The Overwatch Videogame League Aims to Become the New NFL

Stefano Disalvo is a professional athlete.

He has the physical gifts of a professional jock, the dedication and drive of health professionals athlete, the monomaniacal schedule of a professional athlete. He wakes up at 6:30 in the morning and invests some time reviewing game videotape of his own performance before calisthenics begin around 9–jogging, frisbee, soccer–followed by practise, seven straight hours of it, where his team plays against some of the finest tournament in the world, testing new strategies. Then a squad fulfill at night to discuss the day’s mistakes and how to correct them, after which he will spend another few hours practicing alone or interacting with his devotees or analyse his competitives or, sometimes, all three. Then bedtime, before doing the same thing again tomorrow.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of Stefano Disalvo. You likely haven’t heard of his squad either. You maybe haven’t heard of his athletic, and even if you have heard of his athletic, you wouldn’t know him as Stefano Disalvo–he’s known as “Verbo, ” one of the top players in the world at a videogame called Overwatch . He’s 18 years old, and he has just signed his first major professional contract: He’ll get a nice salary, a robust health insurance plan, free housing, and a 401( k ). And beginning this month, his team, the newly formed Los Angeles Valiant, will be one of 12 competing in a first-of-its-kind world esports league, a grand experiment involving some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment who believe Overwatch can rival traditional athletics in audience and revenue. If this league succeeds–if its players, coach-and-fours, dealership owneds, and front-office executives can overcome a skeptical audience, a complicated and sometimes baffling play, and big problems of inclusion and harassment–then gamers like Disalvo, who have mortgaged their entire adolescence for this one shot at exaltation, could be among the first athletes to get very rich playing videogames, in front of people, for money.

Welcome to the future of sports.

If you are, like me, of a generation where videogames were not a spectator sport except for perhaps collecting all over the arcade to watch someone who’s really good at Street Fighter , then you could be forgiven for not knowing all of this was going on. The phenomenon of esports–people playing against each other in live videogame competitions–is still so new that there isn’t even consensus about how to spell it: I’ve understood esports , e-sports , E-sports , and eSports .

I should say, actually, that esports are comparatively new–that is, new for some of us. But for the professionals who play, who are almost uniformly between the ages of 17 and 26, it’s something that’s been around for most of their lives and something they take for granted. When Disalvo was a 16 -year-old high school student in Toronto, he already knew he wanted to be an esports professional. He knew this mostly through a process of removal: He had tried every other thing, and none of them seemed transcendent or even interesting. He played hockey and tennis, he swam. He took all the class you’re supposed to do now take, and when people asked him what his favorite topic was, he’d say lunchtime. “I was trying to find something that I enjoyed doing, ” Disalvo says. “I candidly didn’t genuinely enjoy anything.”

There was one thing he did enjoy, though, a secret he retained from almost everyone: He enjoyed playing videogames, and he was extraordinarily good at it. And when he saw musicians winning tournaments for games like League of Legends , he decided that he wanted, more than anything else, to do that.

A basic problem, though, was that League of Legends already had a well-established and very competitive esports scene, and the path to becoming a pro in that play seemed very narrow. Nonetheless, in November 2014, Disalvo insured that Blizzard, the company behind such massive dealerships as Warcraft , StarCraft , and Diablo , was developing a new play. It was called Overwatch , and it appeared to be a first-person shooter. Knowing that most of Blizzard’s plays eventually make big esports scenes, Disalvo decided to switch. “New game, ” he says. “Everybody’s starting at the same degree. It’s not as if I have to catch up to all the other professional players.”

Stefano Disalvo, better known as Verbo, is one of the world’s top Overwatch musicians .

Damon Casarez

I was surprised to hear this, as I’d is of the view that pro gamers began playing a game because they enjoyed it and then gradually became good enough to turn pro. But Disalvo decided to construct Overwatch his young life’s study before he’d ever even played it . “I discovered the esports potential, ” he says with a shrug. “I didn’t care if the game was fun.”

He got access to the Overwatch beta and committed himself to mastering the game. He stopped feeing lunch with his friends, using that time to finish homework so he could go home and play Overwatch for seven hours straight-out. He didn’t going to see parties, he didn’t go out with friends, he didn’t date, he wasn’t in any way social.

If you’re thinking that Disalvo fits the stereotype of a friendless, socially awkward gamer, disabuse yourself of that notion. He’s an affable and confident young man who’d been a swim instructor, a lifeguard, and an excellent hockey player. He has a good sense of humor, and when he chuckles, he appears startlingly like James Franco. In other terms, if he’d wanted to date, he probably could have. But he didn’t, and his classmates didn’t know what to attain of it.

