Rise Of The Excelsior

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Seonghyun “JJonak” Bang, an Excelsior support player, won the Overwatch League MVP in 2018. (Photos courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment/Overwatch League)

The world of e-sports continues to grow every day, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch some of the best tournaments in gaming such as those surrounding League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. and Fortnite. The Overwatch League (OWL), which centers its competition around the team-based, first-person shooter Overwatch, is unique in that it has the honor of having the first professional e-sports team in New York. They are known as the New York Excelsior (NYXL).

Named after the “ever upward” motto of the state, the Excelsior is one of 20 OWL teams that participate in competitions from the late winter to deep into the summer. They are owned and operated by Sterling.VC, the venture capital fund supported by Sterling Equities, which is owned by the Wilpon and Katz families. One of the partners of the firm, Jeff Wilpon, is also the chief operating officer of the New York Mets. Rohit Gupta, a partner of the firm, was put in charge of overseeing the Excelsior.

“When Overwatch formed, [CEO of Activision Blizzard] Bobby Kotick came up with a very bold vision of launching a professional college sports league around this game,” said Gupta. “When we looked at the New York franchise, we saw an opportunity and we jumped on board. We were incredibly excited about bringing e-sports to New York.”

The league format consists of a regular season split up into four stages. Each stage has the teams playing seven regular season matches with the best three teams qualifying for that stages playoffs. The exception is the fourth stage, with the best six teams from the regular season competing in one final playoff to determine the season’s overall champion.

The Excelsior are among the best teams in the league this year as they were undefeated in regular season play through April 18. The team won stages two and three last season, back when the regular season had 10 games per stage. They even came close to a world title but fell short of the championship game, losing two matches to the Philadelphia Fusion. Still, the stage two championship ranks high for members of the team, including head coach Hyun Sang “Pavene” Yu.

The New York Excelsior came back to win the Stage 2 finals during the 2018 Overwatch League season. (Photos courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment/Overwatch League)

“We got reverse swept ourselves in the stage one finals so I was very disappointed,” said Pavene. “But we got to win the next stage with our own reverse sweep. I was very proud of the players. Interestingly, even when we were down zero to two I didn’t think we were going to lose. I think that’s what makes it more memorable.”

A lot of the players on the team are from South Korea and have had to relocate to Los Angeles, since most matches take place at the Blizzard Arena. For some, the most difficult part of joining the Excelsior is getting used to life in the U.S.

“Living in a foreign country is definitely hard,” said Pavene, who was born in Seoul. “It is tough being so far away from the family that I love.”

“At first, it was hard adjusting to life in a foreign country, but over time I got used to it,” said Excelsior player Haeseong “Libero” Kim.

The players are just like your average athletes, waking up each day to practice in early scrimmages with their team. They also go and watch game tape to see what they can improve on as well as practice on their own time. Each weekend, they compete in their matches looking to ultimately capture a championship. There are quite a few differences between e-sports athletes and athletes of traditional sports, but that doesn’t mean that the work isn’t as taxing .

“Traditional sports need more physical endurance, but I would actually say e-sports need more mental endurance,” said player Jeong “Nenne” Yeongwan. “In e-sports, we practice full length matches against other teams twice a day.”

“While skills are important as a professional player, I think you should equally focus on overall health and well-being,” said Libero. “Self-care will help you deal with the demands of any professional sport in the long run.”

From a marketing perspective, the Excelsior has embraced New York life and has continued to promote e-sports in various ways. One example of this was a recent tristate tournament hosted by the Excelsior called the “NYXL Spring Rally.” After sending out 40 invites, the top 16 schools that earned support from community members earned the opportunity to compete in the Overwatch competition. Rutgers University’s e-sports team ended up winning $3,000 and practice sessions with the Excelsior players themselves. The organization has also hosted meet and greets with the public, as well as watch parties during their matches.

“People love to play games and that’s the heart and soul of what e-sports is,” said Ben Nichol, head of events and business development. “I think our stance has been very community first. How do we connect with people and give them opportunities to come together and play games?”

While the OWL games are currently being played in Los Angeles, the league is looking to move teams to their representative cities in 2020. While there is no news as to specifically which venues the Excelsior will play, they will continue to participate in New York-based events to continue building its already strong fan base.

“Our first local activity was at Citi Field last season when we were supposed to throw out the first pitch, but it got snowed out,” said Nichol. “We made the decision to try to meet our fans anyway. We went to the brewery right there at Citi Field and anyone who wanted to meet the team could go there. Around 700 people showed up and stood in the ice and snow in line to the brewery to meet the team and it was just incredible to see that New York is so excited for what we’re doing here.”

“[The players] represent New York on stage and they represent New York in their lives,” said Gupta. “We’re excited to bring them back home.”

You can watch games on various ESPN platforms, including ABC and Disney XD, or stream the games on www.twitch.tv/overwatchleague. For more information on the Excelsior, visit excelsior.overwatchleague.com.

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