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Bare walls, little furniture and big dreams: A year inside D.C.’s esports house

Eoghan O'Neill climbs a stairway to the second floor in the Team NRG esports house in Washington last March. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

In most regards, the new Zillow rental listing boasting a “marble masterpiece” for $6,000 a month in upper Northwest Washington, D.C., measures up to expectations. To those that stroll past on the sidewalk, the million-dollar-plus, 4,000-square foot house appears like the rest in the well-to-do neighborhood: large and enviable, rimmed by manicured laurel hedges and with siding of stone.

But for the past 12 months, the interior looked like anything but the home of an upper-class family. The walls were barren. Footsteps on tiled floors echoed around the vaulted ceilings and through the mostly empty rooms. The bedrooms contained virtually nothing besides beds, but those who slept in them hardly minded the sparse conditions. That’s because lining the perimeter of a spacious basement were a collection of high-end gaming computers and high-backed leather chairs, the tools of professional competitive video gaming.

For a year, the house was the home of the professional esports franchise Team NRG. The organization began using the residence in March 2018, after an invitation from Events DC, to develop up-and-coming talent in the minor-league Contenders division of the Overwatch League (OWL), a newly formed esports league built around the sci-fi, first-person shooter game “Overwatch.” Backed by software publisher Blizzard and featuring teams owned by traditional sports owners such as the Patriots’ Robert and Jonathan Kraft, the top-tier OWL flaunts player salaries in the six figures and prize money in the millions, as well as team-provided housing, often with plush accommodations such as swimming pools, home theaters, ping-pong tables and fitness rooms.

None of those things could be found in the Team NRG house, its setup designed for functionality and not luxuriation. The basement ceiling was punctured by two-inch holes, wires dangling down and snaking across the floor to the computer terminals. Two portable air conditioners bookended the room to keep it cool, their exhaust vents trailing up toward two windows. In the corner, what was designed to be a wet bar was instead topped by a collection of aspirin and Glade, far more useful than booze for those who spent dozens upon dozens of hours each week in those confines.

The house’s inhabitants cared little for the aesthetics, more focused on using the house as a launchpad for an enduring career in esports.

“Personally, all I do is wake up, play games and then go to sleep,” Riley Taylor, one of the house’s former residents who plays under the nickname “Fahzix,” said in a recent phone interview. “Stuff like that doesn’t bother me, honestly. I’m there to do a job, and we don’t really ask for much.”

The bare-bones setup may not have been much to look at, but after a little less than a year since welcoming Team NRG it had served its purpose, helping the young men inside showcase their talents and launching some of them toward their dream job.

Rise and grind

A kind of “Silicon Valley”-like incubator for players, gaming houses are not uncommon in the world of esports. Such configurations are immersive, with players’ lives revolving heavily around their training. The benefit, to both the team and its players, is a high dose of hands-on development with coaching staffs either nearby or living on the premises.

More appealing to some are the team-provided meals. For Team NRG, delivery seemed to have supplanted home cooking, based on the small mountain of condiment packets and sauce cups on a basement table.

For the players, who ranged in age from 17 to 23, the residence represented a significant upgrade over their previous playing and training environments. And drawing a paycheck from an esports franchise represented a more appealing alternative than the more traditional paths toward which they’d been trending.

Eoghan “Smex” O’Neill, 20, started his pro career during his final year of high school, playing “Overwatch” matches on the PC in his family’s London home. After some additional family members moved back home, O’Neill found himself sleeping on a couch. Because of the different time zones of his teammates, he needed to play at 4 a.m. local time, trying not to wake his sister, who was sleeping nearby, as he issued instructions into his headset.

“I had to like angrily whisper for [my teammates] to do things, which was frustrating because people wouldn’t hear me,” O’Neill said. “And my sister would always wake up and tell me to shut up.”

Twenty-one year-old Rob “Robdab” Garcia relocated from his home in Victorville, Calif., and left a job at an Amazon warehouse in San Bernardino, where he specifically requested a shift that started in the early-morning hours to accommodate his “Overwatch” practice.

Before coming to Washington, Garcia lived with this mother, who worked in a school cafeteria, and his father, who then worked for the sanitation department of a factory. Garcia estimated that between his team-provided cost-of-living expenses and his approximately $2,000-a-month salary with Team NRG, he was the top-earning member of his household when he came to D.C.

