Any bystander outside of the Allen Event Center the last weekend in April might have thought there was a sports event going on, judging solely by the throngs of people all wearing the same color, carrying decorated poster boards and discussing matchups in excited tones.
"Dallas ... Fuel?" that bystander might have asked, looking confused at the blue and silver flame adorning everything. "Never heard of them."
Such people will soon be in the minority, if the Dallas Fuel Homestand Weekend is an indication of esports' future in North Texas. Touted as the "first home game in esports history" in a press release, the Overwatch League players making up the Dallas Fuel hosted seven other contending teams for two days of matches in league play.
For those unfamiliar with most of the above words, here's the briefest of primers: Overwatch is an online, objective-based team shooter enjoyed by tens of millions of video-game players worldwide. It's developed by California-based game giant Blizzard, and in 2016 the company created an esports competition using the game and called it the Overwatch League (OWL). Countries including France, China, South Korea, Canada and the U.S. spun up teams comprising the best players to be found to compete for a trophy, prize money and ultimate bragging rights.
It's been pretty successful, from a business standpoint.
Until a week ago, those competitive games were played at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California. Despite each team ostensibly representing a major city (Dallas, Houston, Seoul, London, to name a few), the first two and a half years of league play never left the West Coast, to the consternation of many and the confusion of more.
But coming "home," so to speak, was always in the cards, Dallas Fuel President Geoff Moore says. The contract between every team and Blizzard allowed a rough two-year period when the game studio would shoulder the lion's share of the league's infrastructure, allowing teams time to prepare things in their cities. Moore said Dallas Fuel owner Mike Rufail eagerly volunteered to test the transition. He had faith in Dallas fans.
Well before the event, tickets for both days at the 4,500-person-capacity event center sold out. Club seats were the next to go, marketed on the promise of packed stands and exuberant crowds. The last piece of the Fuel's strategy lay in touting a heated matchup between supposed Lone Star rivals, the Houston Outlaws. Dallas may have lost the last three duels in a row, but they had home-field advantage this time.
If it sounds like the Fuel know what they're doing, it's probably because Moore comes to esports from the traditional side of sports management and promotion. He spent 18 years as the executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Dallas Stars, but he's been careful in deploying tricks from the old book. They know the road to becoming the next Cowboys or Rangers or Mavericks starts inside the stadium.
“Dallas is already a sports and entertainment town that already has games. All we have to do is provide an experience they would appreciate,” Moore said.
If it wasn't for the ever-present Fuel logos, one could be forgiven for thinking they stumbled into a minor league basketball game. The outer ring of the Allen Events Center was thick with the smell of hot cookies, sugary refreshments and the ubiquitous concession stand nachos. Every other person held a clear plastic cup brimming with frothy beer, and the walls reverberated with the sound of competition deeper within.
Piercing that inner sanctum, though, stripped any illusion of balls, courts and the squeaking of shoes on waxed hardwood. No, watching an OWL competition is an assault of sound, color and information. Competitive play is quick and difficult to follow even if you know what to look for. The center was also concert-dark inside, drawing the eye to a stage where 12 determined esports players battled beneath three giant screens. The middle provided in-game action, while flanking both sides were screens showcasing crucial statistics. Commentary blared over the action, providing spectators both within the center and watching at home with a constant stream of excited narration.
My immediate thought was that nonplayers would find this spectacle incredibly exciting for all of 10 minutes. Without the novelty, it's just information overload with a bright color palette. But Moore begged to differ. He said the Fuel is confident there's a rich vein of potential fans waiting to be keyed in to the entertainment value of competitive Overwatch.
“There’s already a ton of people who like it, play it and prefer it. There’s more people who play Overwatch in North Texas than play high school football,” Moore said.
“If you went to the first ever Dallas Cowboys game at the Cotton Bowl, it probably wasn’t as big as this or near the experience of this. But over time, the sport grew in popularity and everything improved. It’s because they appealed to the core fan first,” he said. "“We’re going to start by super-serving the core fans, providing an experience they will want to bring their friends and family to.”
By empowering their fans as ambassadors for the sport, the Dallas Fuel are counting on the continued enthusiasm of dedicated fans to carry over between home games, which could be weeks apart, and help establish the events as a good way to spend the weekend, no matter your investment in the game.
"Now, when you go to the American Airlines center you don’t even have to like basketball to have a good time watching the Mavs play,” Moore said.
I began to feel the growing anticipation as the competitive matchups reached the touted rivalry between Dallas and Houston. I saw just as many blue-clad fans escorting partners, parents and children as I did tight knots of die-hards. Notably, a teenager sat just below me, excitedly recording himself and his mother on Snapchat between matches. To my surprise, she sported a sweatshirt emblazoned with several OWL franchise logos and cheered just as loud as her child.
As the Houston players were announced and took their seats on the stage, an explosion of cheers and yelling rocked the back of the stands where a chunk of green-clad Outlaw fans seemed determined to prove the more dedicated Texas cadre. Though the numbers were always against them, instigators among the stands seized every opportunity to drum up a hearty chanting of "FUEL SUCKS" or call and response of "HOUSTON/OUTLAWS" all night long.
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As for the match itself, Dallas won handily. It is of less use to describe the playing of the game than it is to convey how easy it was to be swept away in the riptide of the crowd. Every clutch play, every Houston mistake, every seized opening was punctuated by a roar of voices and a sea of fans surging to their feet. They were all captains guiding any strangers among them through the nearly inscrutable waters of competitive play. There is a momentum one can follow, like a story being told through the language of kinetic bodies. I was less interested in the outcome of the match, as long as it meant living through one more clash of blue and green.
"We made history at the Dallas Fuel Homestand Weekend and showed the world why esports is one of the fastest growing forms of sports competition and consumable entertainment that fans of all ages from all over the world can enjoy," Rufail said in a press release. "This is just the beginning."
I left the Allen Events Center that night much more secure in Moore's and Rufail's confidence that the Dallas Fuel will find success at home in 2020, when the franchise will officially set up shop in its "home town." Not every game can boast a rivalry matchup, but professional sports is old hat at creating drama and narratives to keep the crowds interested.
If you get the chance, leave your judgments at home and spend a night with this rowdy bunch of millennials, teens and video-game wonks. They might convince you, too, that there's room in Dallas for another competitive sport.