“He was here first.” The other person gestures to me when the host asks to seat them.
“Where would you like to sit?” she asked.
“Uhh… hightops?” I stammer.
“You seat yourself on the bar side.”
Of course you do.
Esports in Public: The Grand Finals on ESPN
I don’t regularly frequent sports bars, or any bars for that matter. But then it was announced that the first night of the Overwatch League finals would be broadcast on ESPN. In the past year, I went from barely following local baseball to flying across the country to watch the LA Gladiators play. A few weeks ago, I signed up to be an amateur esports journalist. I’m very new to this, but I’ve always been trying to have fun.
So I made a decision a few days before match one. “I’m going to a SPORTS BAR and I’m going to watch SPORTS! I’ll write a piece while I’m there, an in-depth observation on the impact of esports on a larger, more alien culture. Boots-on-the-ground journalism, interviewing people with opinions. I’ll gather the thoughts of bar-goers in this brave new world, and we will scream ‘POGGERS’ in unison. It absolutely won’t be an exercise in remembering that I’m clumsy at best when it comes to interacting with waitstaff. Oh, and I’m terrible initiating conversations with strangers, and–”
“Anything to drink?”
“Uh- a Not Your Father’s Root Beer?” I mumble, pulling out my ID.
“Oh, does that actually have alcohol in it?”
“I… uh, think so.”
I decided to go to Buffalo Wild Wings. At the Mall of America. It is technically a sports bar. It still counts.
My drink arrives as ESPN cuts to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s ten minutes before the broadcast proper starts, and the desk is previewing…something. Without audio, I stare at Malik, Monte, and DOA chattering away. Suddenly, there’s a clip of gameplay. I whip my head around, eyes darting between the patrons, eager to see the bar’s reactions. Video games? On my sports channel?
Most people continue talking or eating. Then, I catch a man in his forties eagerly pointing to the screen. A fan, perhaps? From across the room, I try to understand what he says to his son. The teenager looks at the screen and back at his dad. He doesn’t need to roll his eyes – his stare does the work for him. I scribble down my first observation and analysis: “Teens too cool for esports.”
It’s 6pm central. Gametime. Three of the larger TVs broadcasting the Overwatch League switch to a Minnesota Twins game. ESPN is relegated to one projection screen and three smaller screens. I’m suddenly self-conscious that if I don’t actively have food or drink in front of me, I’m a bad customer taking up space. Even though the bar side of this B-Dubs never once got close to filling up, I quickly do the math regardless. Matches generally last between an hour and a half to two hours. If I order wings right away, I’ll have downed them all before the first map. The waitress asks if I’m ready.
“Can I start with a Queso Chili Dip?” I look her directly in the eyes. “I’m going to be here for a while.”
She smiles politely, taps her tablet, and walks away. I hear my own voice playing back in my head, and try to block out the judgment by watching Overwatch. I’m quickly back to people watching (or more honestly, looking for validation of my hobby.)
I see what appears to be another father and son watching. They’re older than the first pair. The son, maybe in his twenties, is gesturing vividly to his father. The father genuinely seems interested, but from across the room, I can’t tell what he’s asking. I make a mental note to interview them, but somewhere between eating Chili Queso Dip and ordering wings, the pair is gone. Suddenly, I’m alone again.
Wings, (Honey BBQ and Sweet BBQ)
When Buffalo Wild Wings gives you the option to mix and match their 21 sauces and seasonings, it’s so you can express your unique tastes. As a self-described adult child, I order two variants of barbeque sauce, both on the sweet end. I sit at my table, taking bites of each flavor, and realize that even the Honey BBQ seems too spicy for me. But I finish the wings anyway.
At this point, I’m barely watching the game. The screen, while large, is blurry. I can hardly make out the timers, and names in the killfeed are hard to read. Without the audio cues or casting, it’s really easy for my attention to drift away. I divide my time between occasionally watching the action, eating wings, and scanning the bar. Occasionally a guest will glance at the game, but look away after a moment without any real reaction. No sign of disgust, or curiosity. Overwatch is just another thing on one of nearly sixty screens.
