Blizzard Arena hosts all Overwatch League teams, but its colors tend to bleed either Valiant green or Gladiator purple. The two Los Angeles teams have enjoyed incredible hometown support for a full season already, leaving the others to imagine what their own local crowds might look like, what home advantage might feel like in the future. Some of them have made trips this offseason to find out, and this past Saturday it was the San Francisco Shock’s turn, as they hosted the second leg of the California Cup at Esports Arena in Oakland.
It was the team’s first time traveling to their home region as a full roster. They were there to show their best selves to a hungry local fan base, and maybe to get a little bit of revenge as well, after the LA Valiant had laid first claim to the California Cup trophy with a 3-1 win in Santa Ana just a few weeks prior. There was also a collegiate component to the day: 10 local schools competed at nearby UC Berkeley before the final two teams traveled to Esports Arena to face off in the Collegiate Clash finals.
For the Shock organization, the event was also an important opportunity to gather data about their local fans—where they’re from, what engages and excites them, how likely they are to attend future home games or buy merch.
“New York has the Five Deadly Venoms—we want that,” said Crystal, a brand ambassador who administered fan surveys all afternoon next to a large Shock-themed pachimari she had made herself. A glance around the room at all the orange—seriously, so much orange—would suggest that San Francisco’s fans are more than ready to show their colors to the rest of the world.
Some of them, like the trio of Aldon, Shelby, and Nick, are already on board and buckled in.
“It’s always cool to just fall in love with a team that represents where you’re from,” Aldon said. The three friends were some of the earliest in line for the player signing that kicked off the schedule; Shelby was able to complete her autograph collection from previous fan meets, and some of the players recognized Nick, who could honestly pass for NYXL sniper Do-Hyeon “Pine” Kim’s body double.
“The Shock are representing the Bay Area, so it’s great to see them repping us, meeting us, because they’re part of our culture now,” Nick added. “Not just video games, but geographic culture.”
The Shock have plenty of fans like these three, who know the ins and outs of the Shock players, including their personalities. Andrej “Babybay” Francisty, Aldon insisted, “can hit the dab, but he can make it look cool”—but others in attendance on Saturday were still new to the scene.
That was the case for Joshua and Genesis, who are both hardcore Overwatch players but only found out about the California Cup through the Eventbrite listing. Genesis follows the Overwatch League and considers herself a fan of the Seoul Dynasty and the Gladiators, but Joshua is still a blank slate.
“I wanna see if they can bring me into the Overwatch League with their play,” he said about the Shock.
“I would fully support SF Shock if they did [these types of events] more often,” Genesis added. “Yeah, keep doing them, bring them to us!”
Shock fans have not only embraced the idea of rooting for a local team, they’ve also locked in on the idea of cheering against the other guys. The more disdain felt for an opponent, the louder a fanbase generally gets, and Saturday was proof that the intra-state rivalry is alive and well in Overwatch. No hard feelings, LA—it’s just part of Bay Area culture.
“For us, we always relish the Warriors going against the Lakers, or the Raiders going against the Chargers, Giants versus Dodgers, Sharks versus Kings,” Aldon explained. “We always look for that kind of thing. With the Shock and the two LA teams, you always eye that matchup. But the Valiant has always been a thorn in our side, more than the Gladiators, so I think that’s why it’s really latched onto us. They’ve been a little more ahead of the curve. And especially since they won the [Pacific] Division, you want to take them out, you want to make sure you beat the top dog and show them hey, we’re coming.”
“Beat LA!” is a chant shared by all NorCal natives, and it was certainly the most common one heard throughout the day, but the regional bias didn’t stop there. During Mystery Heroes, Torbjörn became the unofficial seventh member of the Shock, and any Valiant player who eliminated a Shock Torb was roundly booed.
Another source of mock-outrage for the SF faithful was the fact that Indy “Space” Halpern, the Valiant’s flex-tank star, was matched with his signature hero more than once, prompting shouts of “This is rigged!”
