BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. It's hard to overstate just how enormous the Fortnite Battle Royale craze has been but, amid all the media gawking, one detail has generated almost universal incredulity.
MAN: And now mastering the game may even get you a college scholarship.
WOMAN: What, what?
MAN: That’s what they’re telling me.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ashland University in Ohio will offer scholarships to the best Fortnite players in the world. They’re part of the National Association of Collegiate Esports and recruit gamers the way they recruit athletes. Did you know they had that?
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, video gaming aims to be seen as a pro sport like any other. The Major League Gaming Corporation, MLG, draws huge viewerships for the highest levels of Halo, Dota and Super Smash Bros. competition and this year commenced the most extravagant esports undertaking so far, a 12-team pro circuit called the Overwatch League.
[CLIPS/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A global world-class esport league designed from the ground up to celebrate the best of the best on their path to victory.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They’re playing for a lot of money and they’re playing in front of thousands of people. They get a $50,000 minimum base salary, healthcare and retirement benefits, as well. I find this incredible.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: People just have different experiences of pop culture.
BOB GARFIELD: Cecilia D'Anastasio is a senior reporter for Gizmodo Media's Special Projects Unit and for its video gaming publication Kotaku.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: I don’t watch traditional sports. I never have. I don't care about it. If someone talks to me about sports, I just close off my brain and I think about Overwatch.
BOB GARFIELD: Since the League's launch in January, she's followed all 12 Overwatch games from the US, China, Korea and the UK. She’s taken special interest in her local team, the powerhouse New York Excelsior, which dominated the competition in the inaugural season. Now, OTM didn't get onto the Overwatch League ‘til late in the regular season and with the playoffs beckoning, so we turned to D’Anastasio to get up to speed. Newbies like us are a sort of occupational hazard for an esports journalist, you know, oblivious outsiders who just can't seem to get their heads around the idea of professional digital sports.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Whoever wins the playoffs at the Barclays Center wins --
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, what? The Barclays Center, the basketball arena in Brooklyn where the Nets play, that’s where the Playoffs are?
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: And people are paying money to go in and watch people play video games.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Everyone I know.
BOB GARFIELD: And the winner gets what?
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: A million dollars.
BOB GARFIELD: So a couple of months ahead of the Grand Finals, we set out to understand what would be taking place in the Barclays Center and across the world via smart phone, including an outpost 7,000 miles east of Brooklyn --
[SAEBYEOLBE SPEAKING KOREAN LANGUAGE]
-- in Seoul, South Korea. This is 22-year-old Jong-yeol Park, better known by his gamer tag, Saebyeolbe, which is derived from a poem he once wrote about a night of shooting stars. Two years ago, Saebyeolbe, on medical leave from the military and dividing his time as a barista and as that guy on the couch playing video games, saw an ad that changed his life.
NARRATOR: An elite international task force, charged with ending the war and restoring liberty to all nations, Overwatch, soldiers, scientists, adventurers, oddities, guardians who secured global peace for a generation.
BOB GARFIELD: Now he threw himself into Overwatch, inhabiting the game character or hero known as Tracer, a speedy bespectacled British woman firing pistols akimbo. Saebyeolbe’s Tracer was so lethal and so inventive, word quickly spread in the Overwatch universe.
VOICE: The world could always use more heroes.
BOB GARFIELD: Actual professional offers started coming and, with them, a dilemma, because in Korea, as here, parents are trying to get their kids off of the console, not on it.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: To convince your parents when you’re a teenager that training the necessary 6 to 8 to 10 hours a day to become good enough at Overwatch to join the League is very difficult.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, the professional lifespan is not a long one. It’s an industry that has 20-year-old retirees with no college degree and, well, let’s just say limited life skills. And this is a sport for which revisions to a game, called patches, can be published in the middle of a season, requiring teams to master new tactics, new skills. And what happens when the dominance of a professional player’s game is usurped by the next popular game or the next? In a conversation through a translator, I asked Saebyeolbe just that.
INTERPRETER FOR SAEBYEOLBE: He’s confident that he can play longer, like, he can play it ‘til like late 20s, maybe the 30s but if Overwatch becomes obsolete then he can probably go to other games, maybe be a coach, whatever popular game it is at that time. Or if that doesn’t work out, he can always go back to being a barista.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] He did sign with the Korean team LuxuryWatch BLUE. With such other star players as Libero and Pine, LuxuryWatch BLUE became a standout team in the League, and Saebyeolbe, poetically enough, was its shooting star.
