Washington D.C. is making a considerable push into esports, starting with the sponsorship of a major esports team and the construction of a multipurpose arena with esports primarily in mind.
Max Brown, the chairman of Events DC, which manages conventions, sports and entertainment in the District, told Mashable that the $65 million, 4,200 seat arena being built for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA will also be "fully tailored and wired for esports."
Meantime, NRG Esports, which fields teams in seven games, including Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Hearthstone, will be sponsored by Events DC going forward. (Events DC's board of directors is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council of Washington, making this effectively a city sponsorship.)
Brown told Mashable that the District’s eight universities and a sizable influx of young residents make esports a smart bet for the city.
"We think it makes a lot of sense for us as a city to plant a flag and ultimately be the capital of esports like we're the capital of the United States," Brown told Mashable.
Andy Miller, who along with NRG co-founder Mark Mastrov are part owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, noted that the international tourism Washington attracts also makes it a perfect venue for esports.
"What we want to do is get our brand — as a city and as Events DC — out into the country and across the globe in various ways," Miller said, reasoning that these visitors, seeing DC on an esports team competing overseas, may choose to take in an esports event if the city can offer it.
Miller noted that the naming arrangement is not similar to professional sports in North America, in which a club — privately owned and operated — is known by the city or state in which it plays. "We're not the D.C. NRG," he said, for example. (NRG Esports also is based in Los Angeles). However, he argued that other major U.S. cities should follow Washington's lead, and natural rivalries would emerge.
NRG Esports was founded in 2015 and has a number of investors who are well known as professional athletes. Co-owners include Shaquille O'Neal, the 15-time NBA All-Star; Jimmy Rollins, the shortstop for the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies; and Alex Rodriguez, formerly of the Texas Rangers.
The esports arena is, as many professional sports facilities financed with public money are, not without controversy. Though it will be the home court for the Mystics, it will also the practice facility for the Washington Wizards, who own their WNBA counterparts (and the Wizards are owned by Ted Leonsis, who in September bought a controlling interest in Team Liquid). The project has been criticized as a publicly funded amenity for the NBA team, with the WNBA club bootstrapped to it as good PR.
The new arena also means the Mystics move out of downtown D.C., which some view as giving the WNBA club second-class status. (The facility will be in Southeast Washington across the Anacostia River.) Originally projected to cost $55 million, another $10 million was added to the arena's price tag last summer, which Brown defended as necessary to keep the arena from being "a glorified rec center." Events DC is covering the $10 million overage. The arena is expected to open in 2018.
The financial terms of the NRG Esports sponsorship were not disclosed.