When Blizzard was in the planning stages of the Overwatch League it decided that, to make it a success as an eSport, they would have to do things differently. To that end, the company decided to do something that had never been done before. Instead of inviting traditional organisations to represent themselves, Blizzard decided the Overwatch League would be built around a dozen franchises, each representing a major city as in traditional sport, the notion being that the geographic ties would create a more passionate fanbase and attract more casual fans.
The UK is represented by London Spitfire, a cool enough name although it being singular rather than plural does feel a little Americanised. Traditional sports teams in the UK have a long history, many dating back to the 19th century, which over time has created bonds with local communities – both in a good and bad sense, from the obvious passion on show to the uglier tribalism that gathers around football teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United, or Celtic and Rangers. There is a sense that communities define clubs and, in this sense, if Blizzard is expecting instant results it may be disappointed.
The problem is exacerbated by the roster’s lack of connection to London. Despite the name and branding, London Spitfire is owned by the American eSports organisation Cloud9 and has an entirely Korean roster. The team also do not play their games in London – all Overwatch League matches are played in the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. There has been talk that the team will partner with Tottenham Hotspur to make a purpose-built eSports arena in the football team’s new ground their home base - but for now it's just talk.
A few miles south of that potential new home, on a Saturday night, Loading Bar in London’s Stoke Newington is hosting a viewing party for the Spitfire’s game against Los Angeles Valiant. As you might expect, the bar is heaving. Even a young child has pestered his mum to bring him along and, while her young charge cheers, she busies herself in a book.
But maybe the lack of on-the-ground connection doesn't matter, in the online age, as much as I thought it would. When I ask the punters who they are here to support the answer is unanimous - London Spitfire. When I follow this up with the question why, more often than not I am answered with the rather laconic response of "they’re the English one aren’t they?"
I ask fans if the lack of British representation on both the playing roster and the ownership side make it difficult to connect with the team. "Well, nobody is from where they’re meant to be." Which is true: the vast majority of players in the league are South Korean and every other team is playing in Los Angeles.
In fact, for many fans I speak to the players are what intrigue them the most. It’s as much about following the players as the teams. In preparation for the launch of the Overwatch League, Cloud9 combined their existing roster KongDoo with that of GC Busan from the now-defunct Apex league, creating one of the most exciting lineups in the league. Most fans I speak to have been following those two teams since Apex, and for them to be representing London is viewed as something of an honour. With the likes of Profit, Birdring, and Gesture, Cloud9 have created what one fan tells me is "the best national team Britain has."
Another tells me that having Profit on the team is "like having Messi on your team, it doesn’t matter where they’re from." The players are charismatic too: before each match the team emerges from the tunnel with a goofy routine piloted from the front, a routine that Loading Bar's patrons are happy to act out for me again and again.
But it's not all smiles and laughs. One fan I spoke to followed the team with begrudging loyalty, and explained why: "I find it difficult to parse the decision by Blizzard to sell the London franchise to an American organisation, despite the likes of Fnatic - a UK based team also bidding." The collapse of the former Overwatch leagues, following Blizzard's official version, has led Fnatic to release a number of its players, none of whom found a home with Cloud9.
If that decision grates with some, then at least Cloud9 is focused on making the connection to London a little less tenuous. The team has brought on board British YouTuber Stylosa as a ‘British Consultant’, his job apparently being to introduce the players to crumpets and PG Tips (terrible choice of tea). When it comes to more robust commitments Jack Etienne, the owner of Cloud9, has also spoken about his desire to establish a coaching network across the UK to bring through homegrown talent in a range of eSports.
When the match gets going the atmosphere inside the bar is electric. As the momentum ebbs and flows, the spirit of the crowd follows, every successful push and ultimate is greeted with applause and cheers, every wipe and failure with groans. The beers and the laughs keep coming. And then there's a moment that shows London Spitfire probably do have a British streak in them: the team races into an early 2-0 lead, then comes perilously close to total capitulation. 2-1, 2-2. This all feels a little familiar...
The Spitfire may be over five thousand miles away but it’s clear that, in this corner of London at least, the fanbase both cares about the team and is growing. To enormous cheers, London Spitfire crush the deciding round and run out as 3-2 victors. A wave of relief sweeps the bar, followed by a standing ovation and a rush to the bar. London Spitfire did it the hard way, and in sport that is a very British way to go about things. Let's just be glad that Overwatch doesn't have penalty shootouts.