Washington Justice fans at The Anthem
Washington Justice fans at The Anthem Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Kathy and Brett Sweezey, a married couple from Alexandria, have plenty of experience with Overwatch, the multiplayer first-person shooter video game with a large fanbase and a professional esports league. They play the game at home and also watch live streams or YouTube videos of matches.

But sitting in the upper deck at The Anthem on Saturday night, watching a live Overwatch match between the Washington Justice and Paris Eternal, was a completely different experience. (Justice owner Mark Ein also owns Washington City Paper.)

“Being here, there’s more of a connection,” said Kathy, 27, who was wearing a Justice jersey she had just bought. “At home, I’m distracted, doing other things. Here I’m so focused, and I can learn from it. Like, oh, I can try this thing out next time I play.”

Brett, 30, agreed. “It’s like going to a movie theater versus watching a movie at home,” he said.

They were two of about 2,300 Overwatch fans at The Anthem on Saturday for the Justice’s D.C. debut, which the team lost, 3-1, to Paris. In the process, the Justice became the first D.C.-based esports franchise to host a competition in the city. It was the first of five homestand weekends for the Justice this year. Three will take place at The Anthem and two will take place at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights. 

The Anthem, a music and entertainment venue which opened on Oct. 12, 2017 at the Wharf, has a capacity of up to 6,000 for concerts, but the layout this weekend limited the capacity to approximately a third of that. Only the first two floors were being used. The Entertainment and Sports Arena has a seated capacity of 4,000 for basketball games.

The festivities for the home team began just before 8 p.m. on Saturday as two aerialists dropped from the ceiling and contorted their bodies on separate hoops. A hype video reminiscent of those seen at NBA games followed, and the venue vibrated as the seven Washington Justice players walked onto the stage, led by the Washington Capitals’ mascot, Slapshot.

“The viewing parties are pretty cool, but the production value here is amazing,” said 25-year-old Joe Bieda of Rockville, comparing the experience at The Anthem on Saturday to the Justice viewing parties held last season at bars around the city. It even rivaled going to Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for last year’s Overwatch League Grand Finals, he contended. 

Bieda has been playing video games competitively since 2007, starting with Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Nintendo GameCube. He is now a coach at The Game Gym esports training center in Rockville and the League of Legends head coach at Catholic University.

He showed up on Saturday to support the Justice while wearing a jersey of one of the team’s star players and his friend, Ethan “Stratus” Yankel.

“Gotta support my boy,” Bieda said.

He wasn’t the only one wearing a Stratus jersey. Fans of all ages dressed in the Justice’s red, white, and blue colors, and the jerseys of Yankel and Corey “Corey” Nigra were popular choices. The occasional Nationals and Capitals jerseys could also be spotted. “It’s cool to have things here we don’t normally see,” one usher told fans as she guided them to their seats.

When the Justice tied it up 1-1, the players could feel the momentum in the arena.

“The crowd definitely does have an impact,” said Yankel, who turns 19 on Feb. 27. “You get hyped when they get hyped … It’s a huge boost when the mood swings with you in the crowd.” 

But in the end, the Justice could not match Paris, and is now 1-3 and 11th in the Overwatch League standings after Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the London Spitfire. Washington finished tied for 17th place out of 20 teams in its inaugural season last year.

The team returns to The Anthem on March 7 and 8 for its next homestand.

Fans like Tom Prior and his mother, Teresa Prior McKenzie of Accokeek will be there. They have season tickets. When Prior McKenzie asked her son what he wanted for Christmas, that was his first response. 

“I really like the energy, seeing all the fans,” Prior Mckenzie said. “It’s always surprising to see how enthusiastic everyone is.”