Mark Ein says he sees an esports “tidal wave” forming, and he’s bringing D.C. along for the ride.
The investor and entrepreneur announced in September that he bought into the Overwatch League, a nascent esports venture that has global ambitions and a roster of uber-wealthy franchise owners, many with roots in traditional sports, committed to seeing them come to fruition. Ein reportedly paid between $35 million and $60 million for the franchise. His outfit, called Overwatch D.C. while a team name is developed, is one of eight new teams joining the league for its second season, and Ein hopes to capitalize on D.C.'s budding identity as a nationally recognized esports hub.
The city, as part of a push by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and EventsDC, has already positioned itself as an attractive home base for esports teams. NRG Esports recently partnered with EventsDC to bring its developmental Overwatch team to the city, and Wizards District Gaming, an NBA 2K League team, is based in D.C., as well, though that was always the plan because of their relationship with the Washington Wizards and owner Ted Leonsis.
Landing Overwatch D.C., however, is the biggest success yet for EventsDC’s industry attracting initiative. And with the esports market projected to see exponential growth over the next few years, EventsDC CEO Greg O’Dell says he expects D.C.'s interest in Overwatch, and esports more broadly, to continue to increase. There isn’t yet data on the size of the esports market in D.C., but Newzoo, a market intelligence company, estimates the North American market, which is already the largest in the world, to nearly double by 2021 to $650 million. Newzoo’s global estimate is for the esports industry to reach nearly $1 billion this year.
“Washington as a destination has a very strong Overwatch enthusiast crowd,” said O’Dell. “. . . In our experience we’ve already seen lots of people interested in Overwatch in this marketplace already, so having it now that it’s focused on a city, I think they’ll have no problem getting a fan base here.”
EventsDC has already sponsored one esports tournament that drew 2,000 people in January, and in a nod to the region’s grass roots fighting game community, will be partnering with Red Bull in November to host the national finals for a fighting game circuit known as Red Bull Conquest.
“Really, I give them a lot of credit,” Ein said of EventsDC. “They were very far ahead at recognizing the potential of esports as an activity to bring people together in Washington.”
The Overwatch League is the brainchild of Blizzard Entertainment and is based around Overwatch, their popular first-person shooter video game released in 2016. To most people involved, the league’s inaugural season, which culminated in July with a two day championship event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, was a success. The league sold over 20,000 seats for the weekend-long event, attracted an average of 861,205 viewers per minute across multiple streaming platforms, and landed both a prime-time slot on ESPN to broadcast a rerun of the matches and a recap show on ABC highlighting the biggest moments. The champions, London Spitfire, won $1 million, part of a total purse of $3.5 million awarded during the first season.
The league’s first season was played in four, five-week long stages, and was hosted exclusively at Blizzard Arena, a 450 seat studio in Burbank, Calif. The first 12 teams, who were assigned to cities that included New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, London and Shanghai, faced off four days a week in matches that consistently drew over 100,000 streaming viewers globally. Next season, which will see the league expand to 20 teams, will follow a similar format. For the league’s third year, however, the teams will relocate to their individual markets. They’ll play home matches in significantly larger local arenas with the hope that teams are able to inspire the same level of dedicated fandom in their local markets as traditional sports leagues.
In an esports landscape riddled with companies trying to get their cut of the nearly $1 billion global industry, Overwatch League is betting on their radical business model to transform the industry’s path to profitability. And the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region, which boasts nearly one million Overwatch players according to Ein, and has an especially active community of video gaming entrepreneurs and fans, could be a telling benchmark for how widely and rapidly people are willing to embrace esports.
Some in the Overwatch community, like Yan Vernikov, are a bit skeptical. Vernikov, who plays Overwatch competitively in the game’s lower divisions, was at the Barclays Center for the league finals and called the arena atmosphere and fan viewing experience impressive. He wasn’t sure though if that enthusiasm would immediately translate to the global scale Overwatch League expects before the franchises localize in 2020.
“I think in this current state at least, the vision that they have is still really out there,” he said. “But I want to say that esports is growing as fast as they hope.”