The price for the upgrade was a grinding six-day-a-week practice schedule playing and studying the game with live-in coaches and team managers. The players’ daily routine began with lunch and could stretch to midnight. The practice blocks included two scrimmages against other teams, both in Contenders and the OWL. Coaches recorded the footage to analyze later with players, just like an NFL team utilizing film study. The cycle would repeat until Sunday, their one day off each week.

Though most understood the schedule came with the territory of a professional gaming career, it did exact a toll. Burnout is an oft-cited problem for esports players in a field that demands constant and repetitive play to hone team communication and strategy, in addition to exercising individual response times and reflexes.

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The Team NRG practice schedule peaked at the end of the 2018 summer, near the conclusion of the second stage of the Contenders season. As they made a run to the semifinals of the playoffs, with a shot at a $40,000 grand prize for the title-winning team, Team NRG flew in the coaches of their OWL affiliate, the San Francisco Shock, to oversee preparations. Some felt the strain.

“We were, like grinding really hard,” Garcia said. “And I realized I was starting to miss home a lot, which is really weird because in the beginning, when I got signed to this team, I was, like, really excited to move to a big city.”

The team’s bid for the Season 2 final fell short, but the ultimate goal for the players exceeded a mere prize purse. After the second season’s conclusion came the start of the Overwatch League’s signing window, when the major league squads could lay claim to new players. The addition of eight new franchises to the OWL further boosted the opportunities for players to elevate themselves from Contenders.

After their successful second campaign, measuring themselves in scrimmages against OWL players and receiving feedback and critiques from coaches, those on Team NRG knew they’d attracted attention, though not all of it was positive. By November, only one of the original Team NRG members who first moved into the house remained.

The paths of the pros

The night before Taylor received his offer to join the OWL he couldn’t sleep, the uncertainty and strain from trying out for new teams weighing on him.

“It’s very stressful … waiting for a call to see if you get a job or not that determines the next year or even more of your life,” Taylor, 23, said. “I woke up really early in the morning, and I saw on my phone that I got the offer, and I couldn’t get back to sleep after that.”

Taylor was offered a contract from the D.C.-based Washington Justice, one of the OWL’s expansion franchises. Team NRG’s Ethan Yankel, 17, also received a spot with the Justice.

Now the two will travel to live and work in Burbank, Calif., where the Overwatch League will hold its 2019 matches. They again will live in a team house, this time a more furnished version, with a pool out back.

Of the group of six players that initially moved into the house in Washington, four eventually earned OWL contracts. Three other players moved into the house over the course of the year, with two of them elevated to the OWL after abbreviated stays in Washington. But not all offseason phone calls carried good news. Following the conclusion of Stage 2, Garcia received word he wouldn’t get another contract with Team NRG.

“I was actually pretty calm,” Garcia said in a November phone interview. “I was pretty okay, because I really wanted to go home. I was really homesick. I was extremely homesick. I really just wanted to go home and just gorge on Mexican food.”

Garcia says now that he felt relief. Despite the limbo his career entered, life in Washington had been hard for him.

“In the house I would get very bored if I wasn’t playing, like in the times I wasn’t practicing ‘Overwatch,’ I’d just get super bored,” Garcia said. “And there obviously wasn’t much to do around the house. So I mean I would go for a walk with some of the players; that’s what I remember doing the most. Now that I think about it, I just missed having something to do outside of the game.”

Describing himself as “frugal,” Garcia estimates he saved around 95-percent of his paychecks from Team NRG, money that should allow him to play several more seasons as a free agent at the Contenders level before he has to seek alternative employment.

After trialing for five OWL teams but failing to secure a roster spot, O’Neill returned to D.C. in November, back for another season with Team NRG, the only returning member from the group that first moved in last April. Ideally, he’ll be able to latch on to an OWL team during the league’s first transfer window.

Sitting on the couch in what passes for its living room back in November, he looked around the mostly empty room and offered a remark that summed up the structure around him, a building that existed for the team as more of a waypoint than a home.

“It’s hard to add personality when people are leaving every two months,” O’Neill said. He and the rest of Team NRG moved to a new team house in Calabasas, Calif., the first week of February.

The team did add one lasting item to the house before the players struck camp. Last summer the power drain from the PCs during practice sessions overloaded part of the home’s electrical system. The ensuing repairs, and upgrades, are now a selling point in the Zillow listing.

“ATTN: GAMERS,” it reads. “Dedicated electrical outlets, ensuring uninterrupted play.”