The Only Game in Town
Launching just about anything during a pandemic is a recipe for failure. Unless, that is, it’s an e-sports franchise. The Toronto Defiant, the newest entrant in the multi-billion-dollar world of online gaming, is giving sports addicts—plus mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and at least two Toronto Raptors—their competitive fix in a strange time
In mid-April, with most of the world still on lockdown and just about every professional sports season scuttled, what was a superstar athlete to do? If you were LeBron James, you meditated and played one-on-one with your son. Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, whiled away the hours on a stationary bike. Vlad Guerrero Jr. reverted to vitilla, the broomstick-and-bottle-cap version of stickball he played as a kid in the Dominican. But for Surefour, the unofficial captain of the Toronto Defiant, one of the most recent expansion teams in the Overwatch League, it was business as usual.
If the words in that sentence mean as much to you as the lyrics in a Megan Thee Stallion rap, bear with me. Surefour is a 25-year-old Calgarian born Lane Roberts and known to pro video gamers as one of the best Overwatch players in the world. Overwatch is an immensely popular first-person shooter video game that debuted in 2016 and immediately became a fixture in the world of e-sports. The Overwatch League—known as OWL—was founded two years later and now comprises 20 teams, from Shanghai to Paris, all of which, pre-pandemic, played to live audiences in arenas and concert halls on almost every continent. Barring a new Avengers movie starring Cristiano Ronaldo and Serena Williams, it could be the most beloved entertainment on earth.
In March, as cities and countries were ordered to stay indoors, the audience for Overwatch exploded. Athletes much better known for their skills on the court and the ice flocked to the game. Luka Doncic, a young NBA superstar and long-time Overwatch and Call of Duty fan, used to game a couple of hours a day. Now, he’s on his computer and Twitter constantly, grousing about Overwatch minutiae. Raptors Chris Boucher and Malcolm Miller and Maple Leaf Mitch Marner are teaming up with e-sports players in Call of Duty matches. Leafs forward Zach Hyman, already a big gamer and investor in the space, has been playing for charity against Marner and streaming their games on Twitch, the Amazon-owned livestreaming video platform. Nobody thinks that e-sports will permanently replace traditional sports, but for the time being, they are a welcome substitute.
Unlike the NBA and the NHL, OWL’s teams didn’t stop playing when the pandemic shut everyone inside. Since players already had their own PCs, headsets and particular keyboard-and-mouse setups, they could just roll out of bed in time for matches. The season was already being broadcast on YouTube’s gaming channel. Colour commentators worked remotely, too. It was an inadvertent kind of homecoming.
In Surefour’s Liberty Village condo, which he shares with another Defiant player, a Belgian named Andreas “Logix” Berghmans, the shift was greeted with understated glee. Prior to the pandemic, Surefour, who is pale and rabbity, with floppy brown hair that he often dyes platinum-blond, really only left his place to practise with the team or to travel to matches. All his meals were delivered. When he wasn’t playing Overwatch, he was playing other video games. When he wasn’t competing, he was livestreaming his games on Twitch. While the rest of us were adjusting to working from home in our soft pants, Surefour was wearing the same uniform he’s always worn: a black hoodie and sweats. He wasn’t finding it difficult to stay away from people. Quite the contrary: he has always preferred his own company. “In social stuff, there’s a lot of drama,” Surefour told me. “A lot of stuff you have to force. Societal standards. And I just don’t want to deal with it for the most part.” Aside from the lack of travel, which he loathed anyway, his new normal was just like his old normal. “Literally, nothing has changed,” he said. “If there was no Internet, then we would be fucked.” The Defiant’s general manager, Jaesun Won, put it less colourfully: “In a way, we’ve been practising for a shutdown for a long time.”
