It's Friday, January 19th, and the Florida Mayhem are about to take on the Shanghai Dragons. The Mayhem come galloping out in Gangnam Style fashion, big smiles on their faces. Once they've all reached the stage, they do a synchronized lasso move from the iconic dance before taking their seats. After moving into a downtown LA apartment, adjusting to rigorous practice schedules away from home, and getting used to the spotlight that comes with being an Overwatch League player, they prepare for a match that hordes of unsigned players wish they could participate in.
Last spring and summer were dark times for Overwatch esports. Blizzard's ambitious Overwatch League had been announced back at BlizzCon 2016, but there were still many unknowns. Between a lack of many large-scale tournaments with attractive payouts and rumors of hefty buy-in fees to be involved in Overwatch League's nebulous future, many esports organizations began leaving the scene altogether.
Deserving pros from around the world were left to brave a free agent landscape with a very uncertain future. Among them was the roster of Movistar Riders, a European esports organization based in Spain. Despite winning the Overwatch PIT Championship and qualifying for Overwatch Contenders Season One, Movistar decided not to renew the team's contracts.
"I mean, to be real, to persevere through it—it was really rough," says Johan "CWoosH" Klingestedt, the current main tank for the Mayhem and former DPS for Movistar Riders. "During that time, it was a very unstable scene. People were dropping their rosters left and right, so I didn't know what was going to happen."
Things started looking up towards the end of 2017. Organizations that were OWL-bound began evaluating and signing the best free agents on the market. The lucky few—like CWoosH, who played for Sweden in the Overwatch World Cup—found a home on one of the now city-based Overwatch League teams. Soon the Swede was on a plane to Los Angeles, set to join legendary players like TviQ and Zebossai on the Florida Mayhem, forging a path into the brave new world of Overwatch esports.
Finding a new home
Gone are the days of late night practices and scrims to accommodate work and school schedules. Overwatch is life now for players in the league, and, much like with any other sport, they put in long hours on an almost daily basis to be the absolute best they can be. It's not from the comfort of their bedrooms, either. Teams commute to physical locations across Los Angeles, including private campuses and the Blizzard Arena, for coaching sessions, scrims with other Overwatch League teams, VOD reviews, and anything else they feel is necessary before their next match.
"We go to the campus around 11 am and we get back around six or seven," says Brady "Agilities" Girardi, DPS player for the Los Angeles Valiant. "After that, we have free time to do whatever—go out and socialize, go to our apartments and stream, play ranked, do whatever we want from there. We have free time on the weekend, or one day off after our last match during OWL Season."
The Houston Outlaws, on the other hand, practice at the Blizzard Arena, taking advantage of the tournament client's higher tickrate—simulating actual tournament play. "We mostly practice against other teams that are at the venue," says former player and Outlaws coach Adam "MESR" De La Torre. "Players can also still practice at home by playing ranked games, but that's mostly just to stay warmed up or for fun."
Moving to Los Angeles for the inaugural Overwatch League season was a big step for most of the players and staff. While some have been in the area for some time, others flew in from around the world to begin their careers in the league, and are now adjusting to new schedules, a new language, new food, and a new way of life in an unfamiliar city.
"I think overall, everyone loves LA," says CWoosH, who moved from Sweden. "Me personally, I know for sure that this city—the inhabitants, the diversity clicks with me. I like it a lot. I like the weather, I like the food. It's amazing. I think the team really likes it."
The Mayhem spends a lot of time together outside of practice and matches too, bonding over ping pong or old console games—"whatever can get us a laugh," CWoosH says. "We do a lot of different things together, and I think that's really, really important in why we have good synergy and teamwork."
"We flew in together," adds Vytis "Mineral" Lasaitis, a former player also from Sweden who now coaches the Mayhem. "I think both of us on the ride to the house, we were looking around like 'Wow, we're finally here.' It was a little surreal."
Living situations vary from team to team, but they're all located pretty close to the Blizzard Arena. The Mayhem live downtown, so they have about a 30 minute commute to the arena. Further out, the Valiant have apartments in Marina del Rey, roughly 45 minutes from the venue. The Gladiators share two houses near the arena. Other teams live in the same apartment complexes just a few minutes away.
"We're right here in Burbank," says Outlaws coach MESR. "We have an apartment complex that we share with two, maybe three other teams. We're all pretty much in the same general area, like a few minutes' drive."
Players are on strict schedules, so time to socialize with each other is limited. Most interaction with opposing teams happens at the player lounge inside the Blizzard Arena. It's a popular spot—many players and coaches joke that finding an open spot in the lounge can be quite difficult.
Additional downtime is spent nurturing their personal fan bases on Twitch—especially since many OWL pros were popular streamers before being recruited into the league. You would think that after eight-plus hours a day at the mouse and keyboard, players might want some time away from the screen, but many unwind by streaming games like Injustice 2, Fortnite, or even more Overwatch.
Playing in Overwatch League is still a job
Players have dealt with uncertain futures, brand new rosters, and the kind of lifestyle change that leaves your head spinning, for better or worse. Now come the joys of being thrown into money and fame.