Playing the beta, and before Overwatch was even officially released in May 2016, Disalvo began rivalling in amateur tournaments. He started playing even longer hours, and his examines suffered. His mom demanded he focus on school, but he announced he was going to be an esports professional. His mother said no, he was going to college. He said no, he was skipping college to get-up-and-go pro in Overwatch . Seeming back, he’s not sure how that stalemate would have been resolved were it not for a undertaking offer that came two weeks after his mother’s ultimatum. A professional esports outfit craved him on its Overwatch team, and it wanted to move him to Southern California to live and train with his teammates.

Armed now with an official contract, Disalvo went back to his mother, and she eventually agreed to let him leave school early, on the condition that he would finish his diploma online. Most of his classmates were mildly puzzled by his sudden disappearance. There were rumors about California. Were it not for a yearbook article about his new job, it’s possible that his classmates would still be asking: Whatever happened to Stefano Disalvo?

Mei is one of dozens of heroes in Overwatch .

Blizzard Entertainment

Jeff Kaplan, who oversees all things overwatch at Blizzard, says that when developers began work on the game in 2013, they felt the need to create a world wholly apart from the trio of worlds that the company already offered: the high fantasy of Warcraft , the space opera of Starcraft , the gothic horror of Diablo . What would be the most unexpected, most fantastical place they could take gamers next?

The answer, they decided, was Earth.

The team ultimately began working on a game that would be Blizzard’s first entry into the popular first-person-shooter genre, and they would determine it on Earth, sometime in the not-too-distant future.

But when they began researching other earthbound first-person shooters, they discovered a surplus of what Kaplan calls “cynical, borderline postapocalyptic dystopia.” In other terms, morbidly dark, gritty, and depressing. Lots of blood and gore. Games you’d feel a little weird about if you played them in front of your kids.

This led the team in a different and sort of revolutionary guidance: optimism. “We wanted it to be a future worth fighting for, ” Kaplan says. “So it’s a bright, aspirational future, and when conflict happens you have to go out and protect it, because this world is so awesome we can’t let anybody ruin it. So it actually led us to a place of hope.”

The basic premise of video games is that AI robots, designed to usher in an economic golden age for humanity, to continue efforts to take over “the worlds”. To respond to the crisis, the United Nation kinds Overwatch, a squad of fighters and adventurers recruited to quash the robot rebellion. The Overwatch forces defeat the robots, and then end up battling each other.

These characters–they’re called “heroes” in Overwatch lingo, and there are 26 of them as of this writing, though Blizzard tends to update this a lot–are the beating nerve of video games. As opposed to many other first-person shooters, where your avatar is just a kind of anonymous good guy or bad guy, the heroes you play in Overwatch have personality . They have persuasive origins and very human hopes and dreads and complicated its relation with the other heroes. There’s Mei, for example, a climate scientist who was stranded in her research station in Antarctica and has since become this gallant adventurer who nevertheless still wears these enormous, nerdy round glasses and an adorable poofy coat. Or Bastion, an anthropomorphic machine gun who’s friends with a tiny delicate fowl that he gently cares for. This play doesn’t only have backstory, it has lore , which is all explicated in animated web movies and comic book that are intended to drive “deep engagement, ” to borrow the language of Blizzard’s quarterly reports.

Overwatch super devotee Marcus Silvoso garmented as the healer hero Lucio.

Damon Casarez

Overwatch super fan Dorothy Dang as the tank hero D.VA.

Damon Casarez

The game is team-based, six versus six. If you’re playing Overwatch , you are playing with and against other real people who are connected to the internet and realise and hearing the same things as you. You can play as any of the 26 heroes, even swapping from one hero to another during the course of video games. Mostly, video games is played as a series of day rounds: The attacking team has four minutes to capture certain areas or move a warhead( envision: the pigskin going downfield) while the defending team tries to thwart them. Once time’s up, attackers and defenders switch roles for the next round. Whichever team captures more fields or moves the warhead farther wins the game, and if a player is killed in action, they have to wait 10 seconds( sometimes more) before rejoining the fight.

The formula–refreshing optimism plus interesting heroes plus shoot-’em-up act — was an immediate make. Overwatch became Blizzard’s fastest-growing game ever, a best seller that, after a little more than a year, has 35 million players and generates more than a billion dollars annually.

Nate Nanzer, who was Blizzard’s global director of research and customer insights leading up to Overwatch ’s launching, says the game’s popularity comes, in part, from gamers’ love for the heroes , noting especially the significance of a lineup that “looks like what the world looks like, ” by which he entails racially diverse, multinational, and equitably gendered.

The other thing Nanzer noticed early in Overwatch ’s developing cycle was a surge in interest in videogames as a spectator athletic. Esports originated largely in South Korea, with the game StarCraft: Brood War , roughly 20 years ago, and eventually find its lane onto Korean television. Then it hopped to Korean internet streaming platforms around 2003, which is when North American gamers began getting clued in. The popularity of gaming rivers eventually gave rise to Twitch, a platform that launched in 2011 and specializes in videogame livestreaming. By 2014, when Amazon bought Twitch for almost a billion dollars, the total number of minutes that people expended each year watching other people, mainly strangers, play videogames on Twitch was 192 billion. By the end of 2016, it had risen to 292 billion.

