On Saturday, nearly 400 fans eagerly waited in a line that went around a block in Chinatown. What were they waiting for? Entry into a watch party at Penn Social for DC’s newest esports team, the Washington Justice, in its first match in the Overwatch League.
The party, sponsored by Events DC, was sold out, and more than 172,000 more fans watched on the online platform Twitch as the Justice took on the New York Excelsior—the team with the best overall record last season—at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California. (The Justice will begin playing its home matches in DC next year.)
“Esports is exploding, especially for the younger generations,” Mark Ein, who bought the team back in September, said at the event. “This is what they’re passionate about, and Overwatch is the premier city-based esports league by far.”
While the crowd in DC waved red, white, and blue foam shields in the air, the team buckled down in a best-out-of-five match. Tina Roebuck, head of local fan and social group the Washington Justice League, watched from the crowd while the group’s “good luck” video played before the match, offering support to the underdogs. Roebuck, of Alexandria, was initially reluctant when her boyfriend introduced her to Overwatch but says the collaborative nature of the game won her over.
“Overwatch is more team-oriented than other games,” she says. “You have to strategize and coordinate with the other players. You have to know where the health points are and high ground is on the map. Some players are healers, some do damage. You can’t just have six players who can all shoot well.”
Each map in the first-person shooter game has different objectives. Sometimes the team fights for points, while on other maps the objective is to defend or capture ground. In Saturday’s match, the Excelsior took a 2-0 lead, threatening to silence the Justice fans in DC. But after halftime, the Justice won the third map, and Penn Social roared with chants of “Justice! Justice! Justice!” As predicted by the commentators, New York took the fourth map and the overall victory, but Justice player Hyeon-woo “Hyeonu” Cho says the first match was exciting nonetheless.
“I was thrilled and my heart was beating,” Hyeonu said in a phone call after the match. “I wanted to continue that feeling, and I was hoping that we’d win the next map as well. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that well.” Gamers like Hyeonu were recruited as soon as the Overwatch League started last year. Hyeonu was even granted early access to the game in its beta phase due to his impressive gaming record.
We are honored to witness history with our fabulous community. Thank you everyone for coming out to our inaugural match watch party. See you at the next one! #JusticeIsServed pic.twitter.com/7iwvoaSarc
— Washington Justice (@washjustice) February 16, 2019
If the idea of people gathering to watch other people play videogames makes your head hurt, consider that esports are already a billion-dollar industry and that by 2021 they are predicted to have more viewership in the US than every professional sports league except the NFL. Players are paid a minimum of $50,000 in contracts that include benefits and player housing, and successful teams have the opportunity to win a bonus of more than $1 million. Plus, crowds like the one at Penn Social are far from homogenous. The diverse audience boasts all ages, ethnicities, and genders—at Penn Social, it wasn’t clear whether parents or their kids were more into the action.
Onstage before the match, Ein said the greatest compliment he’s ever gotten about the local tennis team he owns, the Kastles, was when Mayor Muriel Bowser applauded the diversity of the team’s fanbase. “And that’s what we want this franchise to stand for,” Ein said. “It’s why we’re so proud to have the first female general manager [Kate Mitchell] in the Overwatch League. Over time, we’re going to have people from every part of our community be part of this organization—coaches, managers, and players from Washington, DC.”
The current roster includes three players from Pennsylvania and five players from South Korea. Head coach Hyeong-seok “WizardHyeong” Kim, the former coach of the Excelsior, is also from South Korea.
With games played on the opposite coast, some DC fans may wonder if they’ll ever see the players that represent them up close. Justice player Kim “Sansam” Hyang-Ki says that fans can directly message him on gamer messaging app Discord or on Twitter. “After watching the watch party video, everyone cheering for us enthusiastically, now I really want to visit DC to interact with the fans in person,” he says.
The Justice’s next match is against reigning league champions the London Spitfire on Thursday, February 21, with a watch party at the Game Gym in Potomac. “I want to show that we’re constantly improving as a team every time we’re going into a match,” Hyeonu says. “Against London, I don’t want to give one map against them.”