There is nothing quite like the drama and raw emotions that sports can create. The unique bond between a franchise and its fanbase taps into an otherwise unexplored region of the human psyche where passion meets undying loyalty. For over a century, traditional sports have leveraged this relationship between team and supporter to create some of the most iconic moments in entertainment.
Stories about teams delivering a championship to their long-suffering fanbases have dominated the sports world over the last several years. The Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Philadelphia Eagles have all had curses broken, droughts ended, and fanbases elated in the last three years. Sports do that to people. They fill them with anticipation. They torture them repeated defeat. They give them a sense of overwhelming joy when the good days finally come.
It is this phenomenon that the Overwatch League hopes to tap into, and the recent matchup between the league’s two LA teams showed that the seed of passion has already been sown amongst their fans.
When Blizzard officially announced the Overwatch League back in 2016, it toed an interesting line between novel, yet familiar. The League forewent the model of other popular esports leagues, instead choosing to model their league after traditional American sports leagues like the NFL, MLB, and NBA. The league would start with two divisions containing a combined 12 permanent franchises, each based in a different city around the world. Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer explained the logic behind the decision in an interview with Polygon.
“You typically see fans of esports teams are fans of individual players, and then they kind of stick with that team over time,” Nanzer said. “But we think there’s an opportunity to bring in people who are interested in esports but maybe haven’t engaged much with it by adding that geographic element. If you look at the way that teams make money in traditional sports, a lot of that has to do with local activity. When we think about adding stability to esports and to esports teams, we think localizing esports to some degree by having the city-based teams is going to unlock additional revenue opportunities for teams that don’t exist in today’s esports ecosystem.”
So the decision serves the practical purpose of creating business opportunities while also serving a more abstract purpose of generating loyal and passionate fanbases similar to those found in traditional sports.
Wednesday night, the league’s two SoCal teams, the LA Valiant and LA Gladiators, squared off for the third time this season with the season series tied 1-1. Most recently, the Gladiators rolled the Valiant 4-0 in Stage 2. This time, something felt markedly different about the matchup between the two squads, with new faces on both sides of the battle. Custa, Bunny, and Space all joined the Valiant between Stages 2 and 3, completely changing the makeup of the team, while the Gladiators added former Valiant DPS player Silkthread to their roster.
The matchup did not disappoint as both teams brought their A-game to each of the series’ five maps. But as good as the teams played that evening, it was the crowd that regularly stole the show. Each team fight or game-changing ultimate was met with the roar of the audience and chants of “Wings Out” and “Shields Up” echoed through the arena throughout the match.
In a pivotal moment during the first half, the LA Valiant attempted to take the payload the distance on Numbani. With less than five meters to push and the game entering overtime, the two teams squared off in a sustained fight where each team had an opportunity to take the map. The moment was filled with a tension and urgency that the crowd reflected. Check out the clip below to see the passionate response from the fans of both teams.
“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard this place in my life,” said Overwatch League host Malik Forte at the beginning of Thursday’s coverage.
That moment is representative of the entire series. Each dragonblade, every overtime wick, and every highlight-worthy elimination brought with it the response you’d expect from a late game touchdown catch, extra innings walk off, or game-winning buzzer beater. The moment proved the power of a local fanbase fully invested in their team, a small glance of what the League’s long-term goal.
For now, the league has yet to realize their vision of a globally expanded product as all 12 teams compete at the Blizzard Arena in LA for the abbreviated inaugural season. But as the league grows and teams build out their home arenas, you can expect more moments like this from local fanbases. Imagine the same fans that bleed Celtics green at the TD Garden showing up to Uprising matches to cheer them on as they take on division rivals NYXL. Or the Seoul Dynasty walking into a hostile arena in San Francisco with playoff implications.
Sports live and die by how much the fans care, and geography dictates some of the most meaningful rivalries in traditional sports — Red Sox/Yankees, Duke/UNC, Clippers/Lakers.
It’s tribalism. It’s community. It’s a shared attachment to something, and pairing support for a team with love for a city bring with it a depth of emotion that few other connections give. In some ways, fandom helps us tap into some of the most meaningful aspects of life. If the Overwatch League can continue to create moments like the LA Valiant/LA Gladiators game, the league will prosper on the backs of fanbases that passionately root for their resepctive teams.