D.C., at least, seems to be an ideal market for the league to measure the potential of their vision. Outside of franchises like Wizards District Gaming, the region is home to ventures like Esports Fairplay, a tournament hosting company that has partnered with D.C. United to host a FIFA tournament at Audi Field, as well as a number of ancillary esports businesses, like the Game Gym, a video game training center in Potomac, Md., that are signs of a market poised for growth.
Kate Mitchell is the general manager for Overwatch D.C., and has been tasked with building a team that’s both competitive and likable from scratch ahead of their season opener in January. She’s already signed Hyeong-seok “WizardHyeong” Kim, one of the more popular Overwatch personalities, as their head coach, Joon-hwa “Janus” Song, known for his aggressive play style, and Kyoung Ey Molly “Avalla” Kim as an an assistant coach, making her the leagues first female coach. The decisions were deliberate, she says, in her mission of trying to build a diverse team with compelling backgrounds that potential D.C. fans feel they can support.
She added though, that she recognizes the team will also need to be proactive in its effort to connect with an audience. The team plans to fly to D.C. from Burbank to do fan meet-and-greets during next season, and Mitchell says that they’ll also host watch parties for their matches against regional rivals like New York and Philadelphia as a way to bring fans of the league together in person. And while she was scant on details, she said that engaging with the already existing esports communities is also going to be key to creating a dedicated fan base that can sell out an arena multiple times per year.
“Any groups already existing and supporting esports, they’re our friends,” Mitchell said. “I think we all have a common goal of saying this is the future of sports in the D.C. metro area, and this is another pastime for fans in this region to enjoy.”
Ben Rubinstein and the DMV Esports Network will likely be counted among that group.
Rubinstein is a founder of the group, comprised of local esports enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. Their chat room on Discord, a messaging app for gamers, boasts almost 300 members who collaborate to host events and share news about the local esports industry. On a recent Wednesday, Rubinstein and about two dozen other members met up at a bar in Columbia Heights to update each other on their ventures.
Trevor Williams, who runs an esports events company called Capital Underground, sat at a table, plugging his tournaments for popular titles like Call of Duty and Super Smash Bros. Around the room, staples in the local scene like Josh Hafkin, who founded the Game Gym, and Mike Zacek, who started an organization that uses the popular game Hearthstone to help combat social anxiety in kids, talked with aspiring gamers and other budding esports moguls.
Rubinstein, who calls himself an esports consultant, moved to D.C. almost a year ago, in anticipation of the city landing an Overwatch League team. Since then, he said, he’s been helping lay the groundwork to help create the robust local esports scene Overwatch D.C. hopes to harness. In the early stages, many of the esports communities in D.C. operated autonomously from one another he said, making it difficult to build a cohesive network of collaborators. Now, community leaders from Overwatch, NBA 2K, FIFA, Hearthstone and League of Legends, as well as podcasters and trainers, who teach kids how to become better at gaming, are all regularly meeting under one roof. Williams shared his plans to partner with Hafkin to host a gaming tournament at the Game Gym, and in October, Rubinstein teamed up with Brian “Kephrii” St. Pierre, one of the most popular Overwatch players in the region, to host the second annual KephriiCon, an Overwatch oriented gaming festival.
“These people are looking for connections, and they’re looking to be able to do something with their passion for video games. And up to this point, they couldn’t,” said Rubinstein. “Everyone is super passionate and everyone knows each other because everyone wants to find somebody who can help them get involved.”
Turning that passion into fandom is aided by the fact that compared to traditional sports, Overwatch League players are more easily accessible on Twitter on Discord, Rubinstein said. He’s already reached out to Overwatch D.C. and is hoping to join the team as a community manager, a role that would see him organize fan-centered events around the team, run the team’s Discord channel, and more broadly, be the liaison between the actual team and their fan base.
Overwatch League is betting big that people around the world are going to love their sport in the same way fans love the NBA or the NFL. And as of right now, Rubinstein and Mitchell say they have no reason to doubt the vision.
“Every sport in the world is played because people get invested in it,” Mitchell said. “They’re only possible because of the fans. So I want to connect our players with our fans, and tell their story.”