Even while Overwatch was in beta, devotees and entrepreneurs is currently being coordinating Overwatch tournaments, broadcasting matches live their lives Twitch. It was wholly grassroots, seriously hardcore, altogether decentralized, and kind of a mess. Nanzer wondered what would happen if Blizzard could take control of the tournaments. “If we arrangement a league the right way and threw the right investment behind it, we were able to monetize it in a way that’s not too dissimilar from traditional athletics, ” he says.

Enter Overwatch League.

Blizzard announced the undertaking in November 2016 at Blizzcon, the company’s annual convention. Overwatch League would be the world’s first esports undertaking to follow the North American athletics model: franchised squads in major metropolis, live spectator events, salaried jocks. Along with all the revenue opportunities offered by sports leagues–ticket sales, media rights, licensing, and so on–there were also a chance for “team-based virtual merchandise.” For instance, fans might be able to buy a “skin” so that when they’re playing Overwatch at home, their hero will be wearing the jersey of the Los Angeles Valiant.

“We are literally constructing a new athletic, ” says Nanzer, who was appointed the league’s commissioner last year. “We’re trying to build this as a sustainable athletics league for decades and decades to come.” And while you might suppose, at first glance, that such an desire is outrageously optimistic, the expertise recruited may change your intellect. The co-owner of the Boston Overwatch franchise, for example, is Robert Kraft, who likewise owns the New England Patriots. The owner of the New York franchise is Jeff Wilpon, COO of the New York Mets. Philadelphia’s Overwatch team is owned by Comcast, which also owns the Philadelphia Flyers. Blizzard hasn’t made publicly available the cost of a league franchise, but research reports are $20 million, and when I asked Nanzer about that number, he neither showed nor denied it, saying: “You know, if you hear the same rumor over and over again, you can figure out what that means.” So, OK, $20 million.

“There’s going to be kids who can say’ I play professional Overwatch for the same guy that Tom Brady plays for, ’” Nanzer said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Perhaps the most high-profile executive recruit for Overwatch League is Steve Bornstein. One of the early architects of ESPN and a former chairman of ABC Sports, he left its recent chore as CEO of the NFL Network to become Blizzard’s esports chair. When asked why he made the change from traditional athletics to electronic, Bornstein borrows an age-old Gretzky quote: “Skate to where the puck is going.”

“When I left the NFL, the only thing I ascertained that had the health risks to be as big was the esports space, ” he says. “What fascinated me was just the level of involvement, the fact that we measure consumption in billions of minutes consumed.”

And it’s growing, especially among younger people, which is not something that can be said of traditional sports. For the cord-cutter and cord-never generations, sports tend to be behind what is, in fact, a giant paywall. The big, exclusive contracts that leagues sign with the TV networks mean there are few other ways to access athletics content–which seems vexing or downright bizarre to people accustomed to getting their entertainment for free on YouTube.

The kill cam says, This is how you were killed, so let &# x27; s avoid that in the future.

Every major sport in the US has find the average age of its viewership increase since 2000. The NBA’s average devotee is 42. The median NFL fan is 50. The median MLB fan is 57. What’s more, these audiences are limited almost completely to Northern america. The Overwatch League, meanwhile, will begin with nine US squads and three from abroad–Shanghai, Seoul, and London( with more, I’m told, on the way )– and its average fan is a demographically pleasing 21 years old.

There’s no better symbol for Blizzard’s confidence in the game’s potential than the place it had decided to for its new home: Burbank Studios, Stage One. If that voices familiar, it’s likely because it’s the very same soundstage that Johnny Carson use when he brought The Tonight Show to California. Every match of Overwatch League’s inaugural season will be played here, while the teams work with Blizzard to bring matches to their respective hometowns in future seasons.

The studio’s centerpiece is the long dais up front, big enough for two entire Overwatch teams–six players on the left, six on the right. Each player will have their own personal husk( Blizzard’s term for what appears to be a simple table ), and each pod is separated from the adjacent pods by a space of a few inches, because apparently some musicians can get a little aroused during a match and bother their neighbors with their table-tapping or knee-banging or fist-pounding. Every player is issued a standard desktop computer and a standard monitor( 144 hertz ), though many players like to choose their own keyboard and mouse. Above everything are three enormous LED screens, approximately 20 feet by 11, this is gonna be depicting the audience the in-game act, as well as intermittent close-ups of the players themselves, their faces, their twitching hands.

The studio’s centerpiece is a long dais, big enough for two entire Overwatch teams–six musicians on the left, six on the right.

