This event, dubbed “Homestand Weekend” by the OWL, wasn’t just the first home game for the Fuel but a critical litmus test for a league crafted around the idea of adding local sponsors to the global partnerships already struck by many esports leagues. Success in such a venture could revolutionize the world of esports, or competitive video gaming, and help generate awareness, and acceptance, by a mainstream audience.
Geolocation, or assigning teams to cities around the world, has been the OWL’s goal since it launched in 2017. With the announcement that teams will embed themselves in local markets in 2020 and begin playing home and away games, the three homestand weekends being held this year — in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles — are not just a traveling road show, but a proving grounds. Getting positive results in the Dallas area in terms of ticket sales, local sponsorship and fan enjoyment was a critical next step for the league.
“The most important thing for the first home game is that every single fan that comes here wants to come again some day,” said Nate Nanzer, the league’s commissioner. “That’s what I’m really focused on.”
Local fan support for franchises is a primary focus because the home-team dynamic is new to competitive gaming. China’s League of Legends Pro League hosts regional matches with home and away games, and other outfits, such as the NBA 2K League, have employed city-based teams, but the OWL is modeled more closely after traditional sports leagues. In that way, it’s more akin to soccer’s English Premier League or the NFL than any esports league before it.
“We have a really unique opportunity to set the bar for what home matches are in esports,” said Mike Rufail, owner and CEO of the Dallas Fuel.
Rufail said Monday on Twitter that the team was responsible for all aspects of the weekend’s production except for the broadcast, which aired on ESPN2 among other outlets.
The Fuel sold out the event, with 4,500 fans on hand each day. Ticket prices started at $35 and ranged to $145; the higher-priced packages included merchandise and meet-and-greets with players. According to a news release from the Fuel, 77 percent of ticket buyers were from Texas.
Outside the arena and around the concourse, sponsors dotted the landscape. T-Mobile, Jack in the Box and recently announced partner Anheuser-Busch InBev drew in spectators with chances to “dye your hair” like the Fuel’s Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod or take a photo with the Bud Knight. The scene mirrored the setup you would find on an MLB concourse.
The addition of Anheuser-Busch InBev as a league partner, announced just before the weekend, was touted by Rufail as one with long-term potential, even if the presence of a beer sponsor at a video gaming competition will be a concern for some.
“You’d think that you have a really young audience, but really, you have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, and our crowd is getting older every day,” Rufail said.
The weekend did not proceed in flawless fashion; the league got its first taste of logistical issues in its very first match Saturday. An area-wide power outage took down the power grid in the middle of the match, dropping the stadium into darkness and delaying the games.
For players, it was a somewhat-jarring experience to hold a regular season match away from their usual stage of Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif. When the Fuel entered for its matches — and, more poignantly, when its opponents did — the cheers and jeers made the difference clear. This wasn’t just a road game; this was a Dallas home game.
“When you have everyone looking at you, cheering for you, it’s very emotional for us,” said Dylan “aKm” Bignet, a player for the Fuel. “Pretty much our whole life, our hard work, just on this walk out right now, it’s pretty much paying off. We walked out and everyone’s cheering for us, everyone’s for us, so it’s pretty emotional.”
While the booing of Dallas’s opponents was derided by some league followers, the recipients seemed fine with it. Los Angeles Valiant player Scott “Custa” Kennedy said he expected as much and appreciated it.
“It was actually a really cool thing walking out on that stage,” he said. “Even though they booed us, that’s the fun of sports. That happens in all sports. It didn’t affect us. [We] didn’t feel intimidated or anything. It’s honestly just a really cool feeling playing in front of that crowd. There’s so much energy in the room.”
Bringing that atmosphere to cities around the world is the challenge for the OWL’s teams, but successfully doing so would be a stride toward mainstream acceptance of esports. The league’s leaders believe creating that sort of environment will resonate with newcomers to competitive gaming. And they believe the league will be only further embraced by esports fans who haven’t had the opportunity to see a match in person.
“Today, if you’re an esports fan, unless you live in L.A. or Shanghai or Seoul, you don’t ever get to have these experiences,” Nanzer said. “Having more opportunities like this, where not just fans can go, but people who are curious can come and learn about and see the passion and experience esports, is just going to massively lift the profile of esports globally.”