It’s Tuesday evening, and Quarters Korean BBQ in Los Angeles is an aromatic maelstrom of activity. All the tables are packed. The waiting area outside, with its long, low fireplace, is packed. Waiters are running around frantically, seemingly at the urging of their little Secret Service earbuds. And the hostess won’t put us on the list until our whole party has arrived.
The Los Angeles Valiant’s Stefano “Verbo” Disalvo and Young-Seo “KariV” Park arrive 15 minutes early. We stand around and chit-chat until Jake “Jake” Lyon (Houston Outlaws) and Matthew “Super” DeLisi (San Francisco Shock) show up. Verbo wears subtle black earrings, a black snapback cap, and a grayscale graphic tee. KariV, who played for a South Korean team before joining the Valiant, always looks a little startled in his big glasses. The two of them are obviously close. Verbo helps KariV, whose English is still a work in progress, understand what everybody is saying, expressing it in simple terms and a hushed tone. They’re a support duo, and their chemistry shows, language barrier or no.
Jake arrives in a Houston Outlaws hoodie, with Super close behind. They live in the same apartment complex in LA, along with the rest of the Houston Outlaws and the San Francisco Shock, plus the Dallas Fuel. It’s a popular complex because it’s just a five-minute drive from the Blizzard Arena, where all regular-season games of the inaugural season will take place.
Soon we’re seated. We order the Jumbo Combo—eleven types of meat, which will be cooked on the grill in front of us, then eaten with lettuce or sesame leaves and rice—plus extra brisket, kimchi, and chicken skewers. Jake hasn’t eaten all day.
“I’m hungry, but it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I don’t feel like you need to eat three meals a day.”
Verbo laughs. He’s the only one at the table who regularly eats breakfast, which he cooks for himself every morning.
Over our meal, the conversation unfolds on its own, everyone chatting and catching up, discussing the day-to-day challenges and achievements of an Overwatch League player’s life. What follows are the highlights of a two-hour interview about food, friends, and life philosophy.
KBBQ and Esports: A Match Made in Heaven, but Why?
I ask the players why Korean BBQ seems to be the unofficial food of esports. As usual, Jake is the first to respond. “It’s a binge, which I think is attractive to gamers,” he says, shoveling kimchi into his mouth.
“There’s something about cooking together, I don’t know, it forms a bond,” says Super, whose voice hits a slightly higher pitch when he’s excited. Super is 17 years old, and as a result must wait to play until his birthday in March.
“It’s a communal experience,” agrees Jake. During the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, “For Team USA, every time we were together, we went [to Korean BBQ] two or three times.”
“I think a big part of going out to eat, it’s not just the food, it’s getting to spend time with people,” Super adds. He describes a recent trip to an LA branch of Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ (Super's review: delicious) with members of the Dallas Fuel. He rarely gets a chance to speak to some of these players, and the dinner provided an opportunity to get to know them.
I ask if they’ve been to any sub-par Korean BBQ restaurants—ones that visitors to LA, maybe in town to catch a game at Blizzard Arena, might want to avoid.
“I’ve never been to a bad Korean BBQ place,” says Verbo. “If it’s a cheap all-you-can-eat place, I’m fine with that, too.”
Quarters, though, where we're at tonight, is their favorite, due to the quality of the meat: waiters come by and pile the grill in the center of the table with mouth-watering pink and white rolls of thin, marbled beef, followed by brisket, prime rib, and incredibly flavorful pork. Between the five of us, the food vanishes as fast as the waiters can whip it up. Maybe another reason Korean BBQ is the chosen dish of esports is that it's just plain delicious.
KariV and KFC (that's Korean Fried Chicken)
In a lull during the meal, I ask KariV what he misses about home, apart from the food.
“Fried chicken," he says, evidently mishearing me.
Verbo explains that we want to know what he misses that’s not food.
“Just fried chicken,” KariV reiterates with a grin.
No Offense, But Fans Have No Idea What They’re Talking About
Soon the conversation turns to topics unrelated to food, like the enduring challenge of bridging the knowledge gap between fans and pro players.
