To celebrate Mother’s Day, I spoke with five moms of players from the Overwatch League. The more amazing women I spoke to, the more I realized they have so much to teach us about what it’s like raising children in a modern world: a world of social media and societal pressure, a world that’s close-but-not-quite-ready to fully embrace a non-traditional esports path. Here are some lessons about trust, love, social media, the perception of esports, choices, and letting go, from the incredible mothers of the Overwatch League.
Trust Where Trust Is Earned
Shellie Cruz became an unsuspecting viral star when her son, Houston Outlaws DPS Dante “Danteh” Cruz, posted a screenshot of her saying he should take Space for ice cream. “I know a lot of his friends in the league,” Shellie told me. “I know he’s been friends with Space the longest, because he was with him in Denial [from 2016-17].”
Shellie was a young mother, finishing college after Dante was born. When he was in the third grade, he began to show amazing logic, sense, and intelligence—so much so, Shellie says, that it became difficult to argue with him when he wanted something. “He really could have been a good lawyer because it’s so hard to argue back,” she said. “He always makes such good arguments.”
Shellie knew her boy had grown into someone she could trust, a young man who made the right decisions and had a good head on his shoulders. That’s why, when he started taking Overwatch seriously, she reluctantly allowed sacrifices. She recalled the first time he missed a big family event for Overwatch. “He didn’t want to go to Easter dinner,” she recalled. “I was like ‘What?!’ I was frustrated. I said, ‘OK, I trust you’re making the right decision.’ If he says he has to do something, he does it. Once he makes up a commitment, he goes through with it.”
And he did. Not only did Dante succeed in Overwatch, he graduated high school with honors. And when the time came for Dante to move to Los Angeles for the league, Shellie knew it was the right thing for her boy—even if it hurt.
“He called me into his bedroom one day,” she said. “I sat down on his bed, and he said, ‘Mom, I’m moving to LA in a couple of months.’ I broke down in tears.” Dante was frustrated, but Shellie told him, “I’m happy for you—I’m not sad for you, I’m sad for me. Just give me a couple of minutes!”
“He understood,” she said. “He gave me a hug.”
Love Loudly and Block the Haters
Liz Lombardo, mother of Dallas Fuel DPS Zach “Zachareee” Lombardo, is one of the more well-known OWL moms—I’d classify her as a high-profile Overwatch League mom, a top-tier MOWL. Anyone who’s part of the Overwatch League’s Twitter-sphere is bound to see Liz pop up on their timeline. People love her, love that she loves her son, and love that her son loves her back.
“He’s an honest kid,” Liz said. “He’s not afraid to show emotion, and he is an emotional kid. It’s kind of nice when he tweets stuff about us and our relationship. He’s not afraid to show he’s a family kid.”
Liz lives and breathes for her children, which has turned into a love of not only the Dallas Fuel, but Overwatch esports as a whole. Her household is all Overwatch, all day long. “I work from home, so from the minute I wake up in the morning, my computer is on,” Liz said. “Whoru streams early in the morning, which is perfect. I have breakfast with Whoru, then Zach will stream, or I’ll watch Unkoe. Typically, Overwatch is on in our house all the time. We watch Contenders, and from Thursday to Sunday it’s OWL. It’s on the TV and it’s on all day long.”
Being so involved means Liz reads just about everything on offer about her son, and she’s very much aware that Zach is a polarizing personality. “He has strong fans, then he has people who can’t stand him for whatever reason,’” she said. She stays away from Reddit, but is still sometimes exposed to mean-spirited messages about her son.
Her advice is simple: just block them. “If you get somebody you don’t like, just block, and you don’t have to deal with them again,” she said. “Your timeline is your timeline, you know?”
For the most part, Liz says her Twitter interactions are wonderful. “People tweet at me and I always answer back,” she said. “People out there are extremely supportive of Zach and I love that. I love the friendships he’s made, and it’s super that he can communicate with his fans and they can communicate with him. I always say, if you see me at an event, say hi! I love to meet everybody.”
Dreams Can Take Convincing
“JP was a senior in high school and was applying for universities,” recalled Stella Randolph, mother of Los Angeles Gladiators DPS João Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles. “At that time, I was disappointed in him because he was not excited about pursuing a college degree even though he had a very good GPA and did very well in school. So in the summer of 2016 I sent him to a boot camp at Duke University. When he came back, he told me he hated computer science and what he really wanted was to play video games professionally. I told him there was no such thing, and he better apply for the universities before he missed the deadlines!”
