It’s an unseasonably cold night in March and the weather has chilled the energy that usually radiates from the many sports bars that line Boston’s Canal Street. Normally the go-to spot for pre and post-game revelries, Canal Street is dead.
However, towards the end of the street, nestled in the shadow of “The Garden,” there’s one bar that’s still alive. The Boston Sports Grille, flanked on either side by empty bars playing nothing but March Madness games, is erupting with the cheers, hoots and hollers normally reserved for the New England Patriots.
Except this isn’t Patriots season. And only four of the bar’s more than dozen massive screens are dedicated to March Madness. The rest? Those are reserved for Boston’s newest sports team: the Overwatch League’s Boston Uprising.
As the first proper esports team to represent the city, the Uprising face a daunting task: to enter a sports culture with a tremendous amount of history, one built on the backs of championship teams and the fans that live and die by them. But how can a team that doesn’t play in and never even been to its hometown approach that task?
Uprising fans have taken it upon themselves to integrate the team into Boston’s sports culture. By working with local sports bars to organize viewing parties for Uprising games, like the one at the Boston Sports Grille, fans have adapted a staple of Boston culture – the sports bar - to work for their team. The name “Boston” means something for local sports fans, and the Uprising are an extension of that identity.
“We just want to go to a bar and watch the Uprising like we watch the Pats, Celtics and Bruins,” said Matthew Sidman, a fan, just as the Uprising executed a team kill and the crowd roared. “The energy here is just as strong as in other sports. The passion is there.”
Building a home base
Uprising fans are, if nothing else, passionate.
With TVs streaming Twitch instead of ESPN, flags waving in the air, bodies covered in blue and yellow jerseys, Uprising fans have taken to the team with the same intensity they have for the Red Sox or Patriots. It’s the kind of diehard commitment that’s needed to introduce a new team - and a new sport – to an athletic ecosystem that’s built on history and success.
“If any team would have their fans who aren’t even at the game paint their chests and watch the game on their laptop it would be our fans,” said Mikias “Snow” Yohannes, one of the Uprising’s support players.
Watch parties like this have popped up across the country, with one in Houston attracting nearly 600 people for the Houston Outlaws season opener. But none have happened as consistently or as often as Boston’s.
According to Andrew Merriman, who organizes the watch parties at the Boston Sports Grille, the intensity of Uprising fans has as much to do with the Uprising’s mostly local network as it does the natural passion of Boston sports fans. Relationships and connections first forged on the team’s Discord channel are brought to life in Boston’s sports bars
“Within the Overwatch League community, we’re one of, if not the, smallest fan bases,” said Merriman. “A lot of people early on latched onto players and a lot of the Boston Uprising guys were completely unknown people before the Overwatch League. So we didn’t have much of a fanbase coming into it, so we had to build it from scratch.”
The end result is a small but loyal fanbase that’s almost entirely based in the Boston area. Most teams don’t have that. Because the fanbase is so centrally located, it makes it easy for relationships and connections that were first formed on the team’s Discord channel to become even stronger in a live setting. By the time fans arrive at the Boston Sports Grille they already feel like they know each other.
Of course, Overwatch is also perfect live viewing parties. A single play can make the difference in a match, providing the kind of moment to moment drama that fuels barroom viewing, the kind of drama that Boston sports fans are used to.
That night at the Boston Sports Grille 150 fans packed the bar to capacity. People were standing in between tables, drinks in hand, cheering after every Pulse Bomb multi-kill from Striker or primal rampage from Gamsu. By the end of the second match, with Boston leading the Los Angeles Gladiators 2-0, the crowd was ready to blow the roof off the building.
The Boston Sports Grille, as the de facto hub of Uprising fandom, continues to grow, each game drawing a crowd larger than the last, as bar owners are slowly becoming aware of just how much demand there is for a local esports community.
“All the bars in the area host games for actual physical teams, so I can only imagine it’s going to keep growing,” said Kayla Harrity, an event manager at The Greatest Bar. “People will probably start fighting over the different teams and different viewing parties”
Help from above
For the most part, fans have done all this themselves. However, the Kraft Group, the team’s owner and a name any New England sports fan is familiar with, has tried to hop on board too, lending support to fans where it can. Along with cross-promotional marketing with other Boston sports fans, the organization will send representatives to watch parties where they’ll hand out free swag and organize raffles.
