For Washington, D.C., being the capital of the United States of America isn’t enough. The city is looking to become the capital of something else entirely: esports.
North American esports team NRG Esports is now being sponsored by D.C., the district’s official convention and sports authority, Events D.C. revealed to me in a series of interviews yesterday. Not only is the city’s sponsorship one of the first of its kind, it marks the District of Columbia’s official push into the world of professional competitive gaming.
NRG Esports — which has professional teams and players competing in Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, Super Smash Bros., Rocket League and more — was founded by Sacramento Kings co-owners Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov, and has big name investors like four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal and MLB stars/World Series champions Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins. Washington D.C. will have logos on the teams’ jerseys, players’ streams and the NRG website, plus it will host NRG bootcamps where players get together and practice for long hours for days on end.
Sponsoring a team like this is a way for D.C. to show that it’s embracing esports and gearing up to be an esports hub, Events D.C. Chairman Max Brown said.
“This is just another prong in our strategic approach to continue to make D.C. a great place to live and work and play,” he said.
D.C. welcomes esports
D.C. is changing, Brown said, with an average of 1,000 people moving to the city every month. The influx of new people is causing the district to evolve from a government town to a broader and more diverse economy.
“We have a bunch of universities here in Washington,” Brown said. “There are lots of younger kids who are here and are coming here every year through our universities so we think it makes a lot of sense for us as a city to plant a flag [for esports], and ultimately be the capital of esports like we’re the capital of the United States.”
Esports demographics tend to skew younger and D.C. needs to provide entertainment to keep people coming.
The city is planning to build a brand new arena that sounds perfectly suited to host sizable esports events.
D.C.’s esports presence won’t be limited to logos on NRG Esports, though. The city is planning to build a brand new arena that sounds perfectly suited to host sizable esports events.
“A $65 million 4,200-seat, state-of-the-art arena,” Brown said. “[It will] come online in late-2018, early-2019. Fully tailored and wired for esports.”
The arena will be the new home of WNBA team the Washington Mystics. Though it’s being build with esports in mind, it’ll be open to host other events, like concerts and boxing matches.
NRG Esports co-founder Any Miller said bringing esports events to D.C. could be huge for local fans who would normally have to travel to major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Seattle to attend live events.
“These events sell out in two seconds, you need to travel, you need to spend good money and they’re big and they’re fun and they’re super cool but it’s not like, ‘I want to go watch my team play this weekend, head down and check them out at the local arena,'” Miller said. “That just doesn’t happen in esports, and that’s something that’s missing when you want to have a real connection with an organization and with players.”
Being able to host esports events could entice visitors, too. D.C. already gets around 20 million visitors a year, a chunk of who are international.
“Of that group, Asian visitors — Chinese in particular — are the no. 1 market for us internationally,” Events D.C.’s Brown said. “Why is that important? People who come from overseas to Washington spend more money because they stay longer. So what we want to is get our brand — as a city and as Events D.C. — out into the country and across the globe in various ways. And this way, sponsoring NRG and being a part of their platform in terms of content, jerseys, other platforms for them to publicize our brand, makes a tremendous amount of sense.”
For NRG Esports, the sponsorship is validation not only for the team but for esports as a whole.
NRG’s new sponsorship
D.C.’s sponsorship of NRG is exciting, NRG’s Miller said.
“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “I think it’s definitely a first for esports and a great validation of NRG but also the esports space and how big and interesting it’s becoming to the point that now you have really forward-thinking folks like Events D.C. taking a look and actually wading into the waters here and putting time and money behind it.”
The sponsorship doesn’t mean that NRG is tied to the city like more traditional sports organizations.
“We’re not the D.C. NRG,” Miller said. “But we will be spending a bunch of time down there, we will definitely be bootcamping down there… and then hopefully we can bring real big events across all the different leagues and games that we play in to D.C. so that people can actually go and watch them.”
Esports organizations have not traditionally been tied to specific cities, and although some games and publishers may not want to go down that patch, Miller said he likes the idea of teams having local ties in some games.
“Anytime a new partner enters esports, it draws more attention from others outside the industry, which is great for the scene.” – Seagull
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be Washington D.C. against New York, or Boston against LA and see these rivalries developing,” Miller said. “And we have our own rivalries in different games that we play with different organizations but it would be really neat if it was city-based as well.”
Overwatch developer Blizzard Entertainment announced the Overwatch League with a plan to have teams represent and play in different cities around the world. NRG may become one of those teams when the league kicks off in late-2017 or in 2018.
When asked whether D.C.’s sponsorship could be a hint at NRG representing the city in the Overwatch League in the future, Miller said that wasn’t the case.
“One — we want to make sure we’re in the Overwatch League,” he said, noting that the league’s teams have yet to be decided. “Two — if it’s Washington D.C., that would be great. We have a wonderfully exciting team that we want to keep together and we want to keep growing and we have a fanbase and we’ve been in it for a while and we’ve been carrying the torch for Overwatch for a while now. I do think this [sponsorship] is a validation for the city-based approach that they’re trying to put together.”
NRG’s D.C. sponsorship is almost akin to the team dipping its toes into representing a city and Miller said there is potential that this local presence will be great for strengthening the organization’s fanbase.
“We have a really, really popular Overwatch team and an incredibly popular player named Seagull [real name: Brandon Larned] and the amount of people — 20,000, 30,000 people — concurrently watching him every minute when he practices — those are people that I’m sure would love to go meet him, see him in person and watch him play,” Miller said. “If they had that opportunity to do that, that would change the game and move this whole esports world into the next level.”
Seagull himself echoed the sentiment that the partnership is a positive move for esports as a whole.
“Anytime a new partner enters esports, it draws more attention from others outside the industry, which is great for the scene,” he said. “We’re looking forward to having some bootcamps in D.C.!”
Events D.C.’s sponsorship of NRG Esports will be highlighted at SXSW March 13 at the WeDC House, which is presented by WDCEP in partnership with the Executive Office of the Mayor and Events D.C.