Today, traditional sports junkies really have only two ways to get their competitive fix: they can watch reruns of old games on Sportsnet or YouTube, or dive into the intriguing, if unfamiliar, world of e-sports. In the U.S., according to Verizon, gaming increased 75 per cent between March 8 and 15. Some servers, including the one the Defiant use, were overwhelmed with traffic and temporarily shut down. Just as the NHL was facing a billion-dollar revenue hole and estimates put the NBA at $500 million in lost ticket sales alone, the gaming platform Steam reported record numbers of players—up to 24 million a day in early April. The Twitch audience rose 23 per cent in March, with viewers logging more than 1.2 billion hours. Jon Spector, the VP of Overwatch E-sports, told me that in China and South Korea, where the league broadcasts live matches during prime time, viewership has been unprecedented. In other words, the pandemic became a great time to launch. “With our city-based model, if you’re a Leafs fan or a Raptors fan and you’re missing your regular sport, you have the ability to get behind the Defiant.”
Video games have been a popular pastime for half a century, but the widespread adoption of broadband Internet in the late ’90s and cheaper PCs made them something you could play with people you didn’t know, all over the world. Then, a few years later, thanks to Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Mixer, you could watch other people play video games all over the world. Specifically, people who could play video games very well or who could accompany their gameplay with captivating commentary. Those platforms enabled individual gamers to be, all at once, broadcasters, viewers and participants, and gave birth to a generation of gaming superstars (the most famous being the American legend known as Ninja). Streaming also allowed for the broadcast of professional gaming tournaments and leagues. By the 2010s, e-sports were a global phenomenon, with league owners and operators adopting familiar business models and concepts from traditional sports—including broadcast rights, sponsorship, ticket sales and merchandise. Something like a Hollywood director remaking a successful foreign film in the hope of broadening the original’s appeal.
Overwatch arrived in this world on May 24, 2016. It was the creation of Blizzard Entertainment, a video game developer in Irvine, California, the wizards behind World of Warcraft and StarCraft. (Blizzard is a division of Activision Blizzard, which in 2017 joined the Fortune 500, only the third gaming company to do so.) Overwatch borrowed a lot from classic games—Halo, Mega Man, Team Fortress 2—but, crucially, from early on, the game was conceived so that an e-sports league, owned and operated by Blizzard, could be built around it. When the Overwatch League launched in January 2018, the monthly audience for e-sports was already 167 million, larger than either the NHL’s or MLB’s, and by 2022, it’s expected to reach 276 million, roughly equivalent to the monthly audience for the NFL.
Overwatch was calibrated for maximum expansion and inclusivity. It’s a first-person shooter, yes, but largely free of the blood and machismo associated with the genre. Its heroes are racially diverse and roughly half are women. It also has an intricate and extensive backstory, which Blizzard captured in dozens of animated shorts and comics, all available on the game’s website. That backstory Frankensteins together a number of dystopian pop-culture references, from Planet of the Apes to Watchmen. The cast of characters, or heroes—there are 32 playable ones—is eclectic: there’s the scientist Winston, a genetically enhanced super-gorilla; McCree, a bounty hunter and gunslinger out of Santa Fe; Tracer, a British time-jumping adventurer, one of two LGBTQ characters in the game; and Symmetra, an autistic “architech” whose weaponry includes a photon projector and a teleporter.
Each hero has a number of unique abilities, as well as specific weaponry. But you do not play alone—your hero is part of a six-person team that fights another six-person team. Each hero, however, is strong against some heroes and weak against others. So, in a six-on-six game, just as in most traditional sports, team composition is important. One mistake, from the wrong combination of heroes to a hero not pulling his or her weight, can cost you the match. The battles unfold across 28 maps, which depict places both real (Havana, Hollywood) and fictional (Horizon Lunar Colony, Blizzard World).
Overwatch’s most salient characteristic is this emphasis on team play, and strategies, both offensive and defensive, are based on how each team is composed. But this works on two levels—there are the heroes that each player chooses to play in a game, along with their corresponding abilities and weapons, and there are the players themselves, with their own personalities and skill sets. Putting together a successful team requires finding people who mesh, and communicate, extremely well.
Overwatch was an instant success, the fastest of Activision Blizzard’s titles to reach more than 30 million players. Traditional sports franchise owners had been sniffing around the e-sports industry for years, and some of the wealthiest, most powerful investors in the world purchased those first franchises: the Kraft Group, owners of the New England Patriots, bought the Boston slot and the Kroenke family (Arsenal, the Colorado Avalanche) one of L.A.’s two slots. Those first franchises sold for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (U.S.) in total, and Activision Blizzard struck a two-year broadcast deal with Twitch for $90 million (U.S.). The league’s first championship finals event drew almost 11 million viewers, streaming simultaneously on Twitch, Major League Gaming and ESPN.
