A tale of two Dallas Overwatch League homestands

It was a packed house at the Arlington Esports Arena. ESPN

DALLAS -- When the Dallas Fuel held the first homestand in Overwatch League last year at the Allen Event Center, it couldn't have gone better. The seats were full, there were numerous sponsorship activations along the concourse, and the home team, Fuel, won both of their matchups, capping things off with a big win over state rival the Houston Outlaws. They took the idea of what a homestand could be and executed on it to perfection, setting a high bar for every other franchise in the league to match in the coming years.

So how do you one-up yourselves after throwing what appeared to be the perfect event? That's what the Fuel had to do as they went into 2020 and were once again tasked with being the first homestand of the season alongside the New York Excelsior, moving locations from a minor league hockey venue in the Allen Event Center to Esports Stadium Arlington, the largest dedicated esports venue in North America.

The crowd for Dallas when they took the stage versus the Houston Outlaws was one of the loudest I've ever experienced in all my years covering esports, and also including the countless traditional sports events I've been at. It couldn't get better, I thought. The fans went home happy and it proved that regardless of record, the fans would come the next time the Fuel came back home.

Which is why the Fuel didn't try to reinvent the wheel during their return. They had already nailed down the sports aspect of what the Overwatch League is striving to be, so instead of changing anything, they decided to add to the spectacle at Esports Stadium Arlington. Before the official games even began in the arena portion of the venue, in the convention hall adjacent the Fuel were hosting a mini-gaming convention, chock-full of activities for the fans to partake in from playing Smash Bros. on the various televisions set up or test their strength in a carnival-style game.

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What separates the Overwatch League from the other esports I've covered is the number of families that show up to homestands. Where League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive events are primarily late-teens or 20-somethings with a few families mixed in, it almost feels the opposite when walking the halls of a Dallas Fuel homestand. Sure, there's room for the double-fisting Bud Light crowd, but for every group of teens or college students, there was a family with kid(s) in tow, all wearing their matching Fuel uniforms and face paint.

The convention aspect of the event made the homestand weekend something more than just a sporting event. For the families who didn't feel like sitting down for four straight hours, they were given an opportunity to walk around and experience everything the venue had to offer, from playing Fortnite to Minecraft.

Along with the addition of more things to do, the smaller number of games per day was more suitable for the all-ages audience. While esports have prided themselves on long hours since the dawn of the scene -- Call of Duty League's championship Sunday this weekend not ending until almost midnight local time -- that approach isn't always going to be viable. If the Fuel homestand this weekend was four matches a day and didn't finish until the wee hours of the night, the crowd would have suffered, the plethora of families inhabiting the venue not having the bandwidth to dedicate an entire day from morning to evening at an esports event.

At only two matches a day along with the gaming carnival happening right next door, the fan base had flexibility on how they want to experience an Overwatch League homestand. For the people that are only interested in Overwatch League, they can show up for the first match of the day between two non-Dallas teams and then watch the main event afterward. But if a family is there to only see the Fuel, they can hang out in the convention hall for the majority of the day, actually playing the game they came to watch their home team play, and then make their way to the arena for the main festivities.

For Fuel owner Mike "Hastro" Rufail, it's all about paving a foundation that will create an organic fanbase in Dallas. The Fuel, which have failed to make the league playoffs in back-to-back seasons, aren't worried a lack of success on the field will affect their fan base. Rufali believes that the Fuel are creating a tradition that will hopefully carry on for decades to come, with the kids and teenagers at the 2020 homestand wanting to bring their own kids to Fuel events 10 years from now.

Dallas went 0-2 on the weekend, losing to both the Los Angeles Valiant and reigning champions San Francisco Shock, but you wouldn't have ever known from looking at the fans' faces as they exited Esports Stadium Arlington on both days. In 2019, Dallas perfected what a traditional sports-like homestand could accomplish in the Overwatch League. This year for their first homestand, they expanded on their success, leaning more into the gaming culture of the league and creating an environment approachable for the hardcore esports fan and newcomer alike.

Next, though, as all franchises have to do, loyal fan base or not, the Fuel have to win. And when they do, after all the work the team has done to carve a footprint in their home city, Dallas as a whole will take notice.