At halftime, knowing I won’t hear any commentary, I turn to Twitter. I search through #ESPN for salty tweets, and while I find a few, it’s far less amusing than I’d hoped.
The waiter asks if I’m ready for dessert yet, a declaration I had made earlier. But with up to three games left and a belly full of queso and wings, I hold off and get a third glass of water.
I miss the comfort of my couch, Chromecasting Twitch to my TV.
I miss following along with UberX.
Most of all, I miss Jeffpacito.
As London takes Oasis, a map I miss almost entirely, I decided to place my dessert order. I’m still full, but I mostly want to leave, and I’ve made a big deal about dessert. Plus, there’s the chance that London will take Volskaya, and I don’t want to be around much longer than that.
The cake arrives, and it’s huge. Yet another father and son arrive. As they take their seats near me, the teenager immediately recognizes OWL. I hear the words “Philly Fusion.” Finally, a man of culture.
I lied earlier – I said the father and son (with all the gesturing) had left without me noticing. In reality, I actually watched it all unfold: their food order, the check arriving, all of it. But…the thought of heading over and talking to strangers about Overwatch was a bit out of my comfort zone. Now this teenager, one table over, is chatting about the game with his dad. It’s my last chance for an interview.
I’m three large spoonfuls of cake and ice cream deep, and I’m delirious. I start thinking about my own dad, about how we live whole countries apart. If I had grown up around him, would we have played catch? Would he have instilled in me a sense of competition and love of sports? Maybe I’d have grown up to be an esports legend. All of this speculation totally ignores the fact that he’s even more sports-averse than I am. I go for a fourth bite.
I think about what my dad might say a little more. Maybe we’d be watching this game together, and he’d say, “Now’s your chance.” I set the spoon down, and grab my notebook.
“Hi, I’m an amateur writer for a website about the Overwatch League. I saw you were watching the game, mind if I ask a few questions?”
“I’m not watching video games, he is.” The father points to his son. “He’s the expert.”
Boots on the Ground
It’s a short interview. Ian, 15, has only been watching OWL for the past few weeks. He used to play Overwatch, but now spends his gaming time on Rainbow Six Siege and Fortnite.
When I ask his father, Jim, his age, he just says, “Old.” Jim’s here to watch baseball, again making it clear that he isn’t watching Overwatch. I ask Jim if he ever expected to see video games on a bar TV. He mulls over an answer for a moment, maybe considering his son’s feelings, before delivering a stern, “No.”
I thank them for their time. It’s not a boots-on-the-ground interview, but it’s good enough for my first go at this.
When I return to my table, I look up to check back in with the game. But it’s already over. At some point in my interview, London had clinched the win. Pulling up Twitter and Discord, all I see is everyone is raving about Profit. I had come to this bar to watch the game, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what had happened. I’d gotten my interview, at least, and the bar had certainly been an experience.
I don’t regularly frequent sports bars. Or, well, any bars, for that matter. But that might have less to do with what’s on the screen, and more to do with how I operate in public spaces. I came to this B-Dubs in the hopes of watching a game with an excited crowd, to capture a slice of that energy I felt back in LA, sitting in the Blizzard Arena audience. Maybe it was foolhardy to expect it there, on that night. But in a few years, who knows?
Disney’s broadcasting contract continues on through next season. More games will be on ESPN, meaning more bars will be showing them (even if it’s on a smaller screen.) How regular bar-goers will react is anyone’s guess. Likewise, the future of OWL, while promising, is still up in the air. It may carve its space in traditional sports bars, built on the fans explaining to friends and even family. Or…it may find its home in more niche locations. Gaming pubs, with an already nerdy clientele, have been hosting games and watch parties all season.
Personally, I’ll stick to my living room. I can yell at my TV and cozy up on the couch, social feeds yammering away on my phone. And maybe the next time my dad visits we can order take out and can explain OWL from the comfort of my home.