Chris Overholt watched all this with acute interest. The Toronto native had helped the Raptors secure their foothold in the Toronto market, rebranded the Leafs and launched the Air Canada Centre. In 2003, he decamped for Florida and the NFL, taking charge of marketing for the Panthers and, later, doing the same for the Miami Dolphins. He returned home just after the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, becoming CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, charged with making Canadians care about the Games in non–Olympic years. He stayed for eight years.
Overholt was proud of the work he had done, thrilled that he’d helped to establish young organizations like the Raptors and reinvigorate older ones like the Canadian Olympic Committee. But he could see that sport was changing. Or, more specifically, the way sport works as entertainment and how we consume that entertainment. “There’s a whole generation,” Overholt says, “the Gen-Zs, or that crossover Gen-Z-millennial generation, that is not interested in a three-hour viewing experience on a cable television network unless it’s a special sports moment or playoffs. They’re on multiple screens at the same time—they’re watching e-sports but they’re also on TikTok and Twitter, chatting online.”
But rather than try to lure kids back by tweaking traditional sports, Overholt instead went to where the kids were. In late 2016, he visited Activision Blizzard executives at Blizzard’s headquarters in Irvine, California. The company is considered the Apple of the gaming industry, and Overholt was dazzled by what he calls the “artisanal” quality of their products. “They had a great reputation for what the community calls ‘polishing,’ ” he says, “the detail in how they build the heroes, the lore behind the games. Blizzard is perhaps the best in the industry at doing that.” When Activision Blizzard decided to expand, offering slots in OWL to eight new cities, including Paris, Vancouver and Toronto, as well as launching a separate Call of Duty league, also with a Toronto team, Overholt was ready to become part of it. In the spring of 2018, he got a call from an old friend, the Toronto tech entrepreneur Sheldon Pollack. Over the years, Pollack had invested in several e-sports organizations. Now he was teaming up with venture capitalist Adam Adamou and Michael Kimel (co-owner of the Chase Hospitality Group, restaurants like Planta and Arthur’s, and minority owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins) to acquire the Toronto OWL franchise. He wanted Overholt to become CEO of OverActive Media, the company they were forming. It would mean building a franchise from scratch, in a business he was only just familiar with, with teams playing games he barely understood. But he had already made himself part of sport’s history; now he could help define its future. He said yes.
There was a lot on the line, at least financially. OverActive had secured the Toronto franchise for approximately $46 million (CDN)—a bit more than the cost of the initial slots, which went for $20 million (U.S.)—a hefty price tag based reportedly on the size of the Toronto market and the number of local Overwatch players, but also on the growing valuations of other e-sports organizations. (In 2018, Immortals and Cloud 9, which both own League of Legends teams, were valued at $100 million and $310 million (U.S.) respectively, according to Forbes.) But as has been the case with many digital products and services—Amazon, Uber, DoorDash—e-sports still weren’t yet profitable for anybody. Activision Blizzard saw a path in adhering to a tried-and-true traditional sports model, and Overholt, with his background in that world, was a good fit.
He had to move quickly. He and his staff (a handful of whom were with him at the COC) had about six weeks to create a team name, identity and brand. They called the team the Defiant, a nod to what they considered Toronto’s scrappy, iconoclastic character. Overholt sent some of them to South Korea—to Overwatch what Canada is to hockey—and recruited a team entirely with the best Korean players they could afford. This was sort of a soft launch. When they moved toward a home-and-away match structure, OverActive completely rebuilt its roster so as to better appeal to hometown fans. Overholt put a 41-year-old lifelong gamer named Marty Strenczewilk in charge of every player, coach, analyst and sports sciences person within the company’s ranks. In building the team, what was he looking for? Mainly, a roster in which Toronto could see itself. That meant getting a few Canadians, but also going as diverse, and as relatable, as possible. “This isn’t about just winning games, right?” Strenczewilk says. “We’re building an entertainment property here.” He started more or less at the top, poaching the head coach of the Paris Eternal, an even-keeled 28-year-old Frenchman named Félix “Féfé” Münch. With the Eternal, Münch basically had to work with players he had been given, but the Defiant gave him an opportunity to mould the team in his image. “The most important thing to me was for players to be open-minded,” he says, meaning that they would be receptive to strategic input from both coaching staff and teammates—not always a guarantee in the gaming world. “And when I talked to them, I wanted to see if they were willing to sacrifice a little bit of themselves for the larger project.” This dovetailed well with another criterion Strenczewilk had for the prospective team: “No assholes.”
