overwatch League, have set a standard for local market engagement.

For Tiffany Chang, the general manager of the 5 Deadly Venoms, a New York Excelsior support group that co-hosts events with the team and their management frequently, the team catering to fans in ticket pricing was a big deal.

"Tickets were more priced so a lot of people could get on the ground, which is really, really awesome for fans," Chang said. "A lot of the other homestands were -- and I would double check on this, but I'm pretty sure it's still true -- were priced so that the cheaper seats were higher up and the front seats were really expensive. Some of them, I don't know about now, but previously had some trouble filling that in. It was really awesome that NYXL was community focused and understands that aspect of the community."

Throughout the weekend, Waypoint hosted fans that weren't able to afford or get tickets to the event. But even the Excelsior made a much more cost-effective pre-party at OS on Friday night that allowed fans to compete in exhibition 1-on-1 matches with Do-hyeon "Pine" Kim, a retired DPS player who remained with the team as a highly-popular influencer.

"It's all about community building," Kamel said. "We view esports teams as the next big consumer brand. Tapping into local is fundamentally the factor that drives the fandom that we have right now."

Esports companies have tried to make New York work. One of them, Major League Gaming was founded and operated in New York for more than 10 years, but ultimately their main event footprint lied in Columbus, Ohio, at a facility they helped construct. Both of Major League Gaming's founders, Mike Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni, are now co-owners in the New York Excelsior. One of Major League Gaming's first employees, Adam Apicella, ran the Excelsior homestand with his new company Esports Engine.

"The amazing thing is that the fans are so ready for it," Sepso said about New York and the desire for more esports events. "One of the things that Sundance, Adam and I laugh about all the time is that we were probably about a decade and a half early to the esports boom. The nice part is that now we know what we're doing. I think from that perspective, that's kind of the best part."