No finals, no problem: NYXL popup brings in the fans

A large crowd of people lines up outside the New York Excelsior popup store in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday as the Overwatch League finals are about to take place at Barclays Center nearby. Jacob Wolf/ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- For two days, Atlantic Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Brooklyn, has played host to fans of the Overwatch League, which on Friday and Saturday sold out the Barclays Center for its inaugural championship.

The event featured the Philadelphia Fusion and the London Spitfire, the league's two best teams, in two best-of-three series. And while the New Yorker-heavy crowd welcomed the London and Philly teams to their home in Barclays, the several hundred people lined up outside of 472 Atlantic were on a mission: Score some New York Excelsior merchandise at the team's nearby popup store.

For the better part of the seven-month season, the Excelsior was the best team in the Overwatch League -- and in what seemed like destiny, the championship event was coming to New York. But the Fusion upset the Excelsior in the semifinals, and took a homecoming away from the local favorite.

"We welcome other people because we didn't make the finals and unfortunately, it got scheduled here," Excelsior fan Freddy, who bought his tickets for the event in May, told ESPN. Freddy was one of the several hundred lined outside of the popup around 1 p.m. on Saturday.

"The match starts at 4, [so I'm willing to wait until then.] I got this because it was cool," pointing to his event hat featuring Spitfire and Fusion logos on the crown. "I gotta get some New York gear."

The Excelsior said 800 of those fans lined up outside of the 7,330-square-foot vacant retail building over the course of two days for a pop-up shop with limited edition merchandise. According to Excelsior staff, the two merchandise lines -- one for sale on Friday, the other on Saturday -- were made up of 100-150 pieces per item, such as a Levi chain-stitched jacket and Undefeated Excelsior special edition jersey.

Less than a year ago, the Excelsior didn't even exist. Its founder, New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, the head of his family's venture capital group Sterling.VC, took the summer of 2017 evaluating the option of investing $20 million in the Overwatch League. It was a big ask, but for Wilpon, a lifelong friend in Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick -- whom Wilpon first met in nursery school growing up in Long Island, New York -- was more than trustworthy.

Kotick's vision? Make esports just like the traditional ones: local.

The Excelsior, more than any other team in the Overwatch League, has jumped on board with that vision.

In the Financial District in Manhattan at the Waypoint Cafe, a fan group called 5 Deadly Venoms has hosted regular New York Excelsior viewing parties and was part of the popup event. The 472 Atlantic retail space, for lease at over $67,000 per month, according to real estate firm RKF, is even owned by Sterling Equities, Sterling.VC's parent company and the Wilpon family's New York real estate empire.

On Wednesday, Excelsior player Jong-ryeol "Saebyeolbe" Park threw the opening pitch in the Mets' July bout versus the San Diego Padres. And even though the Excelsior players might not have been on stage on Friday and Saturday, their three-hour appearance for autographs at the popup shop commanded attention from fans of all Overwatch League teams.

For Excelsior vice president of consumer products Collette Gangemi and head of events Ben Nichol, the successful popup shop is the coming of age of their careers that has spanned streetwear and esports marketing, respectively.

Over her 20-year career, Gangemi has worked for the likes of Converse, Adidas, DC Shoes and Red Bull in roles related to merchandise, apparel and marketing. During her time at Red Bull, she met Nichol, a longtime esports veteran with experience at ESL, North American Star League and Red Bull, too. When he joined the Excelsior in February, she was not far behind.

"We've stood out as a team from a content standpoint and fan engagement standpoint," Gangemi told ESPN on Saturday. "We're just trying to connect the dots between streetwear and esports, which have never been connected; it's only been connected in traditional sports. Moving forward, that's how our team is going to run. That's our whole goal."

"Bottom-up instead of top-down," Nichol said. "Top-down is how esports has been done for the last 10 years. While it's super necessary to focus on the top of the pyramid, the way you create this is by going grassroots, creating a ground swell, connecting with communities and making yourself physical and important to them."

The Spitfire and Fusion might've been the main event in Brooklyn during the weekend, but it's clear that one day soon New York's home team will be welcomed in droves. It may not be Friday or Saturday, it might not even be until the team moves from Los Angeles to New York reportedly in 2020; but New York's Overwatch contingent ran strong and the Excelsior has a bright future ahead.