- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2019

The Washington Justice have a new fan in Diana Torres.

Torres’s daughter, recent college grad Monica Torres, was a big fan of the Overwatch League (OWL) in its first season in 2018. When Monica would watch live-streams of gamers playing “Overwatch,” a widely popular, team-based first-person shooter, her mother started to watch, too.

The Torreses mingled with more than 300 fans who attended a team-sponsored watch party for the Justice’s inaugural OWL game Saturday. In a spacious room at Penn Social, the sports bar not far from Capital One Arena, the elder Torres cheered as loudly as any fan present.

“It’s very interesting, and I like all the strategy that goes around,” she said. “This is not like you’re just shooting (opponents) just to shoot. You need to have a strategy, and not only that, the team needs to work like one.”

Whether it’s a physical sport or esports, new franchises must attract a fan base quickly. But the OWL faces a unique challenge: For now, every OWL player is based in Los Angeles, and for now, no local residents play for the Justice — six players hail from South Korea and the other three are from Pennsylvania.

In other words, the Washington Justice are from Washington in name only — until 2020 at the earliest, when the league wants to move to true “city-based competition.”

That could have been an impediment to growing a fan base in the District for this new team, but the gaming community was well-represented at Saturday’s party, which was co-hosted by Events DC.

Justice owner Mark Ein thanked the crowd for their support, saying it could be any of them sitting at the pro gamers’ keyboards someday.

“This is a completely merit-based sport and everyone can compete with anyone,” Ein later told The Washington Times. “You can be any size, any gender, anything. As people come here and become fans and play the game, as they get better and better, they have a shot. I really do hope at some point in the not-that-distant future we have some people from D.C. on the team.”

Ein, who also owns the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis and the Washington City Paper, believes city-based competition is the right format for esports to pursue going forward. The OWL saw an expansion from the original 12 teams to 20 for season two. Besides the Justice and other new North American teams, one was added in Paris and three more in China.

London and Seoul are also represented, making for a truly global league.

“The production of these events is pretty intense and so (“Overwatch” developer) Activision wants to get it perfect in one location for the first two seasons and have the teams do things like these watch parties and engage people like this,” Ein said, “and then next year we’re going to go out to the cities and play there.”

The market intelligence firm Newzoo predicts esports will become a $1 billion industry in 2019, just one of many indications the sport is cementing itself in the mainstream. Familiar names from the four major sports like Robert Kraft, Stan Kroenke and Jeff Wilpon own OWL teams. The broadcast of the Justice’s debut game included studio hosts and corporate sponsors like Toyota, T-Mobile and Intel.

In “Overwatch,” teams of six players with specific roles, like damage, tank and support, compete in the game’s four types of maps that present different gameplay challenges. Similar to a tennis match, OWL teams play multiple rounds to win a map, and four maps to decide the series.

In their debut, the Justice faced the New York Excelsior, considered one of the league’s top teams. New York won 3-1, but Washington’s loss was punctuated by moments of euphoria at the Justice watch party. Their cheers were not golf claps but hockey hollers, and the room exploded when the Justice won their first and only map of the afternoon.

Local gamers Chris Colon and Josh Hammond didn’t get into esports as a spectator sport until the OWL began. They were fans of the Philadelphia Fusion last season because it was the closest team, but are happy to switch allegiance to the Justice now that they’re in town.

Colon and Hammond were surprised by the watch party’s turnout.

“I thought it was just gonna be a couple tables, maybe some TVs set up, and I had no idea it was gonna be this crazy,” Hammond said. “This is amazing.”

Monica Torres is also glad to have a team representing the District. She said she rooted for individual players last season rather than a single team.

“But as soon as they announced that there was a Washington team, I was like, no matter what happens, any watch party, any meet-and-greet, any event around the team, I’m going to be there,” Torres said.

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