Esports competition comes to Barclays Center

A million dollar prize is up for grabs at Barclays Center this weekend, but it's not your traditional prize fight; these athletes will battle it out in the video game Overwatch.

Shay Hernandez spends hours each week in the basement of his home on Staten Island. He moved his room down there so he could set up his gaming computer to play Overwatch: a team-based, first-person, shooter game that he plays with his friends online.

"When I started watching people playing this game, there's just so much about it, like there's so much to learn and I wanted to learn all the depth that's in there so I could understand it fully," said Hernandez who uses the gamer name Brookfield.

Overwatch is one of the top tier esports. Together they're played and watched by almost 300 million people around the world. But if you're thinking it's just kids like Hernandez in their basements, think again.

"You can't cover this as video gamers in their basement play video games, no these are people who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," said Jacob Wolf a staff writer for ESPN who covers esports.

In its first season, The Overwatch League or OWL, is helping make esports mainstream. Players are guaranteed a minimum salary of $50,000 per year and the winning team in the Grand Final will take home a $1 million prize.

"I don't really care that much about money. Competing on stage, I think it's the best experience I've ever had," said Josue Corona of the Philadelphia Fusion who plays under the name eQo. "Looking at this stage, looking at the Grand Finals, I just can't wait to play. It's really fun."

"We see the incomes that the players are receiving and they're impressive, but they're impressive compared to our expectations for what video games ought to be earning somebody," said Ben Fischer who covers esports for the Sports Business Journal. "They're still very small compared to what we expect pro sports players to be making."

But that may not be the case for long. Championship esports events have brought in tens of millions of viewers thanks to fast-paced entertainment that outpaces traditional athletes.

"I'm a massive hockey fan and I watch all of our Flyers games and I love hockey, but at a certain point I started looking at hockey and going 'man, that's kind of a slow paced sport.' And that's how you know esports has got ya." said Tucker Roberts, president of the Philadelphia Fusion.

Roberts' family owns Comcast and the Philadelphia Flyers too.

Outside of great gameplay, Overwatch has found success as a league for two main reasons. First, they draw on experts from traditional sports.

"The NBA, the UFC, they've really hired a lot of the top execs and some of the best people in traditional sports and fused them with the best people they had in esports already," said Wolf.

Second, they chose to use a city-based format for their teams.

"I've heard from so many fans this year that say I've been a gamer my whole life, I've never really been an esports fan. I finally have a reason to care. There's a New York team, there's a Houston team," said League Commissioner Nate Nanzer. "It makes it so much easier to become a fan, it gives you an anchor right away. I've been incredibly encouraged by how quickly that's caught on."

"The day that the New York team came out I didn't know what their roster was, I didn't know who was playing, but I thought that's the best team in the league right there just because it's New York," said Hernandez.

The 17-year-old Staten Islader enjoys the game so much that his mom has started to get in on the action. At first she had few options as her son took the living room TV hostage to watch competitions, but now she's starting to catch on.

"For a while I would just hear moans and groans from Shay and the announcers and I didn't know if it was a good moan or a bad moan but he would explain to me what just happened," said Lori Hernandez. "You're protecting your quarterback or whoever is going in for the attack in this particular game and you're working together."

So it's no wonder why Barclays Center wanted to host the Inaugural Grand Finals where the Philadelphia Fusion will take on the London Spitfire.

"The sport is growing at a rapid pace and we want to be in on the ground floor," said Keith Sheldon, executive vice president of programing for BSE Global, which runs Barclays Center. "Now with this Overwatch event it truly puts us on the global map from an esports perspective."

The event sold out in just two weeks. Shay and his team were among those lucky enough to snag tickets. But now the question is just how big can Overwatch and the rest of esports become?

"I think the big question for esports is, can they sell this place out for a Tuesday night regular season game? That's where they want to get," said Fischer.

That's a feat the Nets and Islanders have yet to accomplish on a regular basis.

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