“It would’ve been nice to play other heroes too,” Space said afterward with a grin and a shrug. “But getting D.Va kind of secures the win for us.”
“We got the worst RNG when it comes to that, it’s crazy,” Babybay complained jokingly. “They had the best comp coming out of spawn.”
It may be hard for outsiders to take the rivalry too seriously in a showmatch setting, especially when the intermission entertainment consisted of the lighthearted challenge videos the two teams made to promote the event. Collaborating with the Shock on the day-long shoot was a chance to get in a little inter-team bonding, according to Space—and yeah, he wants a chance at redemption in at least one of the categories.
“Probably the basketball… that was bad,” he admitted. “We were all just sitting there, shooting nothing for an hour. Eventually we were like—all right, just lower the hoop so we can actually make some shots. Everything else was really fun.”
In Oakland, the two teams shared a cozy backstage area that felt more like someone’s dorm room—any last-minute strategizing would’ve been communicated through mind-reading only. But even though the rivalry between the players themselves has always been a friendly one, it still reflects a natural fault line that bisects the state. The fans know it, and the Shock know it too—they said as much even before the inaugural season started, positioning themselves as the brash, fun-loving upstarts in contrast to LA’s more polished image.
“We really want to beat Valiant, that’s just always been a thing,” Babybay said. “We want to be the best team in California—not only in the world, but in California, regionally, as well. It’s cool to have that title.”
The Shock succeeded in claiming that title for the time being after rolling the Valiant 3-0 in the competitive showmatch to close out the event. The team has been able to work flex DPS Jay “Sinatraa” Won and support Grant “Moth” Espe back into practices after the conclusion of the Overwatch World Cup, and the Shock showed flashes of cohesion throughout the match, which they hope will elevate the raw individual skill that’s already evident throughout the lineup.
Even more satisfying for the Shock as an organization, though, is the sensation of finally playing in front of a home crowd—their home crowd. And at an estimated capacity of 800, there were officially more people at Esports Arena Oakland—and exponentially more Shock fans—than on any given matchday at Blizzard Arena.
“Coming out here and [seeing] all orange, it’s pretty sick,” Babybay said. “It’s just filled up, it’s crazy. Seeing this turnout makes me realize, like, you can actually build arenas in every city that represents an Overwatch League team. We sold out this place, and I’m sure if we sold out this place, we can sell out another arena for matches. It’s so cool.”
“I never noticed how many SF Shock fans there were until we got to actually come here and see all of them in person,” Space added. “Not all of them can make the matches in LA, so it’s nice to see that every place has a lot of fans that may not be able to come to the matches, but they still support their team.”
Opportunities like this don’t come often for the Shock, and they made sure to fully reciprocate their fans’ affection. The players had already done a long signing session earlier, but after accepting the California Cup trophy and posing for photos, every single one of them lingered near the stage, signing even more apparel—and, in one case, a forehead —and giving their fans even more memories to take home.
Nearby, watching them while beaming ear to ear, was Drew Miller, the Shock’s director of marketing and events. “Even if these guys had a long day, [early] flight, and they’re exhausted—look at them,” he said. “I told them they were more than welcome to keep hanging out with fans. I think [this event] means a lot, and hopefully it’s a nice little teaser of what they can expect when they come here.”
Miller added that he was amazed by not only the turnout but also the intensity of fan expression on display. “I think we have honestly the best fans. They come out in such insane numbers. At every event we always give out flags, so it’s cool to see [everyone wearing them].”
As the Valiant shuffled offstage earlier, a young fan draped in one of those increasingly ubiquitous Shock flags had gotten in one last heckle. “Hey Valiant!” he whisper-yelled. Then he lifted his thumb and index finger to his forehead, facing out, in the universal symbol for we won, and you didn’t.
It was a fitting end to the start of a beautiful rivalry.
Photos courtesy Samuel T. Chen and Emerald Gao.