Damon Casarez

Kitty-corner to the players, stage right, is an elevated desk for the on-air talent–the hosts and analysts and interviewers. Backstage, these folks get their own hair and makeup chamber, one of the few places still serving its original Tonight Show role. Next to the analysts’ desk is a room for the “shoutcasters, ” which are what play-by-play commentators are called in esports. The word was coined in the earliest days of esports, before high-speed broadband constructed video streaming possible; the feeds were audio-only, and commentators use a Winamp plug-in called SHOUTcast to broadcast their voices. The epithet lives on, though. There’s even a paper videotapeed up on the door that says shoutcasters.

Taped to the next door, a piece of paper says commentators, which strikes me as sort of sinister, like the Eyes from The Handmaid’s Tale . The Observers are actually cinematographers who operate in the game’s digital space. If you’re watching an Overwatch match, you might be watching it in terms of one of the players or from the point of view of one of the Observers, who float around the players and capture the in-game activity as it unfolds. Imagine a camera operator at a hockey match skating around on the ice with the players and yet magically not interacting with them in any way. The Observers are like that.

Directly across the hallway from the Observers is where the technical stuff happens, all the wizardry needed to create a professional-looking sports broadcast: a whole room for instant replay, two rooms for audio, two control chambers with walls of flatscreen TVs. All told, it takes between 80 and 100 people to broadcast one match of the Overwatch League. Some of the people who work here say there’s a special significance in the league’s broadcasting from The Tonight Show ’s old home. It’s an obvious metaphor: new media supplanting age-old media. It all reminds Steve Bornstein of the moment in the early ’8 0s when he came aboard the fledgling ESPN, then only three months old. He says all the critics at the time argued there wouldn’t be any interest in a whole channel to be given to sports. Who would ever watch that?

Shoutcasters provide real-time play commentary for both in-studio and streaming audiences.

Damon Casarez

My first time playing Overwatch was astounding to me for two reasons: first, for the sheer sum of onscreen datum I was asked to digest at any given moment, the bullet tracers and grenade detonations, the bright blossoming energy shields and walls of ice that were sometimes mysteriously made and then shattered, plus the head-up display overlaying various timers and health bars and glowing mission objectives, and sometimes swimming yellow plus-sign things( which I eventually figured out mean I was get healed by someone, somehow ), plus all the pretty little environmental details like streetlamps that flicker a bit of lens flare onto your screen when you accidentally aim at them, the wooden chairs that splinter and the wine bottles that shatter when they take stray flame , not to mention the broad outlines of your teammates and all the adversary musicians who( for reasons that will become clear momentarily) tend to hop around constantly, spasmodically, virtually insectoidally–all of this happening at the same time in a way that felt not only disorienting , not only mentally taxing, but more like New York City air-traffic-control-level overwhelming.

The second thing I was astounded by was the number of days I died.

It was a little surprising to me how quickly, simply, and even sort of eagerly my character bit it. I was playing a hero called Reaper, whose whole basic bargain is to be an updated videogame version of the Undertaker character from WWF wrestling, circa-1 990 s, but with guns–a pair of shotguns that, instead of reloading, he flings to the ground and replaces by grabbing two new ones from under the folds of his black overcoat. I’m running to get into place with my teammates, meditating what exactly I’m supposed to be doing, and also idly wondering how many shotguns Reaper can hide under that coat.( The answer, it turns out, is infinite. Infinite shotguns. He never runs out. Just go with it .) Abruptly a firefight erupts ahead of me and I run up to aid my comrades and promptly get killed. Swiftly and abruptly and bewilderingly, I am dead. I have no suggestion why. This is when I am presented at the kill cam.

Let me tell you about the cruelty of the kill cam.

After you die in Overwatch and the camera pans back to show your now lifeless corpse on the ground, you suffer the kill cam, which shows you what you looked like and what you were doing the moment before you were killed, from the perspective of your killer. It’s like being able to watch your own face while getting dumped. As I succumbed over and over, I would be treated anew to kill-cam footage presenting just how long someone had me in their visions, how many kills they took before I even noticed, how I only stood there and sort of spun in place, dumbly looking around while my assassin patiently picked me off. According to the game’s developers, the kill cam’s primary role is not actually sadistic, but educational. The kill cam says: This is how you were killed, so how about avoiding that in the future, eh ?

Reaper is an updated videogame version of the Undertaker character from WWF wrestling, circa-1 990 s .

Blizzard Entertainment

The fact that it’s so easy to be killed means that musicians in Overwatch are never still for a second, which presents a cognitive challenge: You must keep track of 11 other musicians who are always in motion while you yourself zig and zag. Overwatch is, above all, a team play, and you have its own responsibility not only to avoid constant demise but likewise to avoid constant death while helping your team execute the proper strategy. The 26 Overwatch heroes shall be divided into four categories: eight are chiefly damage-dealers( offensive musicians that specialize in eliminating adversary musicians ); six are defensive; six are “tanks” designed to soak up a lot of damage to protect their squad; and six are healers who work as in-game medics. That works out to 230,230 possible six-hero “comps”( gamer lingo, born when the gaming community took the phrase “team composition” and nouned it ), and to be good at Overwatch you have to recognize each of these comps, understand what effect they’ll have on your own team’s comp, and react accordingly.