Long before they were restricted to their own apartments, the Toronto Defiant—currently three Canadians, one American, two South Koreans, a Belgian, a Swede and a Dane, all men aged 19 to 25, no assholes—spent almost all their time in Liberty Village. They practised in a subterranean facility on Fraser Avenue that neighbours a yoga studio. Dimly lit, with a monochromatic colour palette, long rows of PCs and Herman Miller gaming chairs, and a communal dining area ringed with lockers, it might have been a particularly aspirational airport lounge business centre. Nearby, the teams and coaching staff all live in the same condo building, with players sharing two-bedroom units. The league provides housing during the season, health insurance, a retirement plan and a base salary of $50,000 (U.S.)—though star players reportedly command up to $300,000. They practise six to eight hours a day, and even given the shakeup to the season, will play 28 regular-season games. When they’re not working, they unwind, for the most part by playing other video games. Before the pandemic, when I asked a few players if they socialized outside of work, their answer was always the same—they sometimes went out to eat together, usually for Korean barbecue. Before WFH became a popular acronym, OverActive maintained temporary offices across the street from the practice facility, in a co-working space called the Fueling Station. (Overholt generally worked on a laptop at a shared table near the kitchen.)
This tightly circumscribed arrangement was OverActive’s attempt to make its players’ professional lives as uncomplicated as possible. But it was also an illustration of how narrowly focused the pro gamer’s world can be. Video games invite obsession. They are designed to keep players in their chairs or on their couches in ways that traditional sports obviously do not. You don’t need to leave your home to play. Running can become addictive, and I’ve played many a game of soccer or basketball where, in the proverbial zone, time and thought and fatigue seem to vanish. But muscles and cardiovascular systems have limits. Even at a competitive level, you’re not going to play a traditional sport for more than a few hours a day. Gamers, meanwhile, can play their games for days on end, with minimal breaks. That said, there are no ageless wonders like Vince Carter in OWL. As players approach 30, reflexes slow, hand-eye co-ordination dulls, and players quickly age out.
The average age of the Defiant players is 22. When assembled, the team looks like a particularly large boy band, indifferent to sunlight, exceptionally enthusiastic about leisure wear, obsessed with their phones. Surefour is the Defiant’s oldest player, and he arrived in Toronto already a superstar. Born in Calgary, he’s been playing video games more or less his whole life. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father left for Mississippi, where he managed warehouses for his brother’s salvage business. Surefour was studying electronics engineering technology at the University of Mississippi when a friend turned him on to Overwatch, telling him that it was going to be the next big e-sport. There was lots he liked about it—it was a well-polished FPS, made by a reputable company, and it was made for PC, as opposed to a console game, which are generally inferior in terms of responsiveness. He appreciated its diversity and inclusivity. Ultimately, though, Overwatch simply appealed to his competitive instincts. “I just play it because I like being better than other people,” he told me. Last year, as a member of the L.A. Gladiators, he was one of OWL’s all-stars—if not the league’s LeBron, then maybe its Anthony Davis. He threw the first pitch out at a Dodgers game; his jersey was the third-highest-selling in the league. On his Twitch stream, Surefour is known for being chill and friendly, but also for speaking his mind. In person, he is droll, guarded and vaguely imperious. “I’m a blunt person,” he says, bluntly.
