ATLANTA — Unlike other North American cities, Atlanta is at the center of fandom for those in the Southeast. Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee don’t feature a set of teams in four of five major sports leagues like Atlanta does. In the Overwatch League, Atlanta holds a similar position. It’s the hub for the Southeastern fan looking to give allegiance to a team.
Those ideas proved true on Saturday and Sunday, when the Atlanta Reign hosted seven fellow Overwatch teams and threw their first local event at the 2,700-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. On Saturday, the Reign came out to thunderous applause against the Toronto Defiant. On Sunday, the Atlanta home team faced off against the regional rival Florida Mayhem, a match that fans of both franchises attended.
The second homestand in Overwatch League history, the Atlanta event was smaller than its predecessor in Dallas at the Allen Event Center, which seats 8,100 at maximum capacity. The Reign sold out the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Saturday with a full house and a surrounding atmosphere that felt more like a party than a sporting event. Loud music, food and beer trucks, an artist booth, a hall full of merchandising, autograph sessions, photo opportunities and free Coca-Cola slushies rounded out the non-spectating experience.
While what the Reign accomplished throughout the weekend showed promise for the future, the interest in gaming and esports events in Atlanta didn’t come overnight. Atlanta has long been a city that has made sense to feature an esports franchise and events, given its regionality, how easy and inexpensive it is to travel to events and the foundation of gaming and geek culture decades in the making.
Start with Dragon Con, for example. Since 1987, Dragon Con has been part of the local Atlanta events for fantasy and sci-fi fans, cosplayers, board game enthusiasts and more. It has grown to feature more than 80,000 annual attendees. In 2005, students at Georgia Tech started MomoCon, an anime-centric convention that now includes esports offerings nearly every year.
Game developers such as Brawlhalla founders Blue Mammoth and Smite and Paladins developer Hi-Rez Studios are based around the Atlanta metro area and host esports events annually, such as at the DreamHack Atlanta event. In 2016, Turner Sports founded ELEAGUE, an esports brand that has hosted local events for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Street Fighter, Rocket League and more. The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre has hosted Hi-Rez Expo and ELEAGUE before too.
I grew up here, and though it was taboo to be a nerd in school in the suburbs, my teenage adventures to both downtown and midtown showed a different side of the city. With Georgia Tech being centralized, hobbies such as gaming became part of the culture. Other schools, such as Georgia State, have added varsity-level esports programs.
The Reign are the only expansion team in the Overwatch League to host a homestand in 2019. The other two team hosts, first for Dallas in April and next in Los Angeles in August, have been in the league since the beginning. The Reign turned not only the event but also their roster, team and branding around in less than 12 months. It’s impressive that they made it this far.
Sports teams in the city have become increasingly involved, too.
The Atlanta Hawks joined the NBA 2K League this season, commuting players from the city to New York to compete nearly every week. Arthur Blank and his family, owners of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’s Atlanta United F.C., evaluated the opportunity to buy into the Overwatch League for what has become the Reign, league sources told ESPN. They ultimately did not, and another major Atlanta conglomerate, telecommunications company Cox Enterprises, stepped in, joined Province, Inc., and funded the Reign.
Brands with a presence in the South took the opportunity to get involved too. Coca-Cola, which activated in multiple parts of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Saturday and Sunday, is based just 15 minutes south of the venue. Missouri-based Bud Light showed up in force too, similar to their activation in Dallas in April. The entire weekend showed a model that kept several thousands of fans showing up engaged and interested.
Moving forward, Atlanta will continue to be a staple of not just the Overwatch League and the impending global homestand model to launch in 2020, but also esports and gaming culture as a whole.