Being a New Yorker is, in some ways, a paradox. For a city that prides itself on being a cultural “melting pot,” this epithet alludes to two contradictory ideas: first, that there is a distinct and homogenous “New York” cultural identity, but also that there isn’t a set of character traits, a checklist of required experiences, or assortment of social identifiers that grants one a “certified New Yorker” badge.
The same could be said about being a New York sports fan. With so many New York sports teams vying for the city’s affection—and with so many rich, storied, and often tumultuous sports legacies—it’s common for New York sports fans to have different sets of preferences, levels of commitment to their favorite teams, and understandings of what it means to be a true New York sports enthusiast.
Still, there’s one thing on which most New York sports fans agree—being a New York sports fan can be difficult.
“I think, as a New York sports fan, you prepare yourself for the worst at all times,” said Michael Padro, community organizer at NYXL supporters’ club 5 Deadly Venoms. “You're not really like, ‘We're gonna be great, we're gonna be great.’"
But, for other New York sports fans like Padro, NYXL represented something different. As the regular season continued, NYXL proved stage after stage that they could consistently put up a fierce fight. Instead of slumping into their seats in boredom or disappointment, NYXL fans found themselves on their feet at the end of their team’s matches.
This was a team capable of blowing minds. It’s a revelation that Padro asserts New York sports fans shared: “It's nice having a winning team in New York again.”
NYXL also happen to be backed by one of the most passionate fan bases to ever grace the world of esports. The team’s fans tend to bring a boisterous energy to viewing events, creating such a raucous scene over their team’s victories that they cause even the Overwatch-uninitiated in the room to crane their necks out of curiosity. When they show up, they show up in massive numbers—bad weather or unfavorable conditions be damned. It’s truly remarkable that they can generate a stadium’s worth of cheer during a single viewing party, all out of a deep and fervent passion to root, root, root for the home team.
Padro knew that NYXL was his team from the moment he heard that one of the Overwatch League’s city-based franchises would belong to New York. “I was like, ‘That's it. I don't need to look at any other team. That's my squad. No matter what they’re called, no matter what the colors are. I'm a New Yorker. I'm gonna support this New York team. It's the first of its kind,’" Padro said.
John Edwards, a longtime fan of the New York Mets and a moderator for r/NYXL, the team’s official subreddit, gravitated toward the team for similar reasons. “I was drawn to the Excelsior, because I knew I wanted to identify my hometown team on the roster, and I wanted to root for them,” Edwards said. “I thought the New York Excelsior looked really exciting—a team just like the Mets.”
Eventually, as the season progressed, Edwards discovered that his love for both teams rested on a similar respect and admiration for key qualities that imbue both teams with an unmistakable “New York” aura. “New York City,” Edwards said, “is a place where you can see some of the boldest and brashest shine. I think about guys like Odell Beckham, Jr. I think about guys like Noah Syndergaard. I think about guys like Matt Harvey, who had both the talent and the personality to back it up—these are guys who are larger than life.”
“The New York Excelsior players carry themselves in the same way,” Edwards continued. “You can tell that they're bringing a bit of New York City to LA with them when they're on the stage; they operate with this self-assurance, this confidence, and this swagger in their step.”
But what, exactly, is it about the experience of watching NYXL compete that inspires the same devotion to them as to any other New York sports team?
For many NYXL fans, it’s that one special play or moment that captured esports athletic performance at its best and alluded to truly transcendent human ability. It’s the precise second that an elimination or maneuver prompts spectators to balk and think: How did they just do that?
Edwards remembers getting this feeling while watching the 2006 National League Championship Series during a match between the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals. “I think it was Oliver Perez, served up a meatball to a player on the Cardinals who gave it a ride,” he reminisced. “It looked like it was gonna go all the way out for a home run. Then Endy Chavez, who was a no-name outfielder, ran up to the wall and made this amazing catch. I'd never seen anyone do something like that before. I just remember jumping off the couch, screaming, running around the house,” he continues. “He saved the game by robbing the home run from the Cardinals player. It was just absolutely incredible.”
Similarly, during the NYXL match against the Boston Uprising in Stage 1, Edwards got the same rush while watching Pine on Ilios. “He just picked up—easiest thing in the world—just picked up a casual 4k to seal the round, and I just couldn't help but think, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe that he did that,’" Edwards said. “At the time, I was more familiar with Saebyeolbe as the star DPS of NYXL, and I hadn't really followed Pine's career at all up until that point. So this is my first introduction to Pine: him being subbed in and completely going ham on a map against one of New York Excelsior's biggest rivals, single-handedly winning the map, was absolutely crazy to me.”
In both instances, Edwards was talking about a moment of epiphany. It wasn’t just that NYXL won the map—it was that a star player emerged out of nowhere and performed in a way that no one could have expected. This is a special feeling to which sports fans of all stripes can relate: having your expectations blown away by the spectacle of human ability and talent.
The only way NYXL might differ from their other sports counterparts is in how they treat their fans. “Where other sports players might feel obligated to interact with their fans, NYXL consistently demonstrated that they’re invested in the fans and making sure we're happy while showing appreciation,” Padro said. “Pro basketball players probably could care less about people making drawings of them. But Jjonak changed his profile picture to the Swolenak meme when it was posted.”
It’s something that makes the Overwatch League stand apart from other sports. When hundreds of NYXL fans showed up for the opening of the NYXL pop-up store in Brooklyn over OWL’s Grand Finals week, NYXL players appeared in person to sign autographs and meet people. (Coach WizardHyeong even handed out umbrellas.)
NYXL always makes a point to let their fans know that they’ve been seen. “Overwatch League team members are always retweeting fan art and liking and commenting on it,” Padro noted. “You just don’t get that with other sports.”
The direct cause-and-effect relationship between an NYXL fan’s gesture of affection and the team recognizing it is truly special. Padro found this out when he was watching Saebyeolbe deliver a post-game interview. “He said he wanted New York fans singing, ‘Go New York, go New York, go!’—which is something that my brother and I started that went quite viral in videos of us,” Padro explained. “I couldn’t believe that he was acknowledging something I did directly. I’ll be damned if I’m not singing that all the way through the Grand Finals.”
NYXL had an incredible first season, but they weren’t put on the map of New York sports due to their impressive performance alone. Their fans welcomed them with open arms, adopting them into the local sports ecosystem to which they truly belong.
As the team awaits the second season of OWL, they can rest assured that New York will have their back on day one, seated front and center with NYXL jerseys and hats in full view. “I feel like this team does a good job representing what New York is,” Padro said. “That ‘I don't care about you, I'm number one’ mentality. Because that's how New Yorkers feel, right? We're the biggest, the baddest, the best. New York pizza? Number one. New York bagels? Number one. Our skyscraper is tallest in the country. New York is number one in so many different ways, and I think NYXL is no different.”