Esports Arena Santa Ana is a haven for gamers on a normal day, a cavernous but inviting downtown space where someone can walk right in and immerse themselves in their game of choice. On Saturday, October 20, it played host to the first leg of the California Cup—an ongoing battle between the Los Angeles Valiant and San Francisco Shock.

Fans enjoyed a full slate of Overwatch programming that ran about 10 hours, encompassing collegiate matches between NorCal and SoCal rival schools, fan competitions, and, of course, two featured matches between the Valiant and Shock to cap it all off. Too big to be contained within the building, the event spilled out onto the street, where the Valiant also hosted their Block Party, which included food trucks, artist booths, photo staging areas—including a Junkertown-inspired set—and a DJ.

More of a fan festival than a competitive atmosphere, the California Cup is one of many community-building ventures that Overwatch League teams have embarked on. (At the same time last weekend, the London Spitfire hosted the Houston Outlaws in London in the first leg of the Gilded Gala.) For teams, it’s an opportunity to grow the fanbase around their local regions in preparation for future seasons. For players, it’s even more personal—a chance to meet and thank their fans in person.

“Events like this are a lot more intimate than when we’re playing at the arena, and during the season we’re more focused on the matches,” Valiant support Scott “Custa” Kennedy said. “So in a casual setting like this, where the match doesn’t matter, it’s really good to meet fans, play in front of fans, give the appreciation back for all the support we’ve received over the season.”

SIGNATURE MOVES

Between meet-and-greets, the autograph line, and general encounters from milling around, players from both teams got a workout of a different sort, signing posters, jerseys, and sundry items presented to them throughout the day. Some have already adopted certain personal flourishes: Indy “Space” Halpern’s blocky signature, with the “S” reversed at the end, is one of the more stylish efforts on the Valiant, while Young-Seo “Kariv” Park has adorably turned the “V” in his name into a heart.

Other John Hancocks are still a work in progress. “I need to make my signature cooler,” Brady “Agilities” Girardi muttered, taking painstaking care with every letter while inking a fan’s Valiant flag.

“I’m still getting there,” Valiant DPS Kyle “KSF” Frandinisa admitted. “It’s hard!”

Custa jumped in. “He came in about six or seven months ago, and when he first had to sign things, it wasn’t pretty to start. But ‘KSF’ is hard to sign.”

“We were signing boxes, trying to come up with my signature,” KSF added. “We landed on something OK. I might change it this season again, we’ll see.”

FRIENDLY FOES

There are very real points of rivalry—in sports, lifestyles, and otherwise—between Northern and Southern California, and the Valiant and Shock have leaned into it in establishing the California Cup. (The two teams have already gone head-to-head in spelling, Jenga, and art to hype up the event, with two more challenges to come.) But pro gaming tends to be a close-knit scene, and players have friends scattered across the league, whether they’re former teammates or ladder buddies.

Or, in some cases, current teammates for the Overwatch World Cup. Space, along with the Shock’s Jay “Sinatraa” Won and Grant “Moth” Espe, represent Team USA, and the California Cup is a strange little break from their preparations for BlizzCon.

KSF characterized the match as “semi-serious”—both teams scrimmaged in preparation for the event, but there were no real stakes attached to it, not with the 2019 season still months away.

Even the verbal sparring was in preseason form.

“I don’t have anybody to trash talk,” Shock tank Matthew “Super” DeLisi said, a couple hours before the show matches. He didn’t sound that bothered by it, though, cracking a grin. “Maybe Space? I don’t know, questionable player.”

SUPER’S SCRUM

Media scrums aren’t a common practice in esports yet, so it was a bit awkward to see a handful of recording devices pointed at Super upstairs in the players’ lounge. Things got meta when Super started describing other scrums he’d seen in traditional sports, and then they got absurd when teammate Hyo-Bin “Choihyobin” Choi edged up to the scrum, holding out a water bottle like a microphone.

“Choi, I’m a big fan!” Super shouted at him, and Choihyobin cackled before running away.

The Shock were one of the youngest—and most energetic—teams in the Overwatch League last season, and this summer they added tank Myeong-Hwang “Smurf” Yoo and DPS Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim to the roster, making it increasingly bilingual. The California Cup was the first playing opportunity for Smurf, but Super said it’s still too early to tell what the team’s dynamic will look like in 2019.

“Right now we’re not too intensive,” he said. “Crusty, our head coach, is trying to find where players are good, where players are not good, and he’s trying to find strengths and weaknesses and help us play to our best [abilities]. Right now we’re just in the figuring-it-out phase of things.”

ONE YEAR IN

This time last year, Custa was scrambling around, trying to finalize a contract for the Overwatch League, and KSF was juggling school and Overwatch, working toward an opportunity of his own. Moth, too, was in school—his third year of college, while gearing up for Open Division Season 2.

“Since this time last year, a lot of stuff happened really quickly for me,” he said. “Contenders was announced in December, and then I got picked up for Boston Academy in January, and then in March I got signed to the Shock, so my life changed pretty quickly.”

As for how dramatically different Moth’s life is now—well. “I definitely didn’t consider [the Overwatch World Cup] as a possibility a year ago.”

After getting a chance to meet Shock fans face-to-face, Moth says it’ll be an even cooler experience to do the same at Esports Arena Oakland on November 10, when the Shock will host the second leg of the California Cup.

“The Valiant in season one had a ton of [local] fan support, so Oakland for the California Cup will be our first experience playing in our home region,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to move to San Francisco, right, so that’ll be the start of it.”

If past watch parties in San Francisco were any indication—Super, who attended those events, said the turnout was way more than he expected—the atmosphere will be electric.

PLAY HARD

It had been a while since fans saw some of the players, even the ones who played in the Overwatch World Cup Group Stages. New hair colors and haircuts, a burgeoning mustache for Space. The meta was also vastly different from the last time the players took the stage as the Valiant and Shock, and the matchup was a chance to observe their comfort level with compositions like triple-triple and Sombra-Doomfist.

Before the competitive stuff, however, the players first had to entertain the masses with some fun arcade mode action. There was skill:

There was silliness:

And there was on-air arts and crafts from casters Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson and Brennon “Bren” Hook:

Friends and countrymen aside, these two teams love to play one another—the Valiant were a model of steady improvement in the inaugural season, something the Shock would love to emulate, while the Shock have a certain swagger that seems to bring out the best in their opponents. Both teams unveiled new players during the competition—Smurf alternated with Super on main tank for the Shock; for the Valiant, Kariv returned to his flex role, while support Min-Chul “Izayaki” Kim made his debut.

The Valiant took the first two maps, Ilios and King’s Row, on the strength of their team play and ultimate economy. Jun-Hyeok “Bunny” Chae, formerly the team’s Tracer specialist, will need to occupy a much larger hitscan role this season after the departure of Terence “Soon” Tarlier, and he proved he could handle McCree and Sombra while also flexing onto Zarya.

San Francisco pushed back after halftime with a hard-fought win on Temple of Anubis in the extra round, featuring a clutch multi-kill RIP-Tire from Min-Ho “Architect” Park, one of the players the Shock will need to lean on for big performances this season.

The final map was Busan, the newest control map that could see plenty of play at BlizzCon. There, the Valiant’s tank line shined, with huge ults from Space and Pan-Seung “Fate” Koo to seal the victory and claim the trophy—for now, at least. The first leg of the California Cup brought out the best of the Valiant’s local fanbase, and in three weeks, it’ll be the Bay Area’s turn to show their colors.