And by “react accordingly” I mean that you not only execute a certain strategy correctly, but you also, if there is a need, do so with any number of different heroes. Overwatch involves constant on-the-fly improvisational ability, an nearly instinctive reaction to ever-changing conditions inside the game. If you play a really great damage-dealer but the other squad is operating a comp that neutralizes your particular hero, you must be able to extemporaneously and at any time switch to a different hero with a different specialization that disrupts the other team’s strategy. Plus, each hero has up to four different abilities that they can deploy at various hours, including an “ultimate” ability that takes a long time to charge up and, when spend correctly, can be a total game-changer.

So that’s about a hundred different abilities from 26 different characters teamed up in one of 230,230 different combinations. It’s mind-boggling. The sheer number of variables in play seems to outperform the human brain’s ability to comprehend the scale and scope of big things. Which creates a few questions: How is it even possible to be good at this? I decided to travel to Redondo Beach, California, to the house where Stefano Disalvo lives with his team, to find out.

I arrive at the house at 11 am on a late September Friday, and Disalvo is sitting with his teammates in a large living room that has been entirely transformed for gaming purposes. Seven small agency tables have been arranged in two rows, each table equipped with personal computers monitor, keyboard, mouse, and mousepad, with a mass of cables and wires spread out around the PC towers on the flooring. Actually “towers” is the wrong term for these machines, which are enormous hexahedrons that appear less like information technology and more like glowing, diamond-shaped relics in a science-fiction movie about the future. All but one of the curtains are closed( to eliminate glare, I accept ), though the windows are open for the welcome and pleasant California sea breeze.

The house they’re sharing is a six-bedroom, 4,100 -square-foot grand Spanish-style building with orange roof tiles and a three-car garage. The kitchen is ambitiously large, with a double oven and a wine fridge that is poignantly empty. Almost no one who lives here is old enough to legally drink.

The team aftermaths early every day, and after reviewing footage of their performance from the previous day’s practices, they eat breakfast and walk to the beach for an hour of exercise.( Shane Flanagin, the team’s PR manager at the time of my visit, says the organization takes player health very seriously: They hire physical therapists, athletics psychologists, and an in-house chef, and they have a daily fitness routine. “We don’t want them to be stuck in chairs for nine hours without moving, ” he says–though from what I can tell, the players, left to their own devices, literally, would be happy to remain in their chairs for even longer .) By the time I arrive, the players are seated and warming up for their first “scrim” of the day.

A scrim is the primary lane a pro Overwatch team practices. The team’s coaches set up scrims with other pro squads, and the players will do three two-hour scrims a period, every day. Once the day’s first scrim begins, everything gets very serious, very fast. The players hunch their shoulders, and their eyes are about even with the top bevel of their monitor so that they’re seeming down at the screen, which stimulates them show, in profile, something like carnivores eyeing dinner. They give one another constant updates about what the other team is do, what heroes are currently used, what special abilities are available. Their shouted instructions and updates sound to me like soldiers speaking some kind of wacky code.

“Monkey monkey monkey! ”

“Are they right or left? ”

“Clear left! ”

“Inside! Saloon! Saloon! ”

“EMP! EMP! EMP! ” which, screamed very quickly, sounds like “ empee empee empee ! ”

In the kitchen, meanwhile, the team’s chef is busy cooking lunch. She seems to be successfully ignoring all of this.

Members of Team Valiant practice–or play “scrims”–for at least seven hours a day.

Damon Casarez

Despite living together, the players do not call one another by their real names. They exclusively use their screen epithets, so much so that I find it odd and even jarring to bellow Disalvo “Stefano.” Here, he’s Verbo, and the teammates he’s played with today are GrimReality( which everyone abbreviates to Grim ), Fate, resentment, and KariV, who, among all of them, seems the most likely to spontaneously scream or giggle or exclaim “What the fuck! ” very loudly and, I would think, distractingly, though the other players don’t seem to care or even really notice.

This is one of the ostensible reasons they all live together, so that they can get accustomed to each other’s tics and feelings and can develop the various kinds of shorthand with each other that I usually associate with best friend or intimates. They come from very different places–Verbo is Canadian, Grim is American, while Fate, resentment, and KariV are from Korea–but they need to communicate in the quickest style possible. Like video games itself, the team must operate with no lag.

Sitting in an adjoining chamber, the team’s director, Joshua Kim, and one of its tutors, Henry Coxall, observe that morning’s scrim in the game’s spectator mode. They discuss failures of strategy, how one musician was baited into a disadvantaged situation. But they likewise seem very attentive to their team’s emotional state. Any blip of negative feeling from any of the players is immediately registered and discussed. Kim talks about not bringing bad feelings to “work, ” and how living together presents a challenge on this front.

