Home to one of the world’s oldest and most far-reaching empires, the streets of the British capital have seen more than we can imagine—and throughout it all, sport has permeated the culture. The first recorded account of a football game being played in the U.K. is from the ninth century and, over hundreds of years, this little game grew and boomed into an empire worth billions: football's English Premier League is the most-watched sports league globally, broadcast to 643 million homes worldwide.
What that means for English people, rich or poor, is that sport is an inescapable part of culture. Every family has at least one mad lad or ladette for whom their team’s performance is equal to his or her mood at any given time. It means children join local sports clubs at very young ages, every weekend a ritual of showing up to a soccer pitch in oversized jerseys, their parents chatting about their lives while their kids run themselves ragged, equal parts a social occasion and spectator experience.
It’s what those parents did as children themselves—and watching their kids learn how to be part of a team and communicate effectively with one another, and how to celebrate their wins or accept defeat, there’s pride in it. A sense of community, a second home, where they make friends that last a lifetime.
That’s what the London Spitfire, and owner Cloud9, want to give to British Overwatch League fans. But is this spirit compatible with esports? Cloud9 President Dan Fiden thinks it is, although challenges remain.
For one, he says, “If you’re a 12-year-old kid today and you love Overwatch, there isn’t a way to play in an organized league and get coaching.”
The fact that competitive support in esports is still embryonic means that if and when players do go pro, it’s often the first time they’ve been on a team. “I’ll get players that are phenomenal solo, but I try to plug them into our team environment and they’re just lost,” says Cloud9 owner Jack Etienne. “I end up taking sometimes months or years trying to teach a player how to be a good teammate.”
Even parents who are actively engaged in trying to support their child's passion for esports aren't quite sure how to do so.
“There’s a gap to be filled there,” says Etienne. “At least once or twice at every large event, I have parents who come up to me and say, ‘Hey, my kid loves esports, loves your team, loves playing games, how do I get [him or her] more involved?’ Right now, I don’t have an answer. I want to be able to say [that we are] setting up camps or clubs for kids to start learning those skills now.”
Easter Eggs Abound
The London Spitfire's logo contains a ton of references: the blue color is a nod to owner Cloud9's signature hue, the aircraft is the iconic fighter plane of the Royal Air Force (which Tracer was a member of, in the game's lore), and the badge itself resembles an English football insignia.
Luckily enough, a framework exists. Guess where it comes from.
“I don’t need to recreate the wheel,” says Etienne. “There are programs in place that the European football clubs are using that I can build a model from to start not only building great teamwork in the players that will be the future of the London Spitfire, but also building a strong brand affiliation with these young guys and girls.”
A plan like this, of course, requires a home. “We’re going to build a hybrid LAN café, sports bar, and retail space,” says Fiden. “We imagine it being the kind of place you would go watch a game on a big screen and get a burger and have a milkshake or whatever with people who also love your team, where you can cheer them on even if you’re not at home. Or a place you can go get some training, or play a LAN match, or if you’re a little kid that wants to play in a Little League—we want it to be a venue for all that stuff.”
The Spitfire's support staff are aware that, on top of building a home esports venue (something that will come in a future season of Overwatch League), this will be a challenge. “I think what we’re trying to create is something that doesn’t really exist right now," says Fiden. "But if we can get it right....” The potential is nearly unlimited.
Another challenge for the team is that, at present, the Spitfire roster is not homegrown U.K. talent; all the players hail from South Korea. Such internationality is nothing new, though, not for the Premier League and not for esports or the Overwatch League. As Etienne puts it, "This isn’t a World Cup team. There’s a difference between World Cup and professional."
Fiden agrees. “There are so many considerations about putting together a team, especially in the first year. Who the roster is, how they behave, how they interact with fans, all these things are important in defining our new brand,” he says. “They’ll be creating the legacy that hopefully we will have for years and years. If [fans] don’t know it already, they will come to learn and appreciate just how great [the players] are, and how fun and accessible they are. They’re just really great people.”
As an organization, Cloud9 is proud of its reputation for fielding players who are both competitive in-game and have great personalities outside the game.
“I asked Jack one time, ‘How does that happen? Is it a conscious marketing decision to find people that are funny?’” Fiden recalls, laughing. “But it’s not! His answer was that you are subconsciously attracted to people who have a personality you feel will be complimentary to yours, and once you have enough of that within an organization, the culture starts to perpetuate itself. I think that the [Spitfire] guys totally fit into that.”
Biggest rivals in the Overwatch League?
Seoul Dynasty and NYXL
In addition to the existing South Korean talent, the Spitfire also are committed to building up the U.K. within the competitive Overwatch space. Etienne plans to form an all-European, and ideally British-leaning, Contenders team, which in the future could be a renewable font of local Overwatch talent.
But it’s not just about building a potential dynasty. Rather, it's about the primary lesson that kids are always told they should be learning from sports: how to be good citizens. "It’s important for people who are in the competitive gaming community, from a really young age, to learn [that]," Fiden says.
If the Spitfire are able to check all of these boxes by emulating English football, they will be well on their way to winding themselves inextricably into London’s DNA. Imagine: every weekend, children showing up in oversized London Spitfire jerseys, their parents chatting about their lives while their kids speak intensely into the microphones of headsets that almost swallow them.
And in the next room, a group of mad lads and ladettes, eating burgers, cheering on their home team.