In Spring 2018, the New York Excelsior had just won the Overwatch League Stage 2 Championship. In preparation for the next stage, the NYXL Twitter account released a promo. The video is a 15-second spectacle, a highlight reel of the breakout stars of the inaugural season of the Overwatch League laid over M.O.P’s “Ante Up,” a rap song so suffused with New York City’s DNA that the beginning is just New York hip hop icon Funkmaster Flex shouting out all the five boroughs.
— NYXL (@NYXL) April 5, 2018
It’s a song that slaps you in the face – it’s supposed to, it’s about robbing people – juxtaposed over the image of six nerdy-looking men from South Korea playing a video game for sport. Yet despite those two diametrically opposed things, the video works. It made me believe this team, composed entirely of South Koreans who at the time lived and played in Los Angeles, was as New York as the Empire State Building and pizza rats. Why did this work so well? And why does the NYXL, three years on, still have one of the strongest brands in the whole League?
I spoke to two members of esports organisation Andbox, the parent company of the NYXL: Rohit Gupta, Andbox’s co-founder, and Collette Gangemi, VP of Consumer Products & Merchandising, to find out. After our conversation, I came up with five easy steps you too can follow if you want to make your Overwatch League team work.
Step One: Get a bunch of money
In order to own an Overwatch League team, a significant investment must be made. Franchise spots sold for 20-30 million dollars each before the League’s inaugural season. For the second season that number increased, making the price tag for an expansion slot cost up to 60 million dollars. Now, most folks don’t have 20-60 million dollars laying around, but Sterling VC, a venture capitalist firm, did. Their co-founder Jeff Wilpon – whose family owns the baseball team the New York Mets – grew up with Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. In the earliest days of the League, Mr Kotick approached his million-dollars-having childhood friend about an opportunity to invest, and from that investment, the New York Excelsior was born. So if you’re looking to start an Overwatch League team...be rich or have rich friends….or both?
Step Two: Find a team
So you’ve bought yourself a franchise slot; now you need a team. First, you can build one. Acquire players scattered throughout the various Contenders regions and cobble together a mismatched mash of tanks, healers, and DPS players, hoping the body that comes out of your experiment is one that functions instead of a gross amalgamation of parts and egos in so much pain it begs for death. Or you can go the easy route and pluck a fully-formed team from the Contenders ether. Gupta flew to Korea and personally recruited the players he wanted, advocating to them the vision he had for the Excelsior and New York esports as a whole.
Step Three: Support your team
Congratulations. You have a team. And lucky for you, they’re winners. Would you like them to keep winning? Then please, for the love of God, act like you care about your players. Take steps to ease their transition to living and working in a new country. Make them a part of the city they’re supposed to represent.
“We brought the team multiple times to the city not only to interact with fans but for them to experience what it means to live in New York City,” Gupta said. “Last year we brought them to the city before the season started for them to find the restaurants they’d get take out from or karaoke spots they’d want to visit after hours so they’d become true New Yorkers. Unfortunately,” Gupta added, “covid has impacted some of our other plans regarding that.”
A team is like a baby: it needs to be actively nurtured and cared for. It is not like a plant that you can water it every few days, shove it in a corner and expect it to produce wins and thereby money with minimal effort on your part.
Beyond that, get to know your team and introduce them to the people you want to become their fans. These are grown people with hobbies and interests and personalities. “When we were an organisation entering the League, the first thing we knew had to do was introduce our players and explain their story. That was with our first series called ‘Origins’,” explained Gupta of the video series the team ran featuring its players.
“There are a number of reasons why our players are in esports,” Gupta said. “Some of them had troubled issues that have led them to this moment [in their careers]. That’s the New York story. You grind, you beat down every wall possible to try to make success. It resonates with New Yorkers.”
Photo: Ben Pursell (Blizzard Entertainment)
Step Four: Connect with your audience
The New York Excelsior is one of the best teams in the League, consistently at or near the top of the standings for all three years of the League’s existence. They also have an active, dedicated community of fans that sees sold out crowds and sold out merchandise shelves. In a League that’s fighting to make the traditional sports model work for esports, the NYXL are masters.
“The localisation aspect [of the Overwatch League] was particularly interesting to us because no one has built anything in New York,” said Gupta. Typically, big events like ESL One or Rocket League would make New York their home for a weekend before jetting off to Los Angeles or Europe for the next event.
But Gupta envisioned a deeper, more sustained connection between New York and esports. “Having consistent, year long events – really building something for the New York community – that’s what people are looking to rally around.”
They brought the team to New York several times and collaborated with different fan groups for meet-n-greets, watch parties, and events where fans could play Overwatch with their favorite NYXL players. They also built the New York narrative with the help of actual New Yorkers. “We’ve engaged LAN centers and colleges; you don’t see a lot of esports teams who do that,” Gupta said, referring to Andbox’s recent Spring Rally and more. “By bringing these people together and being able to interact with one another, not only online but offline as well, you start to see that benefit with how passionate our fanbase is.”
Step 5: Sell cool shit
Esports fans want three things: wins, more wins, and cool stuff to buy. The winning part is mostly out of your hands. But if you’ve done step 3 correctly, your team should be in the best possible position to win as many games as they can. Focus then, on making cool stuff. “I was a little disheartened by what the fans were given from an apparel standpoint in esports,” said Gangemi. “I felt they were given a low quality product that they deserved better… From day one our approach has been to design super premium, dope merchandise that’s relevant to the New York audience.”
In a League plagued with merchandise mishaps, Andbox excelled at creating cool things fans are excited to buy, like clothing for feminine people that aren’t just “shrunken down pink versions of men’s clothing,” Collette said. “We elevated the entire industry when we collaborated with brands known in the New York market and created elevated products for our fans around that. We see a lot of accolades from fans for giving them products they really wanted.”
Their latest apparel campaign focused on team captain and all around stellar human being Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park. The clothing features none of the things one would associate with esports, such as candles, cologne, and a Funko POP recreated in Saebyeolbe’s image. And that’s good. Esports apparel needs to be more than shoddy jerseys and graphic tees that very clearly advertise THIS THING I AM WEARING IS FROM A VIDEO GAME.
While not exhaustive, these five steps are a pretty good guide to your Overwatch League success. Some of you won’t be able get past step one to find that childhood friend with millions of dollars. Others will neglect step three, causing your entire team to implode and earning universal ire despite choosing a team that came pre-installed with a devoted fanbase and reputation for winning. At the very least, precluding millionaire friends and a talent for team recruiting, you could at least make some cool swag.
Featured image: Stewart Volland (Blizzard Entertainment)