At 27, Kim is the old boy in the house. I ask him whether it’s hard sharing a living space with a bunch of teenage boys–and, yes, they’re all sons, and with the exception of one 20 -year-old, they’re all teens. The mansion itself carries the filthy evidence of this. The boys’ disposed shoes litter the front foyer. Their bedrooms are totally bare but for mattresses sitting on the storey surrounded by clusters of wrinkled clothes. The kitchen counters are covered with jars of peanut butter and Pop Tarts and a family-size box of Frosted Flake and protein gunpowder in big bulbous jugs and a few spraying bottles of Febreze.

I won’t even talk to you about the state of the bathroom.

But if this bothers Kim, he tries not to present it. “It teaches me patience, ” he says.

As the first scrim purposes, the players blink back into the reality of the living room, almost like they’re surprised happening there. There’s a sort of incorporeal quality to the players while they’re in video games: They play with such focus and intensity that, as soon as a match is over, it’s as if they suddenly realise the government had torsoes. They crack their knuckles and stretching and shake out the stiffness in their hands. They stray into the kitchen, where the cook has prepared a snack of mostly Korean fare: barbecued short rib, glazed chicken drumsticks, and a really fantastic fried rice. The musicians consume all of this in less than 10 minutes.

During their breaking I’m able to ask the questions that have been on my psyche: How do you discover to play this game at a high level? And how do you maybe keep track of everything that’s happening onscreen?

It’s Grim who first suggests the concept of “mental RAM.” The basic suggestion, he says, is that there is only so much the mind can process at once, an upper limit on the number of things any player can pay attention to; the key, then, is to threw as many things on autopilot as possible, so you have fewer things to consciously think about. “For a lot of people who aren’t pro, aiming takes a lot of concentration, ” Grim says. “It gives you less room to be considered other things. So that’s why I practice truly, really hard on my aiming, so I can think more about my positioning and what I need to do next.”

Grim, whose real epithet is Christopher Schaefer, is 18 years old and from Chico, California. He is one of the team’s primary damage-dealers. Like Verbo, Grim wanted more than anything to be an esports professional. And like Verbo, he decided to go pro in Overwatch before he’d ever played it. When he first began the game–at 16 — he was “really bad, ” he says. “I would expend hours at a time merely practising flicks.”

I interrupt to ask: What’s a flick?

“It’s basically starting from one point of the screen and then snapping to the enemy’s psyche or something. And so it’s a very fast muscle-memory movement.”

Being able to flick effectively is essential to pro play-act. It requires you to understand the exact ratio of mouse-movement to game-space distance, plus how to compensate if, for example, you’re moving left and your target is to the right, which will require an extra millimeter or so of flick, and you were supposed to possess the kinesthetic torso awareness to do this with your hand and wrist perfectly almost 100 percentage of the time. This is why pro players’ mouse selections are so personal and why the team insists that, with any sponsorship deal with any corporation that sells peripherals, musicians always get to choose their own mouse. Grim employs a Logitech G9 03 with a DPI of 800 and an in-game mouse sensitivity setting of five. He is now, suffice it to say, inordinately good at flicking.

“A lot of people is considered that I simply have natural flair, ” he says, laughing. “No , no , not at all. It took a lot, a lot, a lot of practice to be able to purpose properly.”

After the lunch violate, the teammates return to their stations for more sitting, more scrims, more shouting.

“Monkey’s up for a jump-start! Monkey monkey! I’m dead.”

“Small regroup! Regroup! ”

“I’m on soldier, I’m on soldier! ”

“We have numbers! Let’s go! ”

“Monkey monkey! ”

About the monkey: One hero named Winston is a supersmart, genetically engineered gorilla who has the ability to jump-start actually far, right into the centre of the scrum. And when an opponent team’s Winston lands nearby, he’s automatically your team’s number 1 target. If you take down Winston, you can really disrupt the other team’s strategy. So when he grounds, everyone screams his epithet. But because “Winston” is hard to say many times fast, Overwatch musicians started calling him “monkey.” The consequence is that, for the many hours I watched the Los Angeles Valiant play scrims, as I was dutifully taking notes and thinking earnestly about how this might be the future of sports , every few minutes this whole pack of teenage sons would abruptly burst out screaming, “Monkey monkey monkey monkey! ”

Overwatch super fan Joe Silvoso as the defensive hero Junkrat.

Damon Casarez

In late September, three months before the league’s first regular-season game and a mere 60 -some days from the start of preseason play, Disalvo shakes his head in skepticism at the prospect of playing for the Los Angeles Valiant. “It feels like I’m part of something that’s going to be big, like very big, ” he says. “There’s going to be billboards? I’m gonna be representing a city like Los Angeles? Like … what? That’s crazy.”

