LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Blizzard's new eSports league gains instant traction in Houston

Blizzard's Overwatch eSports league is off to a fast start. Courtesy photo

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Blizzard’s highly anticipated Overwatch League (OWL) and the Houston Outlaws were among its twelve original teams for the inaugural season. Despite a strong effort, the Outlaws dropped their first two matches, losing 3-2 to the Philadelphia Fusion and 3-1 to the New York Excelsior.

The new eSports league is seen as an ambitious independently produced project by the video game developer, Blizzard Entertainment, creator of the critically acclaimed, fast-paced, team-based, first-person shooter Overwatch. Unlike other shooters in the genre, Overwatch separates itself by blending elements of role-playing games with character-specific abilities and the necessity to balance said abilities during team composition.

Each team is comprised of six players and match modes used in league play include escort (one team escorts a payload while the other attempts to prevent it from advancing), assault (one team attacks a point and the other defends), capture (a king of the hill type mode), and a hybrid mode consisting of both capture and escort elements. There are four rounds to each match, consisting of one round of each mode. The team that wins the most rounds wins the match. In the event of a tie, a randomly selected tie-breaking round is played.

Houston’s first match on Thursday sent the league into its first tie-breaker round, after coming back from down two matches to one to draw even. Both teams volleyed wins back and forth, but Philadelphia would take the overtime win after sweeping the Outlaws when a control map--Houston’s apparently weakest game mode--was selected.

In their second ever contest, the Outlaws dropped to 0-2 behind a far less competitive 3-1 defeat to the New York Excelsior. Houston was able to claim the first round, an escort mode, but dropped the final three rounds in succession.

Blizzard announced at the conclusion of the first week that its season premiere online only viewership peaked at over 425,000. Online video game streaming service Twitch is reported to have spent over $90 million dollars for streaming rights to the league, which leaves OWL free to eventually pursue possible television broadcasting contracts in the future.

Locally, the official watch party on Thursday was located at The Cannon, a co-working space located just west of beltway 8 on I-10. Original predictions of 50-100 spectators were shattered when over 600 fans arrived Thursday evening, according to KTRK Channel 13.

The season itself consists of four five-week stages, with cash bonuses going to winning teams of each stage. The ensuing playoffs consist of the winners of each of the two current divisions or the top 6 teams overall. The winning team claims a $3.5 million dollar payout.

The new eSports league is a departure from traditional leagues in that its franchises are recognized geographically--much like a traditional sports league--and not by traditional team or clan names. This form of geographical franchising helped lure well-funded owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who now owns the Boston Uprising Overwatch team. Rosters are not restricted to any territory, however, which allows teams like the London Spitfire to field a team of mostly professional Korean players.

The league has also established precedent in terms of player stability throughout the season. Blizzard has mandated a base salary of $50,000 for all team members with a minimum one year stipulated in the contract. Owners are also required to furnish healthcare insurance, options for retirement savings plans, and furnish housing during the Overwatch season, which spans over 20 weeks.

For the first season, all matches will be played in a Los Angeles-based studio, however plans are in place for each of the franchises--including the internationally-based London, Seoul, and Shanghai teams--to establish their own “home field” of sorts.

While the Houston Outlaws may not have began their season with a win, the team has plenty of time to right the ship in the coming weeks. Regardless of the team’s performance, the Outlaws have already captured the attention of Houston’s gaming community, which may be the most important win of the weekend.

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Houston's winning streak moves to six

Eighth-inning rally powers Astros to series sweep over Rangers

Yuli Gurriel brought in the go-ahead run late in Sunday's game. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Winners in the first three games of this series and their last five games overall, the Astros continued their climb towards the A's for first place in the AL West. They completed the four-game sweep, ending a successful homestand on a positive note before heading on the road.

Final Score: Astros 6, Rangers 2

Astros' Record: 24-17, tied for first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Brooks Raley (2-2)

Losing Pitcher: Joely Rodriguez (1-2)

Astros strike first, McCullers Jr. goes six scoreless

After the Rangers went down 1-2-3 in the top of the first, Houston grabbed an early lead off the bat of Alex Bregman. He provided the third single of the inning, a one-out RBI to put the Astros in front 1-0, a score which would hold steady for a while. Another run didn't come across until the bottom of the fifth when Houston would load the bases with one out when Carlos Correa would get an RBI groundball to double the lead to 2-0.

Lance McCullers Jr. did well with the small lead, backing up his recent eight-inning gem with a quality start against Texas. He allowed a couple of hits each in the third and fourth but would erase the runners with no damage allowed. The Rangers threatened in the top of the sixth with a leadoff double before the runner moved to third on a wild pitch, putting him in a great position with no outs. McCullers Jr. would come away unscathed, finishing the inning and his day by retiring the next three batters. His final line: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 95 P.

Rangers tie it against Scrubb

First out of Houston's bullpen was Andre Scrubb, and he would not fare as well as the Astros starter. A leadoff single turned into a two-run game-tying homer, making it 2-2 before Scrubb would sit down the next three in order. Still tied in the top of the eighth, Brooks Raley had a terrific inning, striking out the three batters he faced.

Houston rallies ahead in the eighth for the four-game sweep

The top of Houston's order mounted a threat in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases with one out to try and regain the lead. Yuli Gurriel would come through with the go-ahead at-bat, getting a sac fly to put the Astros back in front 3-2. A two-out walk loaded the bases again, setting up Chas McCormick to provide two insurance runs on a two-RBI single.

Myles Straw added one more on an RBI single, making it a four-run game at 6-2 heading to the ninth. Enoli Paredes made his long-awaited return from the IL, appearing for the first time since April 8th to try and close things out in the ninth. He tossed a scoreless inning, finishing off the four-game sweep, extending Houston's winning streak to six games, and keeping them in step with Oakland for the AL West lead.

Up Next: After a day off on Monday, the Astros will begin a six-game road trip on Tuesday. They'll kick off a three-game set in Oakland against the A's at 8:40 PM, an exciting matchup to determine who will head into the weekend atop the division. While Cristian Javier (3-1, 3.08 ERA) is the expected starter for Houston, Oakland has not yet determined their rotation for the series.

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