As my photographer and I join the exuberant crowds flowing toward the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the last game of the Los Angeles Rams’ regular season, I wonder how long it will take esports to reach this scale of happy chaos.
Major sports events in the United States are loud, bacchanalian spectacles, simultaneously ugly and beautiful. Is the Overwatch League the next step toward esports inhabiting this world?
It isn’t hard to spot the Los Angeles Gladiators outside Gate 28. They’re the only ones wearing purple. Everyone else is in the Rams’ blue, gold, and white, or the bright red signifying allegiance to the away team, the San Francisco 49ers. In attendance are Lane “Surefour” Roberts, Jonas “Shaz” Suovaara, Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni, and Joao Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles. Soon the team will dive into intense last-minute preparations for Opening Week. Speaking with them before we enter the stadium, I get the impression they’re feeling restless.
I ask the players if they are fans of American football. They are not. Surefour is Canadian, BigGoose and Shaz are Finnish, and Hydration is Brazilian; American football is popular in none of those countries. I test their knowledge: how many points is a touchdown?
“Two or three?” Surefour guesses. (It’s six.)
The VIP Treatment
We pass through a special VIP entrance and make our way to a sideline booth—field level, right behind the end zone—courtesy of the Gladiators’ co-owner, Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Rams. Before the game starts, the Gladiators walk out on the sidelines, hands in their pockets, slouching under the oppressive sun. Hulking 49ers run warmup drills in the end zone a few feet away. None of the Gladiators seem particularly excited.
“I’ve never been the type to idolize people,” Surefour says as we head back to the booth. “In these situations, I don’t feel awe or whatever.”
Surefour, it turns out, doesn’t feel intense emotions of any kind very often. He claims to have cried only once in the past ten years (during a Naruto episode). When he goes skydiving, he feels no adrenaline rush. The only thing that does get his heart racing is competitive video games, when the team’s fortunes depend on his performance.
The rest of the players are similarly unflappable. BigGoose can’t remember a time when he’s been truly angry, outside of garden-variety frustration with his Ranked Play teammates.
“Usually I’m the guy telling everyone to calm down,” he says.
The players’ matter-of-fact demeanor makes sense. If you brought four LA Rams players to an Overwatch match, they might behave similarly. Polite and respectful, sure—but not overawed or gushing, like Gladiators Creative Director Riley Jamison, when he arrives at the box. (“Oh my god,” Riley proclaims, running back and forth with his hands in his hair, “This is amazing! This is so amazing!”) The Gladiators are pros at the top of their game; they’re familiar with all of this, in type if not in scale.
In a Meet the Gladiators video, Surefour claims Hydration is “like Widowmaker: emotionless, just a cold, silent killer.” This is not my impression. Hydration jokes constantly. He has a way of smiling that suggests he is suppressing his smile’s intensity, but it escapes through his dimples and the corners of his eyes. He is also a picky eater.
“I only eat meat, bread, cheese, and rice,” he says. “No fruits or vegetables.”
Everyone is excited about the catered food in the box. David Pei, the team’s head coach, grabs a hot dog bun and beelines for the steel catering trays. He lifts the lid—no hot dogs yet, just boiling water.
“I got baited,” Pei yelps.
Everyone files past, except Hydration, who mournfully surveys what little food has arrived.
“Hey,” I say, pointing at the hot dog buns. “Those are bread. I thought you said you eat bread?”
He gives that quiet, half-suppressed grin and picks one up, then takes a bite, staring me in the eye.
“How’s that taste?” I ask, poised to record his response in my notebook.
He takes another bite, loses the straight face, and covers his mouth to hide his laugh.
Hydration was born in Montes Claros, an industrial city in central Brazil. His parents got divorced before he was born. When he was 7, he moved with his mother and stepdad to the United States. His stepdad’s work took the family abroad again when Hydration was 10; he attended an international school in China where 44 percent of students were South Korean. He remembers that period of his life as “a lot of StarCraft.” Suffice it to say, Hydration doesn’t have much time these days for games other than Overwatch.
“How do you think the inaugural season is going to go?” I ask.
“We’re going to stomp everyone,” Hydration says, and for once he isn’t kidding.
Business as Usual
During the game, I sit next to the Finnish support duo of BigGoose and Shaz, who have slathered on sunscreen and are watching the Rams in their last game of the regular season. Shaz had acquired a Rams hat, but it’s too small for his head. (“Big head, big brain,” he explains.) With a minute to go in the second quarter, the Rams have their work cut out for them—the 49ers are already up 20-3.
A pair of Rams cheerleaders arrive for a photo op. The Gladiators look a bit worried at first, but manage to find their smiles. Afterwards, Shaz confides he finds stuff like this uncomfortable. He doesn’t like posing for pictures or pretending to feel anything he doesn’t.
“I just want to play Overwatch,” he admits.
Shaz grew up in Jyväskylä, one of Finland’s largest cities. He went to practical school, first for information technology and then for installing air-conditioning systems, but decided neither job was for him. He seems perplexed by the good fortune of his Overwatch career. How did he get so good? He has no idea.
“The more I won, the more I wanted to keep winning,” he said.
He won his first LAN event, Multiplay Insomnia 58, in August 2016, back when he played for Reason Gaming under the handle “Shazardous.” From there it was a meteoric rise to the top of European Overwatch. He played on Team Gigantti with BigGoose when they won Overwatch Contenders Europe Season 1. That was a breakthrough moment, as four members of the team were subsequently recruited to Overwatch League rosters.
BigGoose grew up in Kokkola, a coastal town; he was studying to become a chef when he decided to pursue competitive gaming full-time. He’s more outgoing than Shaz, with an easy smile and rosy cheeks. His hair is a huge curly sphere. Like Shaz, he’s nonplussed by his success. It all happened very quickly. He was top 50 in Europe after only three seasons. Now, he’s in the Overwatch League, a far cry from the small tournaments where he made a name for himself. He claims it’s no different, business as usual, but when I ask about the inaugural season, his mouth becomes a firm line—not from apprehension, exactly, just intense, all-consuming determination.
Our conversation is interrupted by a video about the Gladiators that plays on the Jumbotron. “LOS ANGELES, MEET YOUR NEW OVERWATCH SPORTS TEAM,” the screen reads. A montage ensues. The fans grow quiet, bemused. When the video ends, there’s a smattering of applause.
Jamison runs over afterward.
“Huge success. Crowd went wild,” he says. “Write that down.”
He’s joking, but the truth is that having a video about the Overwatch League up on that huge screen, no matter the crowd reaction, feels like a victory. Thousands of football fans have just been introduced to Overwatch esports. Since many esports fans also follow traditional sports, and vice-versa, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a few hundred Overwatch League fans—maybe even Gladiators fans—have just been born.
Any Given Sunday
Despite having defeated the 49ers earlier in the season, the Rams struggled to turn things around in the second half. In our box, the players chatted while watching the game and chowing down on a never-ending stream of catered food. Rampage, the Rams mascot, came by to shake everybody’s hand. Unfortunately, "Shields Up" didn't work for the Rams, and the game ended in the 49ers’ favor, 34-13.
As the Overwatch League standings sit today, the LA Gladiators have their work cut out for them, following a disappointing—yet hard-fought—start to the inaugural season. But the team has plenty of time to adjust, possibly by signing new players or making trades, and get their win-loss record flipped the right way around. If the Overwatch League inaugural season were a football game, we wouldn't even be out of the first quarter.