It’s especially crazy given that he didn’t actually move to LA to join the Valiant. His first professional esports contract, the one that attained peace with his mother, actually came from an organization called the Immortals, one of the independent esports brands, known as endemics, that battleground squads in a number of different videogames.( The Immortals, for example, have squads that play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends , among others .) Endemic teams have been in esports for a long time and have been essential to its growth. They’re well known within gaming circles, but they are not billion-dollar organizations like Blizzard or the New England Patriots, and thus they are not able to be as generous with their players.

Jake Lyon, a 21 -year-old from San Diego whose screen epithet is the refreshingly straightforward “JAKE, ” is one of the best damage-dealers in Overwatch . He earned about $2,000 a month as the states members of an endemic called Luminosity Gaming–that is, until the Luminosity Overwatch roster disbanded in mid-2 017, as Blizzard began consolidating control over professional Overwatch play. “In the past there’s been no security in an esports contract, ” he says. “Even though we were signed to a two-year contract with Luminosity, there’s always a clause–and it’s not just them, every single esports contract looks like this–that says they can buy you out for one month’s salary. When the decision is it’s your last month: goodbye.”

Lyon went on to sign with the Overwatch League’s Houston Outlaws, and he says the new league is a “huge improvement.” Contracts are guaranteed for at the least a year, after which the team will have a second-year option with a prenegotiated wage. And, critically, players cannot be fired during the length of their contract, unless they’re guilty of something that would get them burnt from any job.

Players is supplied with dwelling, health insurance, a retirement program, and a minimum league wage of $50,000, though Lyon believes that most players who are among a team’s starting six will earn much more than that.( Most teams likewise have a few backup players .) Plus, there’s revenue sharing and a prize pool of $3.5 million for successful squads,$ 1 million of which is reserved for the inaugural season’s eventual champions.

When he signed his contract with Houston, Lyon sat at his computer clicking his e-signature to the document’s relevant places, and he recognise how different it was from what had come before. “Maybe this could be the style esports is going forward, ” he says. “That it can be a legitimate job, and that it’s not like someone is going all-in on some fragment of a dream.”

Inside Blizzard arena, three enormous L.E.D. screens, approximately 20 feet by 11, prove the audience the in-game activity and player reactions.

Damon Casarez

It &# x27; s hard not to notice that, as of this writing, there are no women working in any of the rosters of any of the 12 teams in Overwatch League. “They are all dudes, ” Nanzer says, shaking his head. It’s something he’s been thinking a lot about, and he admits that part of the problem is culture. Gaming can be seen as acceptable and normal behaviour for sons, but not inevitably for girls.( Though many studies show that roughly equal numbers of men and women play videogames casually, competitive play-act remains overwhelmingly male .) “There was never an issue that I was going to sit and play games with my son, ” he said. “But then the other day my daughter asked me,’ Can I play Overwatch too? ’ and I was like, oh shit, I gotta be better about this. I gotta receiving treatment equal.”

And the women who do play Overwatch often find themselves to be targets of harassment. Glisa is the screen epithet for a 19 -year-old Overwatch player who live in Portland, Oregon. Despite being busy with her college examines, Glisa is one of the top 100 Overwatch musicians in terms of time spent in video games. She has so far logged thousands of hours of gameplay, and she continues a YouTube channel with highlight reels. But sometimes she posts videos of her interactions with other gamers. She uploaded a montage lately called “Online Gaming as a Girl.”

“That was spawned after I had several different, very toxic encounters with people who brought up the fact that I was female many times and tried to use that to degrade me, ” she says.

This will voice familiar to anyone who has followed the frights of Gamergate over the past few years, and the video is hard to watch. The gamers she encounters aren’t simply being a little insensitive–they are straight-up knuckle-dragging misogynists 😛 TAGEND

“You’re such a bimbo.”

“You’re probably ugly.”

“Grab her by the pussy.”

“Women’s rights are a fucking joke.”

And on and on and on.

“The internet is a very angry place, ” Glisa says. After posting the video, she received emails and comments from people criticizing her “for not being able to deal with it, for being weak, for observing this upsetting.”

She was also contacted by other female Overwatch musicians who’d had similar run-ins. “Other women who were like, this is why I don’t join voice chat and never talk to people; this is why I use a male-style username. And that’s what upsets me the most. I don’t feel like people should have to hide who they are to be able to feel safe.”( Glisa didn’t want to use her real epithet for this article. She says she’s going to be applying for jobs soon, and if potential employers Google her, she doesn’t want them to think she’s someone who complains about sexual harassment. Which sort of demonstrates her level .)

I ask her how it induced her was of the view that something she adoration can also be so hurtful. “Disappointed, ” she says, “in life, in the universe, for being this behavior. Sometimes it affects me a lot more, and I leave the voice channel so I don’t have to deal with it. There are periods that are just a lot harder than other days, and I try to insulate myself more from the anger.”

The sheer number of variables in play seem to be surpass the human brain’s abilities.

