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FanSided250: Overwatch League fan groups are bridging the digital divide

Overwatch League team supporters and fan clubs have navigated the digital-real world divide, in and out of a pandemic.

If you’ve been to an official Lone Star Vanguard event, chances are the first person you met was Jose Sandoval. He is bearded, with a wide smile that hints at a joyous well of mischief, and he’s usually parked at the door, meeting and greeting everyone as they arrive. When Sandoval and his former roommate Sean Simpson started LSV — the official supporters group of the Overwatch League’s Houston Outlaws — he knew this person-to-person connection would be important.

“Starting off, there’s going to be someone coming in the door that is going to take a chance,” said Sandoval. “Say, ‘I typically don’t go out but it’s Overwatch and I’m going to give this a chance.’ Gamers are probably introverted people so my goal was for them to feel safe and feel welcome. I wanted them coming back.”

Sandoval and Simpson started the group with anything but grand ambitions. Simpson got Sandoval hooked on playing Overwatch and, sitting together with Sandoval’s brother one afternoon in Austin, it occurred to them that they couldn’t be alone in their interest in watching the new Overwatch League, which launched in 2018.

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“[I thought] there’s gotta be 10 other nerds in Austin that want to watch this, there just has to be,” Sandoval told FanSided. “I ended up calling this random beercade that was about a mile away and said, ‘hey, I’ve got 15 people that want to watch this, would you entertain it?’ Of course, I didn’t at the time but we decided to just roll the dice. I made a quick Twitter and Facebook group and pumped some little $10 ads to see if we could get some folks in.”

One of those ads was seen by Kristen Hart Kinsey, who attended the second group gathering. They eventually connected with Michael Wulff as well and that foursome now all serve on the group’s leadership committee. Over 600 people currently subscribe to the group’s Discord server, a digital community space for messaging and conversation.

The Overwatch League is a professional esports league built around the game Overwatch, a first-person class-based shooter with multiplayer teams working together. For each match, professional Overwatch League players select from the same 32 characters available in the regular game and play through multiple rounds with different maps and objectives.

The league is a trendsetter in the world of esports in that it follows a more traditional sports model with each of its teams connected to a specific city. For the 2020 season, that included 20 teams playing in six countries across three continents. It is a truly global sport with the action playing out in a digital environment and yet, for many of the fans who spoke with FanSided, human connection has been one of the most rewarding aspects of following the league.

This season began, for the first time in the league’s three-season history, with teams actually traveling to each city to play against each other in home arenas, a plan that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a cliched joke that gamers may have been more prepared to weather the social isolation of this pandemic than anyone else. But the genesis of most of these fan groups was people meeting and building relationships at official watch parties sponsored by their teams, and establishing community both inside and outside of digital spaces is part of their foundations.

“It’s interesting now going back to the first photo of the first watch party I attended,” said Kinsey. “I didn’t know anybody. I just went with my husband. But now, looking back, I’m friends with like half of those people and I didn’t even know them then. It’s cool to just let those authentic friendships build.”

Marie Blanquart was invited to a Paris watch party by a friend and was enthralled. She doesn’t even really play the game on her own, she says was drawn in by the lore and visual aesthetics. And the atmosphere at the watch parties was electric.

“Small groups create. People hang out with people they know or some people start chatting before the games.” But once the action starts, she said the atmosphere shifts. “Once the games are on, it’s just everyone crowded in front of the screen and just shouting at the same time. It’s really cool. The small groups just disappear. It’s one huge crowd.”

Just over a year after her first Overwatch experience, Blanquart is now the association president for The Rooster Club, the official supporter club for Paris Eternal.

Cameron Akitt, founder of Hangar9, the official fan supporters group for the London Spitfire, found himself in the middle of a community in the same way. Attending a few of the initial watch parties hosted by the team introduced him to some like-minded people. A desire to make the group into something more was the spark.

“At the moment, we were friendly with each other,” said Akitt. “But we were just kind of a group of people who come together at a bar. And how do we enrich that? And speaking to a few friends that I had met at the inaugural season of watch parties I kind of hacked together a plan that was modeled on a football team’s fan club.”

Hangar9 doesn’t have official memberships but Akitt estimated that around 350 fans were active on their Discord server or regularly interacting on social media, with as many as 120 people showing up for a watch party. And, for Akitt, having that thriving community grounded in London is an essential part of their group identity.

“When we had kind of got off the ground, a few months in, you got to see the diversity of the fanbase and the richness of diversity, of what it is to be a Londoner. My office team very much reflects that kind of idea of London, and proudly so. And using Hangar9 to celebrate these things and mark these things is really, really important,” said Akitt. “Because, yeah, we’re supporting a team that is owned by a company in L.A. and made up entirely of players from South Korea. But that doesn’t diminish what it means to be a London team, and that kind of identity.”

The Vanguard are a bit unique among Overwatch League fan groups. Even though they follow a single team — the Outlaws — the group is spread across San Antonio, Austin and Houston. Parts of the group run events in their own cities but they also organize activations and events that cover all three. For Simpson and Wulff the regional aspect of the new league and the chance to root for Texas teams was part of the appeal.

