Washington Justice fans at Penn Social
Washington Justice fans at Penn Social Credit: Noah Niederhoffer

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Large banners with the words, “Witness History,” greeted fans of D.C.’s latest esports team on Saturday afternoon in Chinatown. The Washington Justice were minutes away from making its franchise debut in the Overwatch League, and hundreds of esports enthusiasts waited in line to attend the watch party at Penn Social. Some even drove down from Pennsylvania for the event.

That’s the power of esports, and why it’s considered a billion-dollar business and one of the fastest growing sports. People care.

And even though the Justice couldn’t have had a tougher franchise debut—at least on the playing field—that didn’t stop fans like 14-year-old Matthew Price from southern Maryland from waiting in line for approximately an hour to attend. He stood with his parents as one of the first people in line to watch the Justice take on the New York Excelsior (NYXL), a squad that dominated the OWL’s inaugural season en route to a 34-6 record in the regular season and the No. 1 overall seed in the grand playoffs.

Wearing a Dallas Fuel sweater on top of his Washington Justice shirt, he didn’t expect the team to do well in the opener. “They have the top team and the best players,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty bad.”

Scoring differential can sometimes be a flawed metric when judging sports teams, but, in this case, it helps explain Excelsior’s dominance in 2018. New York finished 126-43-4 on maps played last season, giving them a scoring differential of +83. The next-best team was the Los Angeles Valiant with +36. That isn’t a gap, it’s a chasm.

While many fans shared his pessimism, it definitely didn’t deter people from attending. The event sold out in under 10 days, forcing fans to stand because all the chairs were taken. Mark Ein, the owner of the Washington Justice (who also owns City Paper), was almost at a loss for words when surveying the crowd before the match. “It’s a little bit overwhelming,” he said. “It exceeds all of our expectations. We want to make our fans proud.”

The nearly 400 fans in attendance watched via Twitch and cheered as they saw the team make its way onto the arena stage in Burbank, California.

The first map in the best-of-five match was Ilios, a “control” map where each team must fight to try and control a designated area. New York took the first round handily and was winning the second round as well. However, the team slowed down, and the round went into overtime. The Excelsior regrouped and dispatched the Justice to win the map and take a 1-0 lead in the match. Tae-Sung “Anamo” Jung had 13 assists, 17 eliminations, and no deaths, helping stake NYXL to the early lead.

The match moved to King’s Row, a hybrid map that starts out as “assault” and unlocks an “escort” element depending on whether a team is able to capture the point. An “assault” map is where one team is forced to defend a point while the other team tries to push them out and incrementally take control of it. One team plays offense and the other plays defense. It took the Excelsior less than a minute to take a commanding 2-0 lead into halftime.

The Justice needed to win on another “assault” map, Horizon Lunar Colony, in order to continue the match. Washington’s head coach, Hyeong-seok “WizardHyeong” Kim, made a key substitution, switching out Riley “Fahzix” Taylor for Hyeon Woo “Hyeonu” Jo.

NYXL started on offense and gained 92.5 percent control of the point, but Washington’s Corey “Corey” Nigra came up big and earned two different sets of double-kills, completely altering the match. The clutch performances of Corey and Hyeonu allowed the Justice to run out the remainder of the clock before New York could gain full control of the point. That forced overtime, and the Justice stood tall, beating back the Excelsior’s attack, defending the point and running out the clock to gain a critical strategic edge heading into the second round.

Now it was the Justice’s turn to play offense. In just 34 seconds, Washington took advantage of a key NYXL misstep and started to capture and take control of the point. Less than a minute later, Washington surpassed the 92.5 percent threshold that NYXL had set to win the round and its first ever map in franchise history.

The home crowd erupted in cheers.

Washington needed a win on the “escort” map, Rialto, to force a fifth and decisive winner-take-all map. On the escort map, one team must guide a vehicle to a point across the map. When you reach and control a checkpoint, your team gets a point and a time boost. The team guiding the vehicle must continuously push the other team back in order to keep advancing.

The Justice went on offense first and did well initially, controlling the high ground and delivering the vehicle to an archway, the first of three contested benchmark points on the map. Washington gave up the high ground and NYXL pounced, eliminating most of the Justice and driving them back. When the Justice appeared, the Excelsior, instead of sitting back and playing defense, decided to be aggressive. New York demolished the Justice yet again, draining even more time off the clock. NYXL’s Tae-Hong “Mek0” Kim executed an incredible highlight-reel self-destruct with his D.Va character that eliminated four members of the Justice at the same time.

The clock hit zero, forcing the match into overtime. The Justice had just two and a half minutes to advance the vehicle as far as it could across the map. After crushing Washington in another team fight, New York made sure that the Justice would only finish the round with one point for the one checkpoint it was able to control and pass. Washington finished short of the second checkpoint, so all the Excelsior had to do to win the map and the match was make it past where the Justice finished.

New York came out on top of another team fight and raced towards the second checkpoint. The Justice tried to make one last stand, but Mek0 pulled off another devastating self-destruct as NYXL eliminated five of Washington’s six players in quick succession. Seconds later, and with no one to stand in their way, the Excelsior pushed past the mark that the Justice had set to take the map and the match, 3-1.

Dong-gyu “Mano” Kim paced NYXL with 37 eliminations and just four deaths in the match. The Justice showed flashes of promise, but were simply outclassed by one of the league’s top teams.

William Barry, a 19-year-old freshman at Stevenson University who plays on the university’s esports club team, thinks the team could find its footing later in the season and said, “They don’t have big names, but the team could be bigger than the sum of its parts.”

Ein, who also owns the Washington Kastles, a World Team Tennis squad that won six titles in seven seasons, including a record five consecutive championships, told City Paper before the match that it’s always about the process. “We’re in this for the long run,” he said. “We’re in here [the OWL] to win championships over a long period of time.”

Justice fans will likely have to adopt that long-term mindset because the talent gap is large and the learning curve is steep. The team has a long way to go to catch the OWL elites like NYXL, but, despite the loss, Ein couldn’t help but smile when describing what the enthusiasm from the fans at the event meant to him.

“The energy was mind-boggling,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt energy like that watching a sporting event … It defies words.”

One moment stood out to him. When the Justice won their first and only map of the match, the fans, who had been cheering throughout the match, roared.

“That’s why you’re in sports,” Ein said. “For those moments.”

This article has been updated with additional detail on how each map works.