Now folks, I’m no stranger to esports. I don’t have to yell NO at it when it offers me sweets in the street, which it often does, actually. We’re friends, me and esports. Pals. Chums. I can’t tell you it’s been smooth sailing right from the off, that we’ve gotten on as famously as Jeeves and Wooster since day one, but undeniably in the last year or so we’ve gotten real close, and I’ve at long last uncovered a side of esports I always wanted to see. A side I Understand and Care About. So, dispensing with this slightly creepy metaphor before it gets out of hand, you may be forgiven for thinking the gist of this post is merely Man Sits Down To Enjoy Something He Enjoys, which I suppose it is, but there is at least a little more story to it than that. For a start, I’ve never before gotten through watching an entire Overwatch match… Shock. Horror. Awe.
A Bizarre Space
Esports currently occupies a bizarre sort of space. On the one hand, it’s a burgeoning, astronomical new business. A new type of glitzy, frontline entertainment with American bombast and polish and money. Prize funds are in the millions, sponsorships come from the likes of Audi and DHL, thousands of people attend LIVE events, and millions more watch online. Pros are famous, lauded athletes, paid outrageous amounts of money, who retire at 22 because their reflexes dipped two tenths of a second and they’ve become useless wastes of incredibly wealthy space.
On the flip side – most people outside or even on the fringes of the gaming ‘world’, will usually repeat the word ‘esports’ at you with a slight inflection indicating both disbelief and derision. Sometimes there’ll even be a shake of the head as they feel themselves drift slightly further from their youth and slightly closer toward a copy of The Daily Mail. Ahem. Millions and millions enjoy esports, to the tune of millions and millions of pounds, but millions and millions more just don’t get it.
And maybe they never will?
And you know what? I see why. I mean admittedly, when you say 17 thousand screaming fans in an arena, and a cantering net-worth in the billions and still going, I’d have presumed that would convince even the most withered octogenarians among us. But alas. So where does my understanding come from?
I’ve grown up playing Counter-Strike (though you’d never, ever know it watching me play) and as such my affinity to it as a sport comes from this innate nostalgia, this familiarity. I can tell what’s happening as soon as I look at CS game, mostly. Is that because CS is a simple game, or because I just know it well? Is the barrier for entry that you have to be an expert?
I’m really poor at Counter-Strike
Even knowing the game so well, it took me a while to get acclimatised to the format, to what Pro Competitive Gaming looked like, to understand what in the blue hell was going on. It was a bit like being whipped through the streets at first, keeping up with right-angled team-leaping camera switching, quick rounds, and Grand National style lightning-fast commentary. But eventually it clicked, I began to really enjoy it, and now Pro Counter-Strike is something I actively follow. But the headline here of course is, as someone who knows the game, esports still felt a bit alien at first.
Also pretty poor at Overwatch
The Overwatch League then, is only in its second season, (compared to Counter-Strike, that’s had a competitive scene basically since its release in 1999, but certainly since Counter-Strike: Source’s polish came out in 2004) but is already one of the most well-presented, glossy esports around. Run entirely by the developer themselves (again, unlike Counter-Strike’s many fractured independent tournaments run by separate orgs) teams are split by their cities (L.A, Seoung, New York, Paris etc) and compete in a single league for end-of-season glory. Like their location-based football counterparts though, the players aren’t necessarily from town of the team they play for.
I’m a big fan of the game, owning copies on both Playstation and PC, and jumping into a match or two on either console has become part of my day-to-day gaming routine, especially of late. Despite knowing a fair amount about the game, I’d tried jumping into see some pro Overwatch on Twitch before, and boy is it like someone just flashing a strobe light at your eyes. Everything went at 100 miles an hour and I came away in sort of blinkered daze.
SO, last Sunday, I saw our very own London Spitfire were playing Toronto Defiant in Stage 4 of the league, broadcast at an alarmingly reasonable hour. So I grabbed a beer and put the match on as you might a footy game, and figured I’d see if I could get to grips with it.
Whether it was due to my recent splurge of game time, or just my willingness to sit down and really watch – I got hooked.
London Spitfire V Toronto Defiant
The pre-amble is Sky-Sports-level glossy, showcasing the line up for each team, clips of highlight performances so far in the league, and predictions from the casters. The team come out of their dug-out-style backstage looking a little bit like competitors in an illegal child wrestling competition.
Inb4 ‘how do you know what an illegal child wrestling competition looks like, Rob’
Quickly I got on board with my team (they’re my team now) – London Spitfire is home to some of the most notable players on the Overwatch scene in Profit and Gesture. Fury, who often runs D.Va, also my chosen main, is another highlight. Having these demonstrably excellent players onside makes getting behind the team so much easier, and to my surprise, where I’d gotten lost in the proceedings beforehand, I followed this time with ease.
Map 1 – Ilios
Within minutes of the first map, a Control Point match type on Ilios, I’m in. Before long, I’m involuntarily yelling ‘how is she still alive!?’ at Spitfire’s Sombra, as she snakes her way through a hectic battle to help flip the point over early. As the London side hold on all the way up to 97% control, Defiant make a strong play lead by Gods’ devastating Roadhog rampage that turns the tide back again. Toronto put in a powerful defensive performance as London regroup with a push lead by Bdosin’s Moira, and a timely release of her Ultimate ‘Coalescence’. It’s not enough to save the Spitfires though as they concede the first round. Now there’s a game on.
It should be noted I’ve managed to not use defiant Defiant throughout this whole article
A dominant Defiant went on to secure the second round and take the first map home. So suddenly I was rooting for the underdog – my natural state.
Map 2 – Anubis
Anubis was the setting for Map 2 with Defiant tasked with attacking two Capture Points. Spitfire managed a solid stonewall though to keep Defiant off the point as the seconds ticked down. Switching to attack, Spitfire’s Profit delivered in style for his fans, with his Gengi play securing the map and levelling out the points at one a piece.
Map 3 – Hollywood
Map 3 came in the form of Payload on Hollywood, where the duelling dragons of Profit and Ivy’s Gengis punctuated the final straight of the first round. Despite another strong Orissa / Roadhog composition outing for Defiant, London’s last push was unstoppable. Switching to attack, Defiant couldn’t get the Payload off the start line, with Spitfire’s impenetrable comp putting them ahead at last.
Map 4 – Junkertown
As Map 4 rolled around, the void where a sportsman would be in my soul wanted Defiant to level so we’d head onto a deciding Map 5, but I had no such luck. The second Payload map of the evening, Junkertown pushed both sides into identical comps, and while Spitfire sailed through the first two points, time disappeared for them at the two thirds point, and the last chaotic push couldn’t make it to the end. Spitfire switched to defence hoping two out of three would be enough.
London got a strong foothold in early, running down the clock with the Payload sat outside the first point, and Yakpung finally guiding it through for Defiant. An almost identical scramble before the second point saw Toronto scrape it over the line there as well, but it wouldn’t get much further. With dominant plays in Defiant’s last push from Profit’s Hanzo, slicing through one Toronto attack, and leaving only enough time for a second push to be dealt with with similar ease, London held out to take the points.
Where do I get my London Spitfire merch?
The full match stream took an hour and a half, and by the end of it, I was sold.
As esports grows and its variables in its games and competition formats become slicker and more geared toward a viewing experience, it will be easier for newcomers to get involved. For all its problems (and there really are a few), esports is an exciting place right now and I implore you to give it a go.