Overwatch League's 'Battle for LA' finally gives fans a reason to hate each other

One of the most interesting parts of Blizzard's plan for the Overwatch League was the idea of centering teams around cities instead of endemic esports organizations, hoping to capture the enthusiasm of regional fan bases in the same way as traditional sports leagues. But with all of the matches being played in Los Angeles—and all of the players living there too—the crowd at Blizzard Arena usually consists of a hodgepodge of different teams' fans. Only the two LA teams—the Gladiators and the Valiant—get to experience anything akin to home crowd advantage. 

However, once per stage, the two LA teams face off. The "Battle for Los Angeles," as the showdown has come to be known, has become one of the most exciting moments in all of Overwatch League. The overall series currently stands at 2-1 in favor of the Valiant, with the two teams' fourth and final meeting of the inaugural Overwatch League season taking place tonight.

It's the esports equivalent of baseball's Subway Series, featuring the New York Yankees vs. the New York Mets, or the Bay Bridge Series, where the San Francisco Giants take on the Oakland Athletics. Fans from both local teams pack the house, cheering and chanting in support of their favorite teams. The rivalry takes on a mythical form in the stands—people come in their war paint and costumes, making the fan experience almost more significant than what's happening between the two teams. The fans love it, the players love it, and it's putting Overwatch League up there with traditional sports as far as cross-town rivalries are concerned. 

"When those two teams played... I was looking down at the arena, and it literally was half purple, half green," says Overwatch League Commissioner, Nate Nanzer. "The audience had naturally segregated itself. And I was like, 'This is the birth of local esports.' You have this rivalry, you had fans jumping up and talking smack back and forth, it was really cool to see that it's happening this quickly already."

"It gives me reassurance for the longevity of the league and localization," says Gladiators head coach David Pei. "Seeing how many great LA fans we have out here—'Wings Out' and 'Shields Up' in a blur—it's kind of awesome, and I imagine it'll be like that for the Outlaws and Fuel."

"Everytime we’re facing the Gladiators, with them and us in good condition, it becomes one hell of a series," says Julien Ducros, assistant coach for the Valiant. "The first match when we reverse swept was insane, and I never saw the team so happy while winning a series."

Beyond the standard esports fare, this rivalry is significant for improving the cultural saturation of Overwatch League. When people get into it, they're establishing connections with their home teams. Fans are putting down community roots by throwing watch parties, having contests, and otherwise enjoying Overwatch League's most interesting rivalry with other like-minded fans. As Nanzer puts it, "it's been really cool to see that grassroots engagement."

What makes this particular matchup even more intriguing is how close the results have been—two of the three previous meetings went to map-five tiebreakers—and how much history some of these players have with one another. Valiant DPS Brady "Agilities" Girardi and Gladiators DPS Lane "Surefour" Roberts played for Team Canada in last year's Overwatch World Cup. Valiant players Scott "Custa" Kennedy, Indy "SPACE" Halpern, and Ted "Silkthread" Wang played for Arc6 prior to Overwatch League, with Silkthread later being traded to the Gladiators. 

The respect and camaraderie these two teams have for each other runs deep. Where rivalries in traditional sports sometimes take a bitter turn, they're met with handshakes and smiles in Overwatch League.

"We have high regards for this team as they’re really strong," says Valiant assistant coach Ducros. "This makes the Battle for LA even more interesting and important for us."

Really, what fans have with the Battle for LA is a glimpse into the potential future of not only Overwatch League, but of esports at large. It represents the absolute best in fan and team engagement, and shows us how much people love supporting the scene. If Blizzard's model proves to be sustainable once teams move away from Los Angeles to play at home arenas of their own, we could see a shift in how we view "pro sports" at a societal level.

"We want to do it as soon as we can," says Nanzer regarding teams playing in front of their home crowds. "It's going to depend on when the teams are ready. It's our number one strategic priority, and we're going to do it as quickly as we can."

As time winds down for the inaugural season and fan allegiances are solidified, matches between the Valiant and Gladiators will be looked at as the true measure of Overwatch League. Whether or not you still have your doubts, the power of seeing a sea of green and purple flood the Blizzard Arena cannot be understated. Seeing social media spammed with ads for viewing parties at local bars and universities cannot be overlooked. Shields are up and wings are out in Los Angeles, and we're fortunate enough to be witnessing a pivotal time for esports and professional Overwatch.

Be sure to catch the next round of the Battle for LA tonight at 8 pm PT