The Overwatch League will take its first step toward realizing one of its most ambitious selling points to both its owners and esports fans this season with the announcement that the Blizzard Entertainment-backed league’s 2019 schedule will include three weekend homestands across the United States. Such matches will be an important test for how well the fledgling competitive gaming league can resonate with fans and sell tickets in local markets.
Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles were the three cities selected by the league for what it is calling its “Homestand Weekends” after it reviewed proposals from a number of franchises to serve as the host team in this initial wave. The Dallas Fuel will host the first such weekend, which will involve eight matches across two days and include eight of the league’s teams. The Fuel’s homestand will run April 27-28 and be held just outside of Dallas at Allen Event Center, which seats 7,000, according to its website. One person with knowledge of the event said the seating capacity would likely be altered by the configuration of the staging, however.
The Atlanta Reign will host its weekend July 6-7, while the Los Angeles Valiant will conclude the wave of homestands Aug. 24-25 at The Novo by Microsoft at L.A. Live, which seats 2,400 in downtown Los Angeles. Details were not immediately available on where Atlanta would hold its matches.
To date the league has played all regular season competitions in Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif., a 450-seat venue that was formerly the set for “The Tonight Show.” The league will open its new season of play there on Feb. 14 with a rematch between its first-season finalists, the Philadelphia Fusion and champion London Spitfire.
Overwatch League gained attention last year, during its inaugural season, for attracting multimillion dollar investments from traditional sports team owners such as Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke and being the first esports league to have city-affiliated franchises.
This franchise model is one of several moves implemented by OWL in its strategy of applying traditional sports league elements to esports. Other examples include broadcasting games on ESPN, ABC and Disney XD, holding an All-Star Game and World Cup, and displaying the video game’s characters in team colors, akin to uniforms.
The decision to host games in Dallas and Atlanta is a bellwether for the league as it tries to determine whether such a move is financially viable and how to optimally structure a league with city-based teams. The league has previously stated the goal of moving fully into local markets by the 2020 season, though it has not fully committed to that timeline.
Much like a traditional sports team that has gained home-field advantage, the selected OWL teams are excited by the prospect of playing in front of friendly crowds, even as they realize that the outcome of their games is only part of the equation.
Dallas Fuel owner and CEO Mike Rufail spoke in grand, sweeping terms about that fact during a Tuesday phone interview.
“This is a historic moment and [fans] need to realize that," Rufail said. “You know, this is a part of history and it’s very cool for the fans to be able to have the opportunity at this moment, to be a part of that history and so we feel this is something that will go down in the history books as the moment where we really kind of have our coming out party as an esports franchise.”
Rufail said that the team felt confident in hosting the event after strong fan turnout to another team-hosted game watch party in Dallas last March. The team went so far as to use Allen Event Center over the newly opened Esports Stadium in Arlington, Tex., because of the higher seating capacity, according to one person with knowledge of the event’s planning.
The team is hoping that the homestand will allow them to introduce a broad range of locals to esports and its culture. To help, the Fuel will face in-state adversaries, the Houston Outlaws, as the final match on the second day of the homestand. It will be the only time the clubs face each other this season.
“We want people to have an experience that isn’t necessarily tied to just watching the matches and understanding it. We want to give people an entry point to learn more about esports and our team and what it’s like to attend a real esports event,” said Rufail.
According to multiple people familiar with discussions between the league and its owners about hosting games in teams’ home markets this season, some team owners expressed concerns about failing to attract large enough crowds and losing money.
Rufail, confirming that teams are “footing most of the bill,” said he is comfortable with the financial risk since he sees the Dallas event as an investment in his home market by bringing exposure to the product he is putting on the screen.
Mark Ein, who leads the ownership group of the Washington Justice, which will join the league this season, said he did not believe there was any hesitation from owners when it came to these weekends. “I think there is a good business model here,” Ein said. “There was interest from a lot of people who wanted to host these.”
Ein said the Justice was among the teams interested in hosting one of the weekends and there was mutual interest from the league. However, the Justice ultimately preferred to wait until 2020 to hold its first live match event, when the new team was “fully geared up," according to Ein.
Jonathan Spector, Overwatch league director of franchises and competition, offered scant details in a written response to The Post regarding why those cities were chosen and why Los Angeles was among them, since all games are held in the area.
“The League worked closely with all the teams to select hosts that we are confident will do a fantastic job in extending our tradition of offering world-class live competitive Overwatch to more fans,” wrote Spector. He added that the league sees the events as “test concepts.”
Rufail credited his team’s popularity and the strength of Dallas’s sports market for the selection.
In addition to home games, the upcoming OWL season will also feature a slew of new teams, based in Washington, Atlanta, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, B.C., and the Chinese cities of Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. It will also feature several changes to the regular season schedule, which will allow for players to have more breaks, according to the league. The most prominent such change there is holding the All-Star Game at the season’s midpoint break, rather than after the conclusion of the playoffs. Blizzard also is increasing the total pool of prize money to $5 million from $3.5 million last season.
Even as the league makes these substantive changes, Rufail points to the home games as a key component in the ongoing evolution of professional gaming.
“It should really help define where the esports industry is headed,” said Rufail.
Mike Hume contributed to this report.
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