Overwatch executives are quick to point out there’s a system in place for musicians to report toxic behavior, and hundreds of thousands of accounts ought to have disciplined for the type of harassment that Glisa describes.( She reported each of the players who harassed her, but she is not sure whether they received suspensions or proscriptions. The system needs project .) Still, their own problems persists, and if Overwatch is a game that requires constant communication between players, and women are made to feel uncomfortable communicating within the game, then perhaps it’s clear why few of them go pro.

Ysabel Muller is an Overwatch player who live in Rodenbach, Germany. She began playing the game while “hes still” in beta, and she became highly ranked and friendly with a lot of the pros she played with. She says she had designings on running pro herself but found that get useful feedback from her teammates was difficult. They treated her, she says, like she couldn’t suffer criticism–that if criticized she would be offended and accuse her teammates of sexism and get them kicked out of the game.

“That’s a big fear of some of the male musicians, and so they’d rather distance themselves, ” she says. She didn’t ultimately go pro in Overwatch . Instead, she helped organize regional tournaments. She’s now sending out applications to Overwatch League squads, hoping for a occupation in team management and player relations.

“I think it will change over the years, once more female musicians come in and it gets more accepted, ” she says.

Blizzard seems to be trying to solve this problem from within. Kim Phan, Blizzard’s director of esports functionings, says the company has been proactive in hiring women, including for key on-air shoutcaster jobs, which she hopes promoting the development of female involvement in esports.

And while she says these kinds of visible females role model are essential, Phan also stressed the importance of men advocating and supporting women in gaming.

“Having mentors, advisers, who are men is very impactful, ” she says. “It gives you the gallantry to stay because you know that the toxic voice is just one among many other voices. It’s a reminder that not everyone is like that.”

When asked what the Overwatch League was doing to attract more female musicians , nobody at Blizzard could point to any particular outreach or recruiting endeavors. Nanzer says he’s been looking at data from women-only athletics leagues like the WNBA that propose a women’s league would bring more women into the game. “The idea comes up all the time: Should we have a women’s-only tournament or league? ” he says. “I think there’s a way to do that where it’s awesome and supportive and grows the athletic. I think there is a route to do it where it’s actually detrimental and it attains it seem like, oh, you’re not as good as humankinds. We kind of go back and forth on that.”

Back in Redondo Beach, the early evening sunlight is streaking in through gaps in the curtains as the Los Angeles Valiant begins its last scrim of the day. Tonight’s match is against another Overwatch League team, the San Francisco Shock, which lately made headlines by signing superstar damage-dealer Jay “sinatraa” Won for a rumored $150,000 a year.

And while I’m still a noob at Overwatch , even I can tell that this San Francisco team plays with an unusual intensity. “They’re a team of 17 -year-olds who just do not stop, ” says Coxall, the Valiant coach, making the Shock sound young and insane as reject the Valiant’s qualities of wisdom and tactics. “If you think you’ve won a fight, you haven’t, ” he tells the team. “These guys will maintain hurling themselves at you. And one of them will clutch. Always expect that.”

I ask him about that term, “clutch, ” and he explains that it refers to someone overcoming questionable odds to win. In other words, the Shock’s strategy is not necessarily to maneuver as a squad but rather to have their musicians engage in apparently suicidal encounters and trust that they have the skill to pull it off. It’s unrelenting, high-intensity pressure designed to fluster opponents.

It’s a reminder that this is truly a young person’s game–not just in its audience but also in its musicians. When I asked Christopher Schaefer, aka Grim, how long he thought he’d has become a pro, he didn’t have high hopes. “Normally you can compete until you’re about 25, ” he says. “Right now, up until when I’m around 21, 22 -ish, I’m going to be the sharpest. But as soon you reach 25, your reaction accelerates are going to slow down.”

Stefano Disalvo said the same thing: “How long do I guess I’ll play? I say perhaps four years, five years.”

When he decided to become an esports professional, Disalvo did not know that Overwatch League would exist. He committed to going pro during a period when the pay was uncertain and there was no job security, despite knowing that it would last simply five years max.

Which seems just astonishingly irrational. What drove him to do it? “I realized everybody doing the norm: college, university, major in something, ” he says. “But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something more because I felt like I wanted to prove something. I don’t know. It felt like this thing that I had to prove.”

Which constructs sense to me. That, yes, for the people who run pro in esports, there’s a certain happiness in playing videogames for a living. But maybe more than that, esports allows people an boulevard to do something different, to be special. Like musicians or actors or novelists seeking an unlikely dream, it strikes me as both romantic and brave.

Meanwhile, to try to assimilated the Shock’s frantic offense, the Valiant team has figured out a new strategy. They go with a hero lineup that’s bigger–more tanks, more health.

“Niiiiiiice, ” comes a chorus from around the chamber when they finally win a round.

“There you go, boys, ” Coxall says into his headset’s microphone. “You took control. ”

The sun has gone down, but nobody seems to have noticed. By the end of the last scrim of the working day, they are playing in the dark.

Nathan Hill ( @nathanreads) is the author of The Nix. This is his first part for WIRED.

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