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In 2020, all 20 Overwatch League (OWL) teams will host homestand weekends in their respective home markets, leaving behind Burbank, California’s Blizzard Arena as the league embraces its geolocated premise. However, the Dallas Fuel had the sole distinction of hosting the first-ever OWL homestand this past season, in April.
The Bud Light Homestand Weekend – Dallas saw seven other OWL teams descend upon the Allen Event Center for two days, with more than 4,500 fans in attendance each day for the sold-out event. With an array of sponsorship activations, the Fuel helped set the mold for the OWL homestand concept, which the Atlanta Reign and Los Angeles Valiant then tackled and tweaked during their own respective 2019 homestand events.
Ahead of next weekend’s Overwatch League Grand Finals in Philadelphia, The Esports Observer spoke with Justin Rojas, vice president of events and social media at Envy Gaming, about the Dallas Fuel’s first homestand experience and overcoming an unexpected hurdle, the best way to activate sponsors, and plans for the Fuel’s 2020 homestands.
The First Homestand
The Overwatch League was always planned to eventually host home and away games, but actually executing on that plan for the first time—following a first regular-season set exclusively at the Blizzard Arena—was a big challenge for the Fuel. Rojas said that the organization wasn’t even sure how strong local interest would be, given that it was still an unproven concept.
“It was a really, really interesting event for us to figure out what would work, not just us as the Dallas Fuel or for Overwatch, but for esports as general—kind of having this as our first home game,” he said. “The big question initially was: Is there demand? Is there an audience that wants to come out to support its local team like that in esports? And we found out: there was!”
Although the flow of the competition and broadcasts had been long established, the Fuel had to develop the local fan experience: turning the Allen Event Center into the setting for a compelling live esports affair while activating sponsors and catering to both home and visiting teams.
“There were a lot of unknowns that we had going into the homestand weekend in Dallas. Logistically speaking, utilizing a new space like this—an arena in normal circumstances—and being able to modify that to accommodate for esports, we had to set up practice rooms for the teams,” said Rojas. “There’s room for improvement there, making sure we have the best facilities possible for these teams, especially our visiting teams. Because they’re coming to our home and we’re hosting, so we want to make sure they’re having a good experience.”
The Fuel got a big surprise on the first day of the homestand when the power went out at the Allen Event Center mid-match. It wasn’t isolated to the venue; rolling blackouts affected the entire area around the stadium, and the broadcast was down for about 40 minutes while the outage was addressed. That sort of gap of dead time wasn’t expected, but Rojas said his team quickly pivoted to fan-centric content on the fly. Their response to the outage may ultimately play into how the Fuel develops its onsite content going forward.
“We actually took that as an opportunity to create a more intimate experience of events. Everyone was unsure what was going on, but since we had downtime from the broadcast, we could actually activate and let the audience engage and do more personal, friendly things using the on-screen cameras,” said Rojas. “That’s something we thought about, seeing as how that worked, and maybe that’s something we can find a way to integrate—not cutting the power, but having more interactive entertainment time with the audience on that part.”
The Fuel will have plenty of opportunities to experiment in 2020, as the team will host five total homestand weekends across the season. They’re one of just three OWL organizations to take on five events for the season; many are only hosting two homestands in 2020. Rojas believes that his team’s biggest success with the first homestand was finding unique ways to activate an array of sponsors, but that will be a much larger-scale challenge across multiple venues in 2020.
“Being able to create that type of integration that you would traditionally see in traditional sports, being able to make that successful for the brands as well as for our team, as well as create a great experience for our local audience—I think that’s what we want to keep replicating across our next five events that we’re doing here,” he said. “But also making it unique so that it’s not the same thing over and over. That’s always challenging for any sort of recurring event.”
The Bud Light Homestand Weekend had numerous sponsors in play, starting with the entitlement partner. Bud Light parent company AB InBev had a Bud Light Watch Bar and “Bud Knight” mascot character in the venue. Meanwhile, fast food restaurant chain Jack in the Box had multiple onsite activations, and Rojas called out the company’s efforts as some of the most appealing to fans.
“It’s got to be authentic, it’s got to be valuable to the audience for them to really care about it. That’s a testament to Jack in the Box, to be able to understand the audience and provide these interesting experiences for our fans,” he said. The brand had a “Mickie’s Hair Chair” activation named after a popular player with colorful hair, which let fans color their own locks, and also designed a fixture that looked like an in-game Overwatch loot box and handed out free promo items. “They latched onto the game elements and were able to bring that to fans in an interesting way that melded the Jack in the Box brand,” Rojas added.