“It’s hard to explain,” says Super, “but a lot of people who try to analyze pros, they don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
He struggles to think of an example. Jake swoops in to help.
“When a Soldier:  takes a position, it would be really easy as a fan to be like, 'That’s such a good position, I’m going to go stand there.' But realistically, the only reason I’m standing in that position is that I know I have a Mercy and a Zen[yatta] on me, and we’re planning to take an objective, and my tanks are setting up to counter-dive, or they’re going to go on point, there’s going to be some other play that happens simultaneously....”
When talking about this stuff, the players speak incredibly quickly, in terms peppered with in-game jargon. The point they’re trying to make is that they couldn’t explain top-level play to casual fans even if they tried, because casual fans don’t know the sheer enormity of what they don’t know. This is a source of both amusement and frustration for players like Jake and Super, because it means that the (often vocal) opinions expressed online by masses of fans are at best superficial and at worst misleading and hurtful.
Super vs. Hot Korean Peppers
“Oh God,” says Super after accidentally snarfing a whole bunch of Korean hot peppers. “I thought they were sweet. They’re like jalapeños or something.”
“Don’t touch your eyes,” cautions Jake.
“Oh god,” says Super, who was about to touch his eyes.
On Bird Noises, and Having Fun
An origin story you might not know: long before they joined the Overwatch League, Jake, Super, and Verbo played Overwatch together on a team called Bird Noises. In fact, that's how Verbo made his come-up. Bird Noises saw his “looking for team” thread and gave him a shot.
“The thing about Bird Noises is that we just had fun,” says Verbo, “and that made us better than other teams.”
“There were some crazy comps,” says Super, using a slang term for team compositions, a big part of the strategy in competitive Overwatch.
“Do you think it’s possible to have a team in the Overwatch League that harnesses ‘fun’ in the same way?” I ask.
“If you’re playing on a team, you have to have fun, otherwise you won’t be good,” says Super.
KariV the Streamer
I ask if the players enjoy streaming.
Verbo points at KariV: “He’s a popular streamer.”
KariV looks alarmed.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“It’s because he’s a really funny person,” says Verbo. “He’s got a big Korean audience.”
KariV shakes his head vigorously: “Not funny.”
“He’s funny,” says Super.
KariV looks pretty distressed. He definitely is funny, though. I can vouch.
Tough Love for Aspiring Esports Stars
It's clear that these four players, out of just 113 hand-picked from around the world, have made it bigger than ever before in esports, with guaranteed salaries, benefits, and generous performance bonuses—not to mention the honor of representing a whole city's worth, or more, of potential fans. But would they recommend their path to the kids out there?
“Whenever people ask me for advice, I tell them to quit, because that’s what everybody always told me,” says Jake.
Verbo says he’s grateful his mom discouraged him from pursuing competitive play, because it only made him want it more.
Super had challenges to surmount, too: “When I started playing, I literally had 24 frames per second,” he says. “I did not get above 24 FPS.”
“That’s what makes it weird when people ask ‘How do I become an esports pro?’” says Jake. “On one hand, you’ll crush people’s dreams if you say, ‘Quit.’ But on the other hand, I was never not really good. I knew when Overwatch came out that I was going to be good. The first season I played, I was in Amsterdam, studying abroad. I played on a MacBook Pro. I partitioned my MacBook Pro to play Overwatch, and I was top 500 in Europe.”
“If you play with conditions like that, and you still manage to rise to the top,” says Super, “then you know you can do it.”
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Of course, rising to the top in the early days of competitive Overwatch, partitioned MacBook or no, is one thing. Rising to the top of the Overwatch League is a whole 'nother plate of KBBQ.
That's one reason why we're out of the restaurant, which stays open until two o'clock each night, by the very reasonable hour of 10:30 p.m. The first matches of the Overwatch League inaugural season are on the horizon, and the players need their rest. So we all shake hands, take a group photo, and go our separate ways.
It’s too early to tell which of these players will become genuine superstars in the Overwatch League, but one thing seems clear: they’re genuine friends, and as long as there’s Korean BBQ to share, they’ll be getting together to share it.