Despite its strength as a traditional sports organization, the Kraft Group is still working to understand this new market.
“So far the majority of [viewing parties] have been fan-centric, people reaching out to us and letting us know,” said Jennifer Ferron, the chief marketing officer for the Kraft Group. “Part of that is we don’t have a robust grassroots department right now.”
The Kraft Group did start the season off strong organizing a viewing party for the team’s first game of the season, a virtual homecoming for the Uprising. Held at The Greatest Bar, the event had an expected turnout of around 50 fans. More than 250 fans came out that night.
“This felt like watching one of those college football games, with people going wild and really, truly invested emotionally,” said Samir Daouk, an event manager at The Greatest Bar who was there that night.
Daouk still gets calls every week about when the next viewing party will be. Those calls were answered when Blizzard decided to hop on the bandwagon. Blizzard hosted an equally packed watch party at The Greatest Bar to coincide with PAX East and the start of Stage 3.
Footage of The Greatest Bar’s viewing party made its way online, eventually landing on the Uprising’s official Twitter, where the players themselves got their first taste of what it means to play for Boston.
All the intensity and passion coming their way from fans was great, but it also brought with it an intense amount of pressure. The legacy of success in Boston sports was something many players were unaware of coming into the season, since most of them aren’t American and haven’t even been to Boston.
To make up for this, the Kraft Group’s President of Gaming Chris “HuK” Loranger actually sat his players down and showed them what comes with representing the city of Boston.
“One of the days that we were playing playoffs in England, we went to Dave & Busters and we rented a room and turned on the [Patriots] playoff game and [the players] saw the stadium and the crowd,” recalled Loranger. “I think they slowly but surely learned that reputation.”
Loranger is one of the few members of the team that’s actually been to Boston and understands the pressure that comes with representing a city so used to success. It can be overwhelming, but it’s a challenge, he says, the team is more than ready to accept.
“I think the more you understand it the more pressure you’re going to feel about it, but overall we just want to do the best job that we can,” said Loranger.
Even with that awareness, the physical distance between players and the city they’re representing remains the main challenge to Blizzard’s idea of localized esports. But what the league lacks in physical proximity it makes up for with fan engagement. In esports the barrier between fan and player is much less present with fans regularly communicating with players through Discord and social media.. For players who would normally feel like outsiders, it’s helped close the distance.
“You’d think I’d be considered an outsider but when you immerse yourself in the city you represent you find out so many cool things about who [fans] are, what they represent and what they like to do,” said Yohannes, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Texas when he was four years old. “[The fans] tell you all about it and you feel like you’re a part of the family. At first it was a little weird but very quickly it became like you’d lived there your whole life.”
Fans want their players to feel like a part of Boston even if they haven’t been there because the promise of locally-based teams remains enticing, a promise not yet fulfilled. Contrary to the way traditional sports have moved with the tides of globalization, Blizzard is trying to localize a global form of entertainment. That’s meaningful for cities like Boston that already have strong regional sports cultures. However, it’s still unclear when that original vision for the OWL will become a reality.
“There are a lot of requirements that need to be met before the teams can [move],” said Kristin Connelly, director of marketing for the OWL. “The biggest one is, of course, the establishment of venues in each location.”
Uprising fans are patient - for the moment. Short visits from the team (like the one New York Excelsior players recently took) can tide fans over, but they’re working with the assumption that the team will in fact come home.
“Hopefully there’s more than just a name and they do become local,” said Merriman. “That’s how esports are. We’re just kind of used to it. If three years down the line they’re still not here, then what the hell?”
When or where the Uprising will arrive in Boston is still up for grabs, but if the intent behind the Overwatch League was to localize professional gaming, Uprising fans have done just that. They’ve taken the league’s promise and turned it into a reality in order to bring the Uprising home. Much like their team, they’ve made something out of nothing.