“Personally, I never followed an esports team before Overwatch League,” said Simpson. “I’m an [Texas A&M] Aggie, I’m a die-hard football fan. And the idea of a team representing an area, that’s how my mind works. Before when you had teams with players from all over, it was hard for me to get behind their message or their team, it just didn’t make sense to me. But then hearing Houston [Outlaws], Dallas Fuel and all the states and it’s a worldwide thing, and I thought that was really cool.”

That regional element of the fan groups manifests in several ways, including the general atmosphere at watch parties, as Akitt pointed out:

“I’m in a Discord with the organizers of other fan associations in the league, and their photos and videos, they’re all American teams so they’re exceptionally loud and pumping the air and screaming. We’re a lot more demure and subdued.”

Overwatch League fan groups are bridging the digital divide

These fan groups exist in the physical world, sharing a bond built around a digital one, but the game isn’t completely constrained to the digital. Frostbite Cosplay is a team of three siblings — Aspen, Briston and Bryce Eden — who work together to bring Overwatch to life. They specialize in builds with a focus on scale, using a variety of cutting-edge design, construction and modeling techniques to make the game’s signature characters into things that can actually be seen and touched.

“We specialize in the ridiculous,” said Bryce. “Our Orisa, she’s a centaur, she has four back legs. She’s able to function and move around. We used her motions from her character in the game to design her movements. When she moves her arms, her chest pieces move, just like they do in the game. The scaling in all our builds matches the game. So we take these designs that aren’t supposed to work in the real world and we make them work.”

The siblings don’t do Overwatch builds exclusively but their love of the game inspired them to start experimenting and the reaction was overwhelming. Pre-pandemic they worked on several contracted projects for the Dallas Fuel, including appearing at events and activations in their suits and building functional t-shirt cannons that were modeled after weapons in the game. Everywhere they’ve appeared fans can’t help but react to the fantasy, made real.

“You have this huge building, it’s adults, it’s kids, everyone’s there so excited to see this thing that they’ve spent so many hours digitally on,” said Aspen.

Obviously, the pandemic largely shut things down for Frostbite. The signature scale of their builds doesn’t quite translate to on a Zoom call. But, like the other team-focused fan groups, they found ways to innovate and get creative, with new ways to bring the community together around a shared passion.

“We were lucky enough, back in May, to put together an online costume contest for cosplayers and we were lucky enough to get Tock Custom and a bunch of other incredible makers like Hoku Props, Jackie Craft Cosplay, Evil Ted and stuff,” said Bryce. “And we put together this huge online costume contest with over 4500 huge concurrent viewers and we had hundreds of applicants from all over the globe.”

Adaptation has been a necessity this year, even for these fan groups who were built with a foot in both the digital and physical worlds. Many of them started from chance meetings at formal watch parties or impromptu meet-ups and the digital elements came later, as a way of facilitating growth and keeping things organized. As the pandemic set in, Discord servers and Facebook groups became less a handy tool and more an essential element.

“Many of our fans and members are quite young individuals themselves,” said Akitt. “They are sort of late-teen, young adults and so having an online space to connect with and share and offload is very essential and is a very fundamental part of what it means to be young in the 21st century. People do suffer great anxiety with the current climate of things and would struggle with moments and need people to talk to and they would find friends and contacts through Hangar9 which was really good to see and really important.”

The connections between the fan groups and the teams they support vary quite a bit, which shape their activities. Lone Star Vanguard is completely fan run, although they are often invited to team activations and get shouted out on social media by the Outlaw’s official social media accounts. The Rooster Club is a non-profit organization registered with the French government, a distinction that formally recognizes their charitable work as something in the public interest. Hangar9 is officially tied with London Spitfire but managed by fans which, in Akitt’s mind, offers the best of both worlds.

“It’s very much initiated on the ground by us, the direction is set by us and what you,” said Akitt. “But that comes with the assets and resources of being closely linked to your team. And Spitfire have been really good, like when we wanted to do Pride Month stuff and promoting that on social media, and doing stuff on Deaf Awareness week in the U.K. and collaborating on a video, teaching the players some British sign language. It’s a really healthy sort of back-and-forth, that I’m very lucky to have.”

Simpson pointed to the team’s independence as key in letting LSV expand their mission. If they were owned and operated by the team, they might not have the same freedom to expand their group activities into other areas besides Overwatch.

“It’s always been very important that people feel like they’re at a home and that they have a reason to stay,” said Wulff. “So whether the season is on or not, it’s always been [important] to do things that incorporate a variety of people and meet a variety of different needs.”

In the past, that has included group outings to a water park and to Six Flags, holiday parties, group movie nights, board game nights and Friday night sessions of Among Us. Early in the pandemic, they ran a charity stream to raise money to donate PPE to frontline health care workers.

“It’s not about the game anymore,” said Wulff. “It’s about the fact that we’re together and we’re engaged and people feel like they have something to look forward to outside of just being home all the time.

“So many of the people in our group have told us, time and time again, ‘I don’t typically leave the house unless it’s to be with y’all and now those people are cut off from that. For me, it’s just about figuring out what will keep people engaged and making sure we’re pushing that out there, so that isolation or that feeling of loneliness that has crept up during the pandemic, that we make that a little bit easier on everyone.”

Whether it’s online or in a pub, blasting through digital opponents or swaggering through a crowd in an eight-foot suit of blue armor, Overwatch League fandom is about friendship and comradery, community and connection.

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