If Washington Justice principle owner Mark Ein has his way, this weekend’s event scheduled to be held at the 6,000-seat Anthem theater on D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront will be the first step in making the Justice as recognizable within the region as the Nationals, Capitals, Wizards, United and Redskins. To that end, Ein showed no reservations when requesting to host five homestands for 2020, tied for the most such events in the league this season. It was a decision that some teams believe carries significant financial risks due to the cost of staging events of this magnitude, and the very short track record of proven success.
“To me, that was a no brainer,” Ein said during a late 2019 interview about why the Justice pursued five homestands. “We got into this because we believe in the city based model for esports and we wanted to bring in as much content to our home market as we possibly could. It was really an obvious decision for me. I’m not sure why other teams didn’t. I think maybe they wanted to dip their toe in the water.”
The OWL held its first homestand events in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles during the 2019 season as a limited trial. It opened its 2020 season — which will be played almost entirely via the homestand dynamic — with matches in Dallas and New York. The latter market had proven a successful host for the league’s first ever Grand Finals in Brooklyn in 2018. A homestand in Philadelphia, which hosted the 2019 Grand Finals, followed. All events to date have been categorized as successful by those in and around the league, often featuring raucous crowds, vocally supporting their home team.
Ein — who also owns the Washington Kastles, a World Team Tennis franchise, and debuted a reimagined Citi Open, D.C.'s major tennis event, in 2019 — wants to create that same environment in the District.
“Our tennis experience is grounded in creating on-ramps to those sports for people who aren’t the most obsessed about it and maybe don’t even think about it,” Ein said. “It’s not something that’s a priority for them, but we find a way to get them to come. And then once they’re there, they love being there.”
Winning will be a helpful component in that vision. To help foster more success, Ein hired a new staff that spent the offseason overhauling a roster that spent the first three quarters of the 2019 season languishing at the bottom of the standings before surging in the fourth and final stage. Those changes over the course of 2019 included introducing a new vice president of esports business, Grant Paranjape, and a new general manager, Analynn Dang. Dang also helped build the Team USA roster, which claimed the 2019 Overwatch World Cup.
Washington’s roster centers on two dynamic personalities and talented players — Corey “Corey” Nigra and Ethan “Stratus” Yankel. In building a fan base in Washington, their charm and social media savvy could prove as valuable as their in-game skill, which is also considerable. When Team USA won the World Cup, Jay “sinatraa” Won was awarded the tournament’s MVP trophy, but in his acceptance remarks Won said he believed Nigra was more deserving. The Justice’s fortunes also seemed to turn markedly in 2019 after changes to the game put players like Nigra into a more prominent role.
“It’s always that passion and that drive,” Dang said. “Oftentimes he’s the one who’s first in the office or leaving late.”
The Justice’s record sits at 1-1 after its first matches of the season last weekend, falling to the Philadelphia Fusion but besting the Houston Outlaws. This coming weekend, in front of their home fans, the Justice will face the Paris Eternal (1-1) and London Spitfire (0-2).
Maintaining high levels of interest from fans in each of the OWL’s 19 markets and over 27 weeks of competition will be imperative for teams to generate local-market revenue via ticket, merchandise and concession sales. While debut events all carry a certain novelty, whether a market can successfully host multiple such events will be a major barometer for the league’s future. With five scheduled homestands and no previous track record of success for an OWL event, D.C. may prove to be ground zero for that particular litmus test.
The team’s staff seems pleased with its prospects thus far. “We’re on pace with ticket sales and anticipating a sell out crowd at our inaugural event,” says Paranjape. “With esports, it’s all about creating and projecting energy from the crowd, so we’ve opted to mostly focus seating on the ground level to not only concentrate the mass of thousands of cheering fans, but also to give everyone the best possible viewing experience, close to the action and players."
“It’s like any other live sports event,” Dang said. “Like you go to a football game and it’s the atmosphere that makes it so much fun.”