NEW YORK — Mets COO Jeff Wilpon may not need Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard to bring a championship to New York this year.
Though Wilpon is hardly a hardcore gamer, he and his family are showing a magic touch in the world of esports. The Wilpon-owned New York Excelsior have been a juggernaut during the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, and people around the league are praising the Wilpons for their management of the video game club. Their roster, comprised mostly of South Korean players, is the top seed entering the playoffs and a heavy favorite to win the league’s first Grand Finals in Brooklyn on July 27 and 28.
Wilpon has never actually played Overwatch — “I’m not sure I could figure that one out,” he joked in an interview with The Associated Press — but he and some younger relatives have pieced together a winner in an ambitious first-year league.
While the deGrominator and Thor haven’t been able to keep the Mets competitive this summer, stars with nicknames like JJoNak, Pine and Saebyeolbe have lifted the Excelsior — better known as NYXL — to a first-round bye before their playoff opener Wednesday.
Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer says Wilpon has driven NYXL‘s success by “rolling up his sleeves,” learning about the industry and finding the right people to guide NYXL day by day. Fans and analysts have praised NYXL’s stability and leadership, something Nanzer says starts with Wilpon. That may be surprising to Mets fans, who have assailed Wilpon for his handling of the Mets since rising to COO in 2002.
Wilpon sees another secret fueling NYXL’s rise:
“Probably because I stayed out of the way.”
Indeed, Wilpon’s cousin Scott Wilpon and cousin-in-law Farzam Kamel have mostly run the show since family-owned Sterling Equities invested in the club last year. Scott Wilpon is also a partner at Sterling, and Kamel is a partner at subsidiary Sterling VC.
Sterling spent years eyeing an esports investment without pulling the trigger. The numbers were there — market research firm Newzoo projected a total esports audience of 380 million people in 2018 with $900 million in industry revenue. But Sterling wasn’t comfortable enough with the structure of the esports universe to buy in.
Then Jeff Wilpon got a call from an old friend.
Bobby Kotick has known Jeff Wilpon since grade school and is now the CEO of Activision Blizzard, the entertainment company behind the Overwatch video game —a first-person shooter launched in 2016 that pits two teams of six players competing over various objectives.
Blizzard wanted the Overwatch League to feature city-based franchises in a structure familiar to North American sports fans, but on an international scale. That was attractive to the Wilpons, and when they heard Patriots owner Robert Kraft was on board for a Boston franchise, they decided the time was right, paying a reported $20 million for a New York club. Sterling was announced as New York’s ownership group last July.
Franchise in hand, the next step was actually finding players. Good scouting was going to be crucial, but unlike in baseball, the club didn’t have an army of bird dog scouts ready to sniff out top prospects.
The Wilpons turned their attention to South Korea, a video-game hotbed where Overwatch has been popular since its release in 2016. Some members of Sterling VC went to Korea, while in New York, Scott Wilpon and Kamel worked overnight schedules for two months to aid the search despite the time difference.
“We spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people,” Scott Wilpon said. “And we just pounded the pavement until we got to the people who really knew what was going on in the esports space.”
The hunt led them to LuxuryWatch Blue, a successful Overwatch club on a major Korean circuit. The players were skilled, and their coaches had an impressive grasp on the game’s analytics — yes, esports has sabermetrics, too.
NYXL signed nearly the entire roster, including the coaches, and supplemented it with a few pieces. Perhaps most crucially, the LuxuryWatch imports included hyped prospect Sung-Hyeon “JJoNak” Bang. The 18-year-old never got in a match for LuxuryWatch, but as a rookie with NYXL, he was named regular season MVP. He’s fit in seamlessly with the LuxuryWatch veterans to form an Overwatch super team.
“We felt if we could acquire a roster of players who had experience playing together in this team sport, that would translate into putting us in a better position to succeed in Year One,” Scott Wilpon said.
The players are each making at least the league minimum of $50,000 per season, plus benefits, and Sterling has provided luxuries like a team house in Los Angeles complete with a chef and physical trainer. The entire league has been based in LA for the first year, until franchises can find their own arenas back home. The league hopes to begin playing true home-and-away matches in the next year or two.
In the meantime, one of the biggest challenges for the franchises is figuring out how to connect their teams with their home cities. Sterling has brought NYXL’s players to New York when the regular season schedule has allowed, and Jeff Wilpon even organized a party for the team at Citi Field in April. When that day’s scheduled Mets game was rained out, NYXL moved its fan meet-and-greet from the seats to a brewery located in the stadium. Hundreds of Overwatch fans showed up, forming a line outside the brewery at an otherwise empty ballpark.
“That fan has already existed in the New York market,” Scott Wilpon said of the esports followers. “No one’s organized the community and serviced them at a high level, and that’s the opportunity that’s present to us today.”
Sterling hasn’t had to do all the organizing itself. An independent fan group has been hosting watch parties in Manhattan and drew more than 100 rowdy fans to a bar for a match near the end of the regular season. Even though NYXL had already locked up the top seed, the bar had an electric buzz. The atmosphere would put a typical NFL Sunday watch party to shame.
“To see that take shape this early in the lifespan of the league is really exciting,” Nanzer said.
If NYXL gets through the playoffs to the Grand Finals, Jeff Wilpon will be among the thousands at Barclays Center for the two-day championship event. Tickets sold out quickly to see the teams compete for a $1.4 million prize pool, and ESPN partnered with the league last week to broadcast some of the championship on its flagship network in prime time.
After that, the league is eyeing major expansion. Currently with 12 teams spread across three continents, it wants 28 franchises, and Blizzard is already planning for how to create a home-and-away schedule that spans the globe.
For NYXL, the next hurdle is finding a home arena, something it hopes to do by 2020. Sterling has been scouting existing locations in the city, and Scott Wilpon says the group wants to find a spot that can house at least 1,000 fans per match.
Until then, Sterling will continue trying to foster a relationship with New York fans through watch parties and other events.
One thing that would really help? First dibs on the Overwatch League championship trophy.
“We’d like to keep playing well,” Jeff Wilpon said. “So that’s key.”
By JAKE SEINER, AP Sports Writer, Associated Press