NEW YORK -- On this rainy Wednesday morning in Queens, people were sprinkling into Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. There wasn't too much commotion. The Mets have not had a particularly good season, going 41-57 and sitting last in the National League East. A midseason game on a rainy Wednesday afternoon probably didn't help attendance either.
To the right of the main entrance to the stadium was Overwatch League player Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol, hanging out with his wife and friends and chatting in Korean. Saebyeolbe made his way from Los Angeles to throw out the first pitch for Wednesday's game between the Mets and San Diego Padres. If he had any pre-pitch jitters, he hid it well, despite saying so.
"So I've played a lot of Overwatch matches as a pro gamer," Saebyeolbe said. "But I'm more nervous about this than any other game that I've played."
Saebyeolbe is team captain for the New York Excelsior, a team in the Overwatch League that's owned by Sterling Equities, which also owns the Mets. With the Overwatch League grand finals set to take place between the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion this weekend, the sports and esports world will be looking to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There, the world will see the finale of the new esports league where owners dropped $20 million for a franchise spot.
Think of the Overwatch League as the esports equivalent of the NFL, and this weekend will showcase its first Super Bowl.
Saebyeolbe moved from his native Seoul to Los Angeles to play for the NYXL in late 2017. His parents split up when he was 11, which he says was hard on him and his sister. He also didn't enjoy going to school, but his mom pushed him into sports, specifically bowling.
He eventually worked his way up and became a professional bowler. Even now as a professional gamer, Saebyeolbe blows on his fingers as a nervous tick from his bowling days. At 17, Saebyeolbe fell in love with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but because South Korea has mandatory military service, he had to pack up and go to basic training. Saebyeolbe injured his knee while he was in the military and was discharged early. Unable to do much physical activity, Saebyeolbe picked up Overwatch, as it was more popular than CS:GO at the time. Given his 5,000 hours of experience in CS:GO, which is also a first-person shooter, he quickly ascended the Overwatch ladder.
There was a dissonance to seeing Saebyeolbe being treated with the pomp and circumstance by the Mets when there was very little fanfare around him. Back in South Korea and among the Overwatch faithful, Saebyeolbe is a major celebrity. But at Citi Field, he was just another guy. Granted, Saebyeolbe doesn't carry himself as a celebrity. He jokes around, kisses his wife, and likes to turn to the camera with a thumbs-up for photos.
The media was given a small tour of Citi Field, where they met Jeff Wilpon, and made small pleasantries. Wilpon gave Saebyeolby some advice, telling him to throw high, and to not underestimate the distance between the mound and the catcher. In the batter's cage, Saebyeolbe didn't feel uncomfortable or out of touch with a ball.
"I saw a lot of bad first pitches on YouTube, so I've been practicing a lot so it doesn't happen to me," Saebyeolbe said.
With ease he threw a baseball back-and-forth with a kid in a Mets jersey. After some practice, press interviews, and more photos, the media scrum made its way up to an executive suite. The rest of the NYXL team was there, eating Shake Shack with Seong-Hyun "Jjonak" Bang reading manga on his phone. Saebyeolbe sat with his wife, where he felt most at ease.
This is only the second time Saebyeolbe has visited New York, an odd occurance considering he represents the city in the Overwatch League. But for now, all Overwatch League matches are played in the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, with the exception of the finals this weekend at Barclays. The league is working with teams to open arenas in each of the franchised cities, which include Houston, Boston, San Francisco, and Shanghai, among others.
"I feel that New York is a second home. I love the city. I like looking at the views at night," Saebyeolbe said.
But it's no Seoul and ultimately a second home. New York does have a vibrant Koreatown that has grown around the Empire State Building in midtown. And there's plenty of kimchi and sweetly marinated meats to partake in for any South Korean expat.
"There's not that much difference between here and that in Korea," Saebyeolbe said.
While Saebyeolbe wishes he were in New York to compete in the Overwatch League grand finals, he'll be taking the time to hang out with fans at the homecoming party, which will take place Thursday, a day before the competition. It will also be a bit of a reprieve from a hotly contested season, one that ended with NYXL falling short of a grand finals spot, losing to Philadelphia in the semifinals.
"How our season ended was a disappointment, but that's the past," Saebyeolbe said. "I'll be playing in the World Cup for the South Korean team. So I'll be practicing for that."
After all the food and photos, Saebyeolbe was eventually led out to the field. The rain had subsided, and fans blotted the stadium. The national anthem started to play, and Saebyeolbe's friend quickly prompted him to take off his red NYXL hat.
Then came the moment. Saebyeolbe was escorted to the mound, he clutched the ball, and threw it with a high arc to the catcher.
As Saebyeolbe walked back to his wife and friends, he looked at the ball with fondness, which had a little bit of dirt on it. His first pitch was a success, and the ball was his memento to keep.