Two winters ago, a high school pal whom I hadn’t seen in several years while he served in Afghanistan was back in New York, and, en route to a night of reconnecting over bowls of warm ramen, he abruptly ruined everything with a suggestion: Let’s go to a sports bar around the corner and watch the New York Giants.
Probably I have never seen a football game in its entirety; I certainly had never seen one at a sports bar. At a musty, loud space called The 13th Step, we ordered some mediocre beer and focused on the match. Apparently, the Giants were having a good season when, in past years, they had not, but this time, the Eagles were pummeling the Giants. I chewed on some nachos and winced every time the crowd bellowed in regret.
I still have the texts I sent to another jock friend from that night: “Football fandom is wack. People are nearly in tears. . . people who aren’t actually playing the sport.”
“Uh, you know that if they lose to the Eagles, the Giants have no chance to go to the playoffs?” she texted back.
“Ugh, who cares,” I responded. “Why do people have to get soooooo upset?? I don’t know why a sports game had to derail a fun night.”
I have never once in my life understood why people are sad after their local sports team loses. It seemed to be an unnecessary emotional burden people very intentionally took on. Why? Did these people not know there are sadder things to be sad about? Were they unable to channel their inner sadness into other things? Was sports the only place they could exhibit emotions? Or were their melodramatics just a signal to like-minded humans in their vicinity that they too share the same set of interests?
Two years later, Blizzard launched its Overwatch League, instantly making traditional sports or “tsports” passe. Overwatch is a game I have poured several hundred hours into since its May 2016 release, and along with teams’ regional branding, the Overwatch League was an attractive bid for my attention. There was just one obstacle: The COO of the New York Mets simply scooped up one of South Korea’s best teams. They’ve never lived in New York. Many have never even been here. But having enough money to get whatever you want is the truest of New York values. I can root for that.
In the New York Excelsior’s first match, they were tied 1-1 on maps with Boston—first team to three wins, more or less—when New York subbed in McCree player Kim “Pine” Do-hyeon for the Ilios map. A relative wildcard, Pine shocked thousands of viewers with a now-legendary play: he exploded five enemy heads, one by one, with McCree’s revolver, like a grown adult at the county fair popping balloons with darts. Broadcasters aired the play three or four more times, with each replay hammering some sense of pride in me. I quickly decided that this was well worth an emotional investment.
Those are my boys, I thought. My team—it is a good team of good boys.
That was just the start of NYXL’s—and Pine’s—rampage through the Overwatch League’s ranks. After taking down Boston, NYXL won matches against Houston, Florida, and Los Angeles. Each time, when Pine was brought in, the crowd went wild with expectation: Will he pull us through this time? And he never let us down. (Yes, I say “us” now.) With mid-air trick shots on Widowmaker and easy-looking headshots on McCree, Pine is not just a great player but an avatar for my regional pride. New York is the best city. Pine had never lost a map. As a New Yorker, I claimed him.
New York-based friends come over to drink beer and watch the games now. I replaced my legendary skin for the hero Reinhardt with NYXL’s character skin—a sort of jersey. I changed my player icon to NYXL’s logo, a few arrows in the shape of an “X,” so I could help contribute to NYXL’s well-deserved hype whenever someone encountered me. In Discord channels and Overwatch’s voice chat, I’d rave about NYXL to friends and strangers alike, and especially if they were also repping NYXL’s blue colors.
And then there was last Thursday, sad day. Philadelphia’s team, the Fusion, who similarly have never lived in Philadelphia, were up against my boys. Widely considered mid-tier, the Fusion had also suffered several embarrassing faux pas: One player was banned for boosting. The team even pulled out of the league’s entire preseason, citing “player logistics issues,” likely problems getting their visas together. Obviously, they were meant to lose against mygood boys who had never messed up and try very hard. We would massacre them and they would deserve it because Philadelphia, their athletes, and their fans all suck ass.
By the middle of the match, it became clear the NYXL wasn’t playing up to their normal standard. Several crucial plays hadn’t quite been pulled off with the grace and intentionality NYXL was known for. Players were dropping their ultimate abilities in confusing moments. The teams were 1-1 when, on the next map, Ilios, NYXL subbed in Pine. Finally, I thought. We can let that other team know what’s what. But Pine wasn’t landing much. Fusion’s sniper kept him in check until, in a moment, he was counter-sniped. In the next encounter, only two plays from Pine elicited small “Woos!”. NYXL took the map, but the Fusion tied things up at 2-2 and the match headed to a final map.
In a tense tiebreaker, exactly the kind of map Pine thrives on, NYXL didn’t bring him on. What the fuck are you doing, coach? Fusion came alive with evident hunger to take a game off my undefeated team. And NYXL was dragging. Throughout the game, NYXL teammates trickled onto the point one-by-one instead of in full-force as Fusion plucked them off. Up until the game’s last moments, my team was clawing its way into the competition, firmly on the defensive. We ended up losing. It was an injustice. Our perfect record was blemished by a lesser team purporting to represent a lesser city. I moped to anyone who’d listen until I went to bed and, in the morning, I forgot about it.
Until that day, I resented the fact that sports fans would claim their team’s victories and suffer their defeats—“We lost,” they’d complain, shuffling home from some unfortunately-named Manhattan sports bar. Fans weren’t god damn playing, so what claim did they have? They didn’t own the players. Who is this “we?” And, in fact, those players were cycled in and out of their region depending on the whims of weird rich people who also are not playing. Today, I asked resident Kotaku sports fan and news editor Jason Schreier why he is sad when his favorite team, the New York Jets, loses and happy when they win. Here’s what he said:
“I am happy when the Jets win because I have inexplicably devoted myself to a brand owned by a billionaire who gives me nothing in exchange for my loyalty, time, and money. I enjoy spending every Sunday from September to January watching well-paid athletes march up and down a field, and there’s no better way to do that than to tie my happiness to the successes and failures of 53 of those athletes. I am a Jets fan because my father is a Jets fan, and I am therefore destined for years and years of misery. Also, I like the green.”
Esports are relatively new, and with the playbook laid out by tsports to attract huge audiences and make piles of money, their leagues often copy it with things like regional branding. Overwatch is an online sport, though, so it doesn’t matter where players live or train. Regional branding is completely ridiculous. In that sense, the Overwatch League’s NYXL is as cynical as it gets. They’re freaking incredible and, also, have little connection to New York other than the name. I chose to accept them as my team because Pine fucking owns. (In fact, NYXL beat the then-undefeated Seoul Dynasty just last Friday.)
If NYXL sucked, I promise that I would disavow them and adopt Seoul Dynasty or London Spitfire—unlike my misguided tsports friends, whose descriptions of their Giants and Jets fandoms make them sound like hereditary diseases. I think they should drop their sad-sack regionally-based support and pick a good team. The Jets’ players and coaches aren’t from New York any more than the Excelsior’s are. But for now, the only differences between me and them are that my regional team is winning and I’m not ruining dinners. We’ll see if it sticks.