The Dallas Fuel will still work with nationally-known brands in the coming season, but the larger spread of homestands offers a great opportunity to integrate local brands, as well. Rojas said a key example of how to activate a local service is what the team did with Favor, a Texas-based delivery service for restaurants and stores. The activation saw Favor runners deliver items (such as prize packs) directly to fans in the stadium, maintaining the spirit of the service while giving it a Fuel twist. “Those are things you can really experience here, to our local audience. It’s an actual service they can use,” said Rojas. “Being able to integrate their service into a better fan experience, I think, is important.”
The more that the Fuel taps into local venues and understands the opportunities within, the better they’ll be able to help brands reach the audience in effective ways. “The greatest thing about having our own events here is that we have control over how we utilize that space,” said Rojas. “We really want to make it custom for each of the types of sponsors that come in.”
Looking to 2020
Each of the first three Fuel homestands in 2020 will take place at a different venue, with the last two event locations yet to be announced. Rojas said that the organization’s plans for the season include “three different venues, at least,” so there’s potential for more. The first homestand will take place at Esports Stadium Arlington on Feb. 8-9 during the league’s opening weekend, and Rojas has tapped into his background working on geek culture events to try and utilize the venue’s adjacent convention space.
“One of the things I’m working on right now is creating this bigger festival kind of feel and experience that’s more akin to, say, a gaming or anime convention—where you go in and you have vendors, and it’s like a secondary stage there with other events going on,” he said. “We’re working on collegiate and high school Overwatch tournaments that are going to be integrated into our experience. [We’ll have] guests, actors, other players, Overwatch influencers, celebrity-type people, and things like that, and really make it more of an immersive experience that goes beyond just the gameplay.”
The second homestand weekend on April 4-5 will shift the action to the Toyota Music Factory in Irving, Texas, and the concert hall will provide a different kind of locale—complete with a music lawn outside that Rojas is keen on using. The third homestand on April 25-26 will return to the Allen Event Center, and he said the team feels much more confident about maximizing the venue the second time around. Ultimately, having a wider array of venues allows the Fuel to create unique experiences for fans while testing various activations and fan activities.
“That keeps it interesting for the fans and keeps it exciting for us as a company, being able to try new things,” said Rojas. “Of course, there are a lot of challenges that come with that. The logistics of going through each venue and creating new layouts, and addressing the limitations of each and the advantages of the others—you have to create a unique plan for each, and you have to be able to take what’s best about each venue and really play that up.
“Everything has its strength,” he added. “We’re not going to work in a venue that isn’t a good experience. There’s enough places in Dallas, thankfully—a real testament to this city—that it gives us options. Having those options makes for a better experience for our fans.”
Full Speed Ahead
Hosting the first Overwatch League homestand didn’t come without challenges, but Rojas said the Fuel were very happy overall with the results. The venue sold out both days, fans were excited and engaged, and sponsors found unique ways to activate that audience.
It’s a big reason why the team was keen on hosting the maximum number of homestands for 2020—and, according to Rojas, a reason why Envy Gaming felt so confident about also securing the Dallas franchise spot in Activision Blizzard’s upcoming Call of Duty Global League. Now the organization will host not only five OWL homestands, but an as-yet-unannounced number of Call of Duty homestands as well.
“[The first homestand] exceeded our expectations even, which was great. I mean, there was a lot of work put into it, but we still were unsure as to what the end result would be,” said Rojas. “Being able to see the support from our local audience and the engagement with our sponsors and their experiences, it really solidified us knowing that Dallas is a great city for this—and that the fans are here, and they’re willing to support this type of event.
“It’s one of the reasons why we jumped in and locked down the new Call of Duty franchise too,” he continued. “It’s a big risk; we all know that. It’s a lot of money, but Dallas is probably… I think it’s the best city in the United States to activate out of an esports franchise, because of the history of sports here, and because of the advancement in technology and gaming in the area too. This is another gaming industry hub, and then also the fans and the audience that’s here—it’s a very passionate and diverse audience.”
Check back all week as we share insights from both the Atlanta Reign and LA Valiant about their respective 2019 homestand experiences and plans for 2020, as well as perspective from all three teams about how those lessons will affect their Call of Duty Global League initiatives.
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