JP was born in Stella’s hometown in Brazil, but circumstances dictated a lot of travel early in life: mother and son lived in China for a time, then Japan, Thailand, Russia, and Denmark, before settling back down in North Carolina. “All the learning about different people and cultures truly helped him to appreciate others with different backgrounds and also banished prejudices,” Stella said.
Despite all this global exposure, Stella expected a normal life for her son, and did not react favorably to JP’s initial suggestion of pursing esports. When the Overwatch League opened up professional opportunities, though, Stella and her husband took the time to educate themselves. “We started reading all about the video game industry and players’ careers, and we were amazed by all we learned!” she said. “We carefully examined his contract, and in the end we were okay about him pursuing his dream.”
Stella has grown to love the game and has only missed one Gladiators match due to being on a plane. The distance is hard, but she’s content knowing her son is happy. “I remember going to his bedroom and seeing all his clothes still hanging in his closet, his school backpack on a corner, and I would cry like a baby,” she said. “But when that happened, I would always remind myself that he was happy and exactly where he wanted to be. That he was pursuing his dreams.”
There is a Portuguese word, saudade, which has no translation to English, Stella tells me, that “evokes a sense of loneliness and incompleteness. I still feel a lot of saudades when I think about him, but I must confess, I am much better at dealing with the distance.”
Esports Are Sports, Honestly
“When Corey was around 10 or 12, I said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” recalled Melissa Cirafisi, mother of Washington Justice DPS Corey “Corey” Nigra. “And he looked at me dead in the face and said, ‘Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to play video games and I’m going to make millions of dollars.’ I remember patting him on his little head and saying, ‘OK, honey, that sounds nice!’ But he meant it!”
Melissa sighs happily and laughs a lot when she talks about what Corey was like growing up. “He always had a big smile on his face, always,” she said, “He was very friendly, outgoing. There were always four or five kids at my house on a daily basis.”
Corey was very athletic and competitive, playing soccer year-round, but at the age of 14, he switched to being competitive in video games. “I really was cool with it,” she said. “I’m not going to lie, I did get a lot of flak from not only family members, but friends. I would hear on a constant basis, ‘You shouldn’t let him play that game too much, he needs to come out of that room,’ but Corey is extremely intelligent.”
After all, Corey was in National Honors Society, took AP classes, and pulled straight As. “How can I justify telling him not to play on his computer?”
Melissa didn’t see a kid with no motivation sitting in his room and eating chips; she saw a dedicated, strategic, high-skill activity that her son loved. And now, she can watch him fulfill his childhood dream. Melissa and her own 72-year-old mother have never missed a game—to them, it’s simply a sport.
“When I see him walk out on that stage with that smile…I can’t even tell you what it does to me,” she said. “My heart just shines. The adrenaline I get when I watch Corey play this game, even though I don’t really understand the game—I don’t understand any sports, to be honest, the kids played soccer for years and I still don’t know what offside is, I just know when I watch football, if I watch the Eagles and they’re in the Super Bowl, I get that excitement. When I watch Overwatch League, with the commentators and everything, I feel like I understand.”
The Path You Love Is Always Correct
“Most of the time, when people hear ‘oh, you’re an accountant,’ they go a little quiet,” said Carol Meissner, mother of Dallas Fuel flex tank Lucas “Note” Meissner. But Carol is not just any accountant—she’s a professor who focuses on the automotive industry. “Because of the nature of the automotive industry, most of my students are young men, so trying to get them to buy into anything I have to say take a little bit of convincing. I usually ride my motorbike on the first day and that sets the right tone.”
She says this casually, like it’s no big deal, then drops the fact that she and her husband have matching motorbikes. A certified badass, Carol is the mother of not one, but two esports high-achievers. Raising two boys was always an adventure, she says. They both loved video games from the time she got them for free in cereal boxes.
“I used it to my advantage—they always wanted to be on the computer, so I got them educational games,” she said. “I could get them to do all sorts of educational games online quite easily because that was fun for them.”
The Meissner household was always supportive of their boys playing video games, even as they grew older, but there were ground rules. They had to keep up with school and physical activities, then they could bargain on issues like bedtimes. Once things started getting serious, Carol and her husband set up an “esports room” in the basement. “We had two gaming stations down there, as far away from our bedroom as possible, so mom and dad could get sleep upstairs,” she said, laughing.
As a college professor, you may assume that “Mama Note,” as she refers to herself on Twitter, would be disappointed that her son isn’t partaking in higher education, but that’s far from reality.
“I just want to wait and see where life takes him, not where anybody else’s thoughts on what his life should be,” she said. “I’m not on some sort of timeline that existed in the 1960s, where you had to go to high school, then go to university right afterward, then you had to buy a car and get married and do everything in a certain order. That is so far gone.”