For all their solitude, introspection, as I found with all the Defiant players I spoke to, is not a prized skill. Or maybe just introspection performed for a middle-aged noob asking questions. Part of it, also, might have been the fact that professional gamers, like any other athletes, are extraordinarily focused. When Surefour took a break from practice, he didn’t get up and stretch his legs or rest his eyes; instead, he toggled to another screen on his PC and played Osu!, a reflex-sharpening game in which you click on proliferating circles in time to a musical beat. Because the professional life of a gamer is brief, they have to maximize their time, and their winnings, in a hurry. (For owners, this is a boon. “Physiologically, you’re just going the wrong way by the time you’re 24,” Overholt told me. “This keeps the player market relatively fresh and keeps downward pressure on their salaries.”) Surefour is close to aging out of OWL but has seemingly spent very little time thinking about what will happen next. He might go back to school, he says, maybe study entomology or gemology. Though he has likely made millions (Surefour will only say “a comfortable amount”) playing Overwatch—from streaming advertising, sponsorship and the myriad rewards that come in-game and from tournaments—he has little interest in money or in the cars and clothes it can buy. He held up his only indulgence—a sapphire ring that, when he plays, he wears on the index finger of his left, keyboard hand. He plans to get a ruby and an emerald too, to eventually decorate his whole hand. It’s less a display of wealth than a brand exercise, like his dyed hair, a way to distinguish himself from the other man-boys in the game. “I don’t need much in life,” he said.
Just before the season began, in early January, at the Sheraton near the Eaton Centre, OverActive held a summit that brought together all its players, coaches and front-office staff from its various teams and leagues—approximately 150 people. The goal, ostensibly, was to remind everyone that OverActive was one big happy team, and to instill in each member of that team an understanding and appreciation of their professional roles. Among other presenters, Overholt had brought in a sports psychologist to speak for an hour about how she worked with Olympic athletes. By the time they arrive at the show, traditional athletes have spent most of their young lives in a crucible of discipline and high expectations, supported by a well-established network of professional development and mentorship. They have a maturity and understanding of what’s expected of them. Gamers—arguably more individualistic, and many drawn to the pastime not out of any professional ambition but because they’re isolated, bored, socially phobic, disaffected or simply love shooting and blowing stuff up—have not traditionally enjoyed such a framework. Overholt and his staff were trying to build that framework as quickly as possible.
Overholt, now 55, who’s fit, relaxed and square-jawed, spoke with a salesman’s ease and eagerness. In a sea of hoodies and sneakers, he was wearing a crisp black shirt and polished Chelsea boots. An outsider could read much in that sartorial divide. How did this room of accomplished, talented and, in some cases, quite affluent young nerds feel about being told how to conduct their business and their lives by this handsome jock? Gamers—those isolated, disaffected kids—had created a new and extremely lucrative popular culture, in some ways in opposition to the real world, and here was the real world, in the form of investor groups and old-school sports guys, seemingly poised to exploit it. Could these two cultures really mix?
Overholt dismissed those concerns. “I’m still the old guy who runs the company, right?” Overholt told me. “I’m not sure if I get all the players either. And I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation of me to expect that of them. But my message to them as CEO is that you are pros, carry yourself like pros, and this is what we expect of you.” Marty Strenczewilk can see both sides of it. He said there was genuine concern on the part of some fans that the thing they loved might get irrevocably changed or even disappear. “That’s always a concern of any niche group,” he says. “This is my neat thing—I don’t want you to ruin it. Indie rock faced that, extreme sports like snowboarding faced that. You want it to stay cool, and all of a sudden it’s sponsored by Mountain Dew.” At the same time, he said, this line of thinking underestimated how mutually beneficial gaming and traditional sport had become. OWL’s sponsors have included Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and State Farm, and OverActive signed Bell as a lead sponsor, Canon as their equipment provider, and struck a deal with Universal Music that would have their artists played in promos and at live events. One of the music world’s most renowned gamers, The Weeknd, is an investor.
