As Overwatch League opens 2020 season, New York Excelsior shows home team advantage is real


New York inaugurated the third season of the Overwatch League by playing host to three of the league’s 20 franchises — the Spitfire, Paris Eternal and Toronto Defiant — for four scheduled matches at Hammerstein Ballroom over the weekend. Paired with a similar series of matches held in Dallas, the event marked the first thrust of the Overwatch League’s plan to hold multiple live competitions in each of its 19 markets across North America, Europe and Asia. Saturday’s first glimpse oozed New York. Spider-Man was in attendance. Pre-match trivia included: a slice of pizza and the Statue of Liberty. And the support for the home team was obvious from the outset.

Saturday was the first time the New York Excelsior — NYXL, for short — played to a home crowd. Home-field advantage is becoming a permanent fixture in the league, and its effects were on display for the first time, as the NYXL beat the Spitfire in their first match of the season, 3-1.

Sung-hyeon “JJoNak” Bang, a support player for NYXL and the 2018 league MVP, said through an interpreter that he heard the crowd booing London from offstage. Bang said it’s clear homestands will give the host team the advantage. Both Bang and his teammate Dong-gyu “Mano” Kim said the match ebbed and flowed with the cheers from the crowd.

“Although it’s a soundproof headphone, I can really hear the loud crowd in the stadium,” Kim said through an interpreter, adding it’s louder than the matches last year at Blizzard Arena. “When we lose a team fight during the game, we can feel the fans are so quiet.”

The Overwatch League is taking an ambitious stride this year, moving from holding the majority of its regular season matches in Los Angeles instead hold competitions in six countries. The change in format makes this a season of logistics. League officials worked with each team to streamline travel, cutting down trips when possible, to mitigate the burden on players and coaches.

“There was a reason we were the first to try this,” Activision Blizzard Esports President and CEO Pete Vlastelica told The Post Saturday. “That reason is it’s hard.”

The league has been divided into two different divisions, the Atlantic and Pacific. The first two months of matches for the Pacific Division have been upended because the coronavirus outbreak. Three of the four Chinese franchises have relocated players to South Korea. League officials offered no updates Saturday as to how the schedule will be altered to make up for those matches.

The league has been forced to work around all these hurdles while attempting to advance its dream, a city-based league where teams can build and foster loyal fan bases who live in the same region. That dream became some form of a reality Saturday afternoon in New York as the raucous crowd chanted “N-Y-X-L” and “Let’s go New York!”

“When we bought this franchise two years ago, we were waiting for this moment,” New York Excelsior co-founder and chief product officer Rohit Gupta said in an interview last month. “This was our mission . . . to be the gaming institution of New York.”

The homestand solution is a hybrid model of the home-and-away structure seen in traditional sports, designed so fans can see teams represent their city and for franchises to earn local revenue in ticket sales and sponsorships.

Picking up some NYXL apparel before the match, Anand Somir said this is the first esports match he’s ever attended. If these games can compare to live basketball or football, Samir said he’s ready to go to every game. Somir also said Overwatch teams are incredibly approachable compared with other professional leagues, a quality that he appreciates in an emerging league.

“I can’t hit up the Knicks,” said Somir, 24. “[The Excelsior] is there for their fans in a way other people may not be.”

Elenna Geffrard said playing Overwatch has exposed her to the larger world of esports. Now, Geffrard said she might start watching League of Legends. She went to last season’s grand finals in Philadelphia and said she immediately knew she was in the right place when she saw all the cosplay — where fans dress as heroes in the game.

“I was just like, ‘I belong here!’ ” Geffrard, 27, said while dressed as Mercy, an angelic healer in the game.

Outside both venues, Overwatch streamed all the matches on YouTube after the league reached an exclusive multiyear streaming deal with Google in late January. The live audience for the matches in New York peaked at about 100,000 concurrent viewers.

“YouTube’s commitment to gaming is very exciting,” Vlastelica said, adding “it’s just math” and YouTube has one of the largest audiences for which the league can appeal.

Looking forward for the season, Vlastelica said the reception from fans for the Excelsior is a great sign for what’s to come. The trick will be building off the success here.

“We need to establish this fan experience in a bunch more cities around the world,” Vlastelica said. “And I feel like we’ll be off to a pretty good start.”

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