In the clay-colored buildings of Arizona State's Sun Devil Fitness Center, in the middle of a vast, sweltering desert that holds the campus close to its bosom, in a sea of ellipticals, barbells, pilates classes, and a stream of tank-topped, snapbacked meatheads scanning their student IDs at the door, Ronald Ly makes his stand.
Ly is captain of the University of Toronto Overwatch team, representing one of the four schools who carved their way through the qualifying bracket to serve as the inaugural debutantes for the Overwatch Collegiate National Championship—the first ever esports event to happen under the Fiesta Bowl brand. The university fitness center's basketball court has been outfitted with two dozen rows of plastic chairs and a massive screen projecting the chaos of a control point match to a sizable gathering of fans, executives, and cosplayers. With a little bit of luck on Ly's side, this will be the beginning, not the end.
"In my original career path I wanted to be a teacher or something," he says outside the tournament hall, next to a few abandoned ping-pong tables. "I feel like as if I belong here. I don't think I'd want to do anything else."
If you're unfamiliar with the name, the Fiesta Bowl is one of the six biggest postseason games in college football—typically played on New Year's Eve or Day alongside the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Peach, and Orange Bowls.
On the evening before this event's finale, a small platoon of press people were herded into the Fiesta Bowl museum to absorb the halls decked with bronzed trophies and vintage photographs detailing the 47-year history of the game. Staffers in sandy blazers expressed their humbled fascination that Blizzard Entertainment was bringing a first-person shooter to the place where quarterback Colt McCoy once completed 41 of his 59 passes.
We drank America-branded Budweisers and toasted the brand new world, a legacy that now includes both Widowmaker and Willis McGahee.
The Overwatch League is in its first season, and just concluded its quarterly championship with the London Spitfire besting the New York Excelsior in a nervy reverse sweep. Ly was keeping tabs every step of the way. He's a senior now, a few short months away from completing his degree in philosophy, but he's also been putting in work as a third-party associate for the Boston Uprising.
The winners of the Fiesta Bowl will get their tuitions paid off by Blizzard, a gracious send-off the company has replicated in its other collegiate programs for Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. But everyone in the scene knows Overwatch is a different beast. After graduation, Ly won't be condemned to fight tooth and nail for piddling tournament purses and rickety sponsorships if he chooses to pursue Overwatch as a career.
Participation in the Overwatch League promises a guaranteed salary, health insurance, and long-term contracts—all funded by the pooled capital of some of the wealthiest sports brokers in the world. Ly is here for the love of the game, of course, but it'd be unrealistic to say that the prospective benefit package didn't affect his thinking.
"It's a huge part of why my parents even let me pursue this. They're very traditional. They push me to be a teacher or a lawyer. I told them like, 'Listen, things are changing. The minimum salary is $50,000 a year,'" explains Ly. "Blizzard wants to take care of their players, and they understand that a lot of us are young."
That's the thing I found most enchanting about the Overwatch Fiesta Bowl. The advent of the Overwatch League has recontextualized these events as potential feeding grounds for the future. Traditionally, college athletics in America has served as the feeder leagues for the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB. The framework promised by the OWL has, at the very least, lit an optimism among college-aged Overwatch players that they could be next. Ly tells me that everyone in his peer group is sizing up the opportunity to make a career out of esports, and he's genuinely thankful that Blizzard has given him the opportunity to contend on an amateur level while he takes care of his studies: "It wouldn't have been an option without them."
That said, Overwatch League already has a farm organization in place with Overwatch Contenders, where pro teams field aspiring players looking to cut their teeth in hopes of someday getting called up to the main roster. Structurally it resembles the systems in place for top-tier European soccer squads, who routinely assign teenage prospects to their developmental camps in hopes of inking them to a full-time contract by the time they're 17 or 18. (The idea of those players ever engaging in a college career is out of the question.) Marrying esports culture with young players looking to turn pro creates new challenges for Blizzard.
"It's something that we're looking a lot at right now," says Adam Rosen, one of the founders of Tespa, the Blizzard-owned organization that conducts their college esports initiatives. "We think about Blizzard esports as an ecosystem, because we think there is a good opportunity for these levels to play into each other. In sports there's this really clear model, but in esports we see a lot of players peak a lot younger.
"You can be the best player in the world at 17. So we think of collegiate esports as a way for people to play competitively while they're in school, but we also think it could be a viable path for someone to play in a professional league, and go back to school and still have the opportunity to play while pursuing a career they love."
Ronald Ly didn't win the big one. His underdog University of Toronto squad fought valiantly, and managed to take the first game off the eventual champions UC Berkeley, but they were eventually put down 3-1. Ly gives a pep talk to each of his teammates, shedding a few tears when he needs to. The message is simple: This is not the end. It is the fragile uncertainty of any college kid who's about to finish their degree, except magnified under the weight of a famously volatile industry. God bless Overwatch League for allowing him to dream. I sure hope it doesn't break his heart.
"I think Blizzard understands that this can be a thing if they do it right," finishes Ly, more determined than at any other point in our conversation. "I don't think it's going away anytime soon. It's within grasp now."