But also, maybe I was just asking the wrong questions. Like most video games, Overwatch provides both its players and spectators with all the things that traditional sports and games also offer: a sense of accomplishment, a forum for creative problem-solving, community, camaraderie. In a world where two billion people play video games, the gamer stereotype I still clung to was increasingly inaccurate. And, if anything, the pandemic would soon make this even truer. With basketball hoops stripped from schoolyards, with playground equipment taped up and social gatherings interminably curtailed, video games became one of the few places people could have fun with other people, whether those people were down the street or on the other side of the globe. Nobody wants their kids playing Fortnite all day, but in this long, anxious, confusing moment, gaming gives families an outlet and refuge. While kids were forced into online classes, a tab away they could hone other skills (collaboration, critical thinking) on gaming platforms. Adults with or without kids, meanwhile, were discovering (or rediscovering) the myriad, ageless pleasures of video games: the thrill of unpredictability and the comfort of control, the exploration of imaginary worlds, the zest of competition. While the pandemic has reduced our lives almost entirely to screens, all those Zoom calls and Google Meet yoga classes were designed to keep us somehow rooted in the real world. Gaming takes us away from it.
In early February—the predemic times—I got a glimpse of what OWL was supposed to look like. At the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, the Defiant faced off against the Paris Eternal as part of the opening weekend of season three. The Ballroom was boisterous, with an audience of two thousand erupting in applause when the teams took to the stage and sat behind their computer monitors. The game unfolded on an immense screen above their heads, and the crowd moaned with delight as a player went on a killing spree or executed a particularly deft manoeuvre. After the Defiant eventually won the match, the image of the game was replaced with a live shot of Surefour, twirling his sapphire ring, grinning diabolically. When the team came out to do postgame interviews, 19-year-old Adam “Beast” Denton, the Defiant’s youngest player, was greeted by his giddy parents, in from Atlanta. His mother gave him a big hug, then jokingly recoiled at his locker-room funk.
Now, however, no one is hugging anyone. The Hammerstein Ballroom is dark and New York is a ghost town. Our dystopia looks nothing like the one in Overwatch, but is something closer to a state of suspended animation that no one was prepared for. The members of the Defiant have retreated to their respective condo units, and aside from occasional visits from their masked, gloved GM, see nobody but their roommates. Undeterred, they keep playing, and playing, and playing. And while individual franchises might have lost significant money in ticket revenue, OWL itself is still growing. In mid-April, it announced yet another sponsorship deal, this time with the U.S. telecom company Xfinity. Activision Blizzard routinely tinkers with the game, adding new patches that keep players on their toes and fans on the edges of their beanbag chairs. A sequel, Overwatch 2, is in the works and will feature a Toronto map.
Like all of us, the team is definitely getting squirrelly. The players are healthy, but they’re squabbling a bit more than normal. Beast misses going out to eat, he misses seeing his teammates in real life. Logix likewise longs for interaction—there’s no one to commiserate with after a loss or high-five after a win. Surefour’s hair has grown out and is now half silver, half brown. If he feels any different, though, if the quarantine is taking any kind of psychological toll, he won’t admit it. “Only losing affects me mentally,” he says. And they have lost a few times, too—by week 12, they had a 4-8 record. In April, their head coach, Féfé, abruptly quit and went back to France, in part because the pandemic made him want to be closer to family.
If long-term, mainstream success once appeared to lie with adopting enduring, familiar sports structures, short-term survival means adapting to a world in which those structures have been entirely wiped out. “It’s hard to believe that it’s just been two months since that New York homestand,” Jon Spector, the Blizzard VP, says. “But it’s my hope that we get back to that soon. I feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to adapt and play online matches, but that’s not what the goal was. We want to get back to welcoming thousands of fans to an awesome event in Toronto as soon as we can.”
In our first conversation, Overholt told me that when Activision Blizzard conceived of OWL, they wanted it to be a hundred-year league, like the NBA or the NFL. I thought he meant the structure of the league, not necessarily a league that would be playing this one specific video game. Who knows what kind of video games we’ll be playing in a hundred years? Who knows what kind of sports? But no, Overholt meant Overwatch. “What do you think they said to each other when football started?” he says. “You can imagine looking in on that game being played professionally in the early days and going, ‘I don’t understand. What’s with all the starts and stops?’ Or, ‘Why do we need these lines?’ Who would imagine we’d be watching football a hundred years later? There’s no formula. What any sport demands and what e-sports demands is passion and engagement. This league has that in spades. The rest of it barely matters.”
This story appears in the July 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.