Nowadays, in the age of streaming and ever-increasing internet speeds, some of the best players in the world may never feel the need to leave the confines of their home in order to prove their skill. In all of New York, a city with a population of over eight million people, one can only imagine how many Overwatch stars are grinding away in private. It might be just as rewarding to stream a masterful play—and earn generous donations from supportive viewers—as it might be to execute it in front of an in-person audience.
Yet, when Izak David executed his final elimination during the PC Widowmaker 1v1 competition NYXL hosted as a part of their All-Stars viewing party, he was speechless. He felt something he wouldn’t have felt had he secured the win during any other 1v1 online match. “It was fantastic,” David said. “It was just like...I can’t even put it into words.”
David had just defeated his ninth consecutive opponent, a feat that netted him the first place title and even prompted praise from the tournament’s caster. “[The caster] was like, ‘After this, I want to go against you, because that was fantastic!’” David said.
LAN tournaments are written into the DNA of modern-day esports, calling upon impassioned gamers to gather at internet cafes and gaming centers for a chance to test their mettle against the local talent. Such events were intended not only to showcase competitive talent but to foster community, giving participants a chance to meet the people behind the screen and a reason to venture out of their bedrooms.
Moments like the one David described are unique to small tournaments, in which the next opponent in your queue could be a rising talent, an undiscovered gem. This rang true for Christian Fonseca, a student of the Borough of Manhattan Community College who won the FFA Deathmatch tournament that took place during the NYXL Homecoming event. In order to take home first place—and the $6,500 prize—he needed to climb to the top of a bracket that consisted of over 200 New Yorkers and eight Overwatch League pros.
“There’s people out there who are amazing, but they don’t know,” Fonseca explained. He believes that if these amateur players were given a platform to test and demonstrate their competitive acumen, they might develop more confidence.
“That's what opened my eyes. When I won the tournament I was like, ‘You know, I'm actually pretty good at this game. Maybe I should give it a shot,’” Fonseca said.
Nonetheless, Fonseca asserted that there remains a wealth of what he called “hidden talent” in New York—many of whom are his friends. “I know, like, 20 people who overthink themselves,” Fonseca said. These are the kinds of people, Fonseca explained, who might never see themselves as gifted enough players to consider a competitive career in Overwatch.
But in many cases, verbal encouragement isn’t enough to convince “hidden talent” to venture out of their comfort zone. Abraham Urag, who won an FFA tournament NYXL hosted in partnership with Community Gaming New York (a center for community-oriented gaming events), echoed similar sentiments to Fonseca. “I have a bunch of friends that may wanna go [to Overwatch tournaments] but they don't think they're good enough, or they're kind of intimidated,” Urag explained.
However, when NYXL announced that they would be hosting an FFA tournament during their Homecoming event, Urag managed to convince a group of his friends to attend and compete. Though they weren’t quite confident in their ability, the experience was still a success. “They actually really enjoyed it,” Urag said.
This just goes to show: The “hidden talent” of New York just need more platforms to help them realize their potential. “I think more small, local events [...] would help,” Urag said. “There's not that many local Overwatch events around here. Not that I know of.”
Even still, hosting small tournaments isn’t always enough. Players often also need an incentive to play, a tangible goal that drives them to want to succeed during competitions. Jimmy Mondal, a shoutcaster who casts under the moniker “Jimbasco,” noted that cash prizes can go a long way in encouraging players to do their best. “You can make a lot of money playing in NYXL events because they have the funding for it, and the prizes they've been doing are gigantic,” Mondal said. “I think that causes even people that have left the game prior to want to get back into it, because they see that...you will be rewarded if you are good at this game.”