The league has guaranteed players at least $50,000 a year plus benefits, but individual player salaries remain team secrets for the most part. The outlier is Jay "Sinatraa" Won, whose infamous $150,000 contract with the San Francisco Shock was announced publicly before the preseason. For the Los Angeles Gladiators, co-president Eric Ma and director of esports Charlie Lipsie determine player salaries, according to a representative. They specified that "salaries differ based on individual value to the team."
Coming off an amazing five-map set against the Valiant recently, it's impossible to see which Gladiators player was more or less valuable than any other. The team also only has seven players, just one more than the league minimum. If teams with large rosters such as the Philadelphia Fusion operate similarly, that would make quite a bit of sense. In any case, it is interesting to know that at least one team does pay based on individual value.
Every coveted spot on an Overwatch League roster is monitored closely by both Blizzard and the teams themselves. Playing on Overwatch's biggest stage gets you a nice paycheck and jersey with your name on it, but you also need to act like you belong in one of the most significant esports leagues of our time. Unfortunately, some players haven't been respecting their positions as well as they could be.
The most recent example is from the London Spitfire. Jun-Young "Profit" Park was caught flipping off his face camera before a match against the San Francisco Shock on January 24. It seemed strange at the time, but he later explained that he didn't realize the camera was live on the broadcast. It was supposedly meant for some coaches and teammates that were joking with him from the dugout. Regardless, he was fined $1,000 by the league, and the Spitfire will not be contesting the ruling.
pic.twitter.com/glk51lydCYJanuary 25, 2018
Then, of course, there's the case of Félix "xQc" Lengyel, tank for the Dallas Fuel and legendary streamer. After some heated, on-stream banter with Austin "Muma" Wilmot of the Houston Outlaws, the league fined xQc $2,000 and suspended him for four games, a decision that the Fuel followed by suspending him for the rest of stage one, which ends on February 9. Both xQc and Muma have apologised, amounting the remarks to friendly, if heated, banter. But friendly or not, xQc's comments were homophobic and should never have been said in the first place. Players are now representatives of the Overwatch League. That supersedes whatever stardom they've achieved through their personal streams, and whatever "personas" put them on the virtual map.
Even the universal gaming sign of disrespect, the tea-bag, has already seen action in Overwatch League. You'd think that simulating the dunking of one's testicles on a fallen enemy wouldn't be a topic of discussion for a professional league, yet here we are, with Jake Lyon of the Houston Outlaws having recently tea-bagged Dallas Fuel players. Though it's not as big a deal in a casual setting, maintaining complete professionalism in a league match should be a priority. Competitive gaming has a legacy of promoting juvenile, if not toxic, behavior. If not quashed quickly, that behavior will become Overwatch League's legacy too—something every potential sponsor and new fan will see.
Looking into the not-so-distant future
One of the most unique aspects of Overwatch League is that it offers players benefits such as health insurance and a retirement plan. ("It's like working a regular job," says Connor "Avast" Prince, support player for the Boston Uprising. "I have an employee portal where I can sign in and see my benefits, how my taxes break down, and to make sure I'm paid on time.")
Blizzard wants to make sure that its talented players are treated like professionals, and that there's something in place to help them get by after it's time to hang up the mouse—something sorely lacking in esports. But of the players we spoke with, most didn't seem to be too concerned about retirement just yet. They're wrapped up in the excitement of Overwatch League and are just happy to be there at all.
Staff seem to be of a similar mind, at least for the moment. Like various trade and call-up windows that exist in traditional sports, Overwatch League's midseason signing period opened up about a week ago. While that might give underperforming players cause for concern in the coming seasons, no one's job seems to be in jeopardy just yet. One coach suggested that players won't be dropped outright for "something ridiculous" like not meeting immediate expectations.
The big pieces of the puzzle are in place for Blizzard and most Overwatch League teams. Some players could use a bit more polish in the professionalism department, teams are still looking for those sponsors, and top-tier names need to get signed, but things are looking up. As a brand new esports product, Overwatch League has silenced the naysayers.
"I think this is more than a stepping-stone," says Kent Wakeford, COO of the Seoul Dynasty. "I think this is a defining moment in esports. People will look back at Overwatch League and compare it to the formation of the NHL or the MLB. The amount of effort, the sophistication, and the resources that have gotten behind the Overwatch League are phenomenal. It's only comparable to one of the traditional sports leagues. I think you'll see this catch on just like one of these traditional sports, if not bigger."
With impressive viewer numbers holding strong in the third week, and a packed Blizzard Arena almost nightly, the hype machine hasn't showed any signs of slowing down. Blizzard is keeping up its end of the bargain as well, having recently partnered with Toyota, T-Mobile, and Sour Patch Kids, to bring in huge, non-endemic sponsors into the league. Traditional sports leagues are big, messy things with heated rivalries, larger-than-life players, and scandals aplenty, and OWL will surely have to navigate more twists along these lines over the coming months and years. It's still very early in Overwatch League's life, but so far it's looking positive. If this isn't the definitive future of esports, it's most certainly a doorway to whatever comes next.