You cannot go anywhere in the sports, media or entertainment business today without hearing a whisper of esports. The buzz and the dollars being spent against gaming, especially professional gaming, is growing exponentially every day as businesses in the traditional sports space look to learn and grow into a new genre with its own culture, fan base and potential opportunities. Likewise, many in the esports space seek the structure and some of the mainstreaming that traditional sports have grown to master over the years. While there is still a massive learning curve for all, and with that some mistakes and pratfalls, the fact remains esports, and gaming itself, are on the watch list for most, if not all, properties in sports.
One esports property that professional sports teams have taken investment in is Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League, which has drawn multimillion dollar investments from a host of companies in and around traditional sports, some from ownership groups themselves, some from funds directly or loosely connected to the teams themselves. The New York Excelsior is one of 12 founding franchises of Overwatch, which will launch its inaugural season in January of 2018.
Rohit Gupta, a founding partner of Sterling.VC, the early stage VC fund of Sterling Equities, which also has pieces of the New York Mets, SNY and other ventures. Gupta has been one of the driving forces in setting up and launching the New York Excelsior, Gotham’s entry into OWL.
We caught up with the Cornell grad to find out more about the Excelsior, why now and what to expect.
Why did Sterling make the OWL investment vs. other esports/games?
Prior to its founding of NYXL, Sterling.VC had made multiple investments within esports including mobile platforms and data analytics. We were impressed by Blizzard’s commitment to the league and its embrace of city based teams. The decision to shape OWL’s structure around the traditional sports model was also appealing.
What is the biggest opportunity with the team?
Our biggest opportunity is building a large fan base in the rapidly growing esports industry and we feel that participation in the OWL provides just that. NYXL is the first professional esports team to represent New York City, an iconic, ambitious and diverse sports city. New York is unrivaled when it comes to sports cities and we plan to build upon that legacy through esports in the years to come
Is there a short term goal that is a benchmark of success?
Our goal is to win but also to be authentic to the city and our fans. We built the franchise with these goals in mind. There’s nothing that New York sports fans love more than a winning team and we hope to give them one in this inaugural season of the Overwatch League.
How was/is the team picked?
Overwatch is a game that requires a team with a diverse set of skills and strong chemistry among players. We looked to build a roster of players who have experience playing together rather than building an entire team from scratch, and then coupled them with a seasoned, data-driven coaching staff to establish a professional and winning culture from day one. It’s a critical first step in establishing a team environment where any player, with any background, can eventually be integrated and set up for success. We are very excited about what our current personnel bring to our organization and how we can evolve with them going forward to represent New York City at its best. That means not just optimizing for performance, but recruiting and developing players of high character, players who are wildly enthusiastic about representing New York City and building authentic connections with the local fan base, which is one of the largest in Overwatch in the world.
The team will be LA based for year one; will there be traditional fan engagement that the fans of say, the Mets, would see in NY?
Absolutely. We want to tap into the fandom that’s central to every New Yorker’s pride in the city and that will be accomplished through fan engagement. That means creating and maintaining both a physical and digital presence in New York.
The esports world in general is trying to learn from traditional sports, what can traditional sports businesses learn first off from gaming?
Esports is a digital experience so leagues, developers and organizations have used that to their advantage by making esports a fully immersive experience for viewers. Traditional sports are definitely picking up some of those cues and creating an experience in stadiums and at home that provides fans with statistics, updates and information. The players themselves are also developing their a voice through social media and outlets like The Players’ Tribune, something that esports has excelled at since its early days.
Do you know if there is much crossover between fans of the Mets and a gaming audience?
We think the clearest way to connect with New York fans is to win. We are focused on building a winning culture at NYXL, through the construction of our roster and approach to the game itself.
What’s the biggest challenge right now with OWL and the Excelsior?
This is the inaugural season of the OWL, so our biggest challenge will be adjusting to a new kind of esports competition. That same challenge is shared by all other teams so it puts us on a level playing field, but those who adapt the quickest will thrive. We are confident in our players and coaches and their ability to compete.
Will there be traditional revenue streams; like apparel?
What’s great about the Overwatch League is that it combines an esports competition with a traditional sports structure. This provides us with a variety of opportunities to pursue revenue streams ranging from apparel and venue signage to in-game assets.
What is the next business element that fans should watch for?
Prior to its founding of NYXL, Sterling.VC made multiple investments within esports including mobile platforms and data analytics. While NYXL will be our biggest endeavor, we will continue to look for opportunities in the growing esports space.