Hosting tournaments with significant cash prizes helps lower-tier players feel validated and that their effort is being rewarded in a concrete way. For instance, NYXL doled out a total of $10,000 in cash prizes to winners of their Homecoming tournament. Mondal believes that NYXL’s efforts to help support the local New York esports scene have opened up new opportunities for players who crave direction and are beginning to seriously consider climbing Overwatch’s competitive ladder. “It's dope, because it's not only the players getting...a prize for playing so well,” he said. “They're getting recognition, and when you're a tier 3, tier 4 player, what you need most is recognition. You need NYXL to promote you.”
New York’s Overwatch scene, however, isn’t solely defined by people who consider themselves to be aspiring professional players. Much of it is made up of Overwatch fans and community organizers who share a love of the game and relish in any chance to celebrate their enthusiasm about competitive Overwatch with like-minded people.
Lindsey Nelson, a member of NYXL’s supporters’ club 5 Deadly Venoms, attributes the emergence of a local New York Overwatch scene to the genesis of the Overwatch League itself. After the league announced that it would use a geolocated structure—and that one of its city-based franchises would be the New York Excelsior—Nelson noticed that New York Overwatch fans were coming together to support their team. “It wasn't something that I had thought about before Overwatch League, [but then I saw] all these fans come out of the woodworks to support NYXL,” Nelson said.
The introduction of NYXL gave Overwatch fans across the city a reason to leave their bedrooms and suddenly afforded them regular opportunities to connect with others. “It's cool watching by yourself or on a hangout call with a bunch of your friends, but it's better to be sitting in a room with a...bunch of people cheering the same sport, right?” Nelson said.
Ian Livica, who won NYXL’s console-only FFA Deathmatch tournament during the All-Stars viewing event, also expressed his appreciation for the moments during viewing parties in which New York pride meets a shared love of Overwatch. “I've been an esports fan my entire life, and basically, I've kept it to myself in my room just on Twitch,” he said. “Having a watch party itself is surreal to me, because if you would've told me two years ago when I first started Overwatch—when I first picked Genji in the character select screen in season one, loading up the comp—that I'd be going to a watch party for an Overwatch League team repping New York, I wouldn't have believed you.”
To Tiffany Chang, a moderator of NYXL’s Discord server and Twitch channel, the New York Overwatch scene is primarily kept alive by this strong sense of companionship. “Overwatch is just kind of the vehicle,” she explained. “A lot of us love the game. We play the game. We play the game together. We love watching the players and everything, but we've also built a community around it.”
Chang also believes that the liveliness of New York’s scene is due in large part to NYXL’s efforts to reflect their fans’ enthusiasm and support back to them. “It's really great that NYXL is trying to get more involved in the local community,” she said. “What [was] really nice with the All-Star competition is that they specifically decided to do a console tournament, which tends to be ignored when you talk about demographics, because people are always thinking when you're talking about competitive [Overwatch] that PC is the way to go. It's nice that they were really inclusive of that.”
These events harken back to esports’ original ancestry when spectators would huddle around an arcade cabinet to watch local legends face off against each other to claim modest rewards—a fistful of quarters or bragging rights. In a time when fewer games are played face-to-face with others, local competitions can do a lot to help restore a sense of community amongst esports fans.
NYXL are well aware of how important these events are to helping the New York esports scene grow. “We’ve been hearing from our fans and Overwatch players everywhere that they want more opportunities to make a name for themselves,” said Ben Nichol, NYXL’s head of events and business development. “We’re working hard to provide that. What we’ve done to date is just a small taste. There will be many more opportunities for local players in New York to show their skills and maybe even win a little cash.”
If other esports organizations follow suit and make a conscious effort to support lower-tier players, they could help usher in a new generation of local esports and grant more players a chance to recognize their talent.
“Before, there were [other esports] events I heard [about] here and there,” Livica said. “I never went. I always just stayed home.” But with the unprecedented success of the Grand Finals event in Brooklyn and NYXL’s own smaller, local tournaments, Livica feels more empowered to continue attending events. “It’s like everything’s just happening now,” Livica said. “I’m not hesitating anymore.”