[SOUND OF GAMEPLAY/AUDIENCE CHEERS]
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Saebyeolbe is so loved and so respected because in addition to being the most dangerous Tracer player, he just comes off as this really nice guy. He has this beautiful wife whose photograph he puts on his keyboard while he's playing, he said, so he can cherish her while he's winning all of these games.
BOB GARFIELD: Talent and charisma, which made him an obvious recruitment target when the Overwatch League was developing and American investors came a-scoutin’, but not just Saebyeolbe. The Americans, as we often do, bought in bulk.
FARZAM KAMEL: In New York we want to win because that's what New Yorkers want to do.
BOB GARFIELD: Farzam Kamel is a partner at Sterling VC, the investment arm of the company that owns the New York Mets and which founded the Overwatch League's New York team.
FARZAM KAMEL: So our strategy was we were going to look for an intact roster of players who’ve had continuity playing together with success and, and ideally coaches that come along with them who’ve had experience playing with them.
BOB GARFIELD: Esprit de corps, the few, the proud, the Excelsior.
FARZAM KAMEL: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: This was not a trivial investment. Apart from payroll and benefits, there's the cost of entry. The Overwatch League is owned lock, stock and pixel by the game publisher Blizzard Activision, which charges very, very not-pretend franchise fees. Cecilia D’Anastasio.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: To buy into the Overwatch League cost $20 million for season one, and for season two it's been reported by ESPN that the price for an Overwatch League team is going to be $30 to $60 million. And I'm saying this as Sterling VC. I think that the greatest New York virtue might be just having enough money to buy whatever the hell you want.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Including the best esports team ever assembled.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: Sure enough, the fans were just smitten from the Excelsiors’ first game in January against the Boston Uprising.
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: There was one moment that happened when this player, his name is Pine, was debuted onstage for the first time and he was playing this hero McCree, kind of this cowboy hero who has a revolver.
[GAMEPLAY/SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER]
And like a grown adult popping balloons at a kids’ fair, he just exploded five heads with just beautiful poise, all just in the span of a few seconds. Everybody is screaming.
MAN: This is unreal!
CECILIA D’ANASTASIO: Everybody in Twitch Chat was spamming all of these emotes and that was the moment when people were, like, this is the team to be reckoned with.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: And so it went all season.
MAN: A beautiful play from Saebyeolbe, millisecond kind of reactions.
MAN: And it’s a wipeout, Boston Uprising, they’re getting run over!
MAN: If you’re Boston, you’re wondering what deity you have wronged here. And I’ll tell you the answer. Saebyeolbe is the god you have wronged here.
MAN: Are you serious?
MAN: Beautiful. This guy is a living highlight reel, man.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, it was Saebyeolbe’s teammate, Pine, who emerged as the big hero of game one. And by the July playoffs, he was a superstar. He’s 20.
BOB GARFIELD: Pine, what is fame like?
INTERPRETER FOR PINE: It feels good to be famous and to be recognized but because I became famous because of my skills, I feel an immense amount of pressure to perform well in games.
BOB GARFIELD: Pine, do you dream in Overwatch?
INTERPRETER FOR PINE: Actually, I dream about women -- recently.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, the feeling is mutual.
[HALEY AND ALICE TALKING]
BOB GARFIELD: Haley and Alice are college students and active gamers in the Rutgers University Esports Club. We met them at one of the team’s local Meetup events, which draw a diverse and passionate crowd.
HALEY/ALICE: They proved they were number one. They’re far ahead of -- even second place is far behind them. And we couldn’t be prouder of our boys.
BOB GARFIELD: On the night of the big semi-final against the Philadelphia Fusion, 500 supporters packed the 40/40 Club, a sports bar owned by Jay Z, to Twitch watch the livestream. One was Richard Ng, screenname, Great Root Bear.
RICHARD NG: And I’m the founder of the 5 Deadly Venoms, the supporters club for NYXL, a team that set records for the whole year, brought this whole city together [LAUGHS] and has a lot of people invested in it. So we’ll see.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING]
You’re going to see something very special here tonight for our playoff game against Philly. But I can tell you if New York pulls off the win, this building will explode in a good way. If they go down, though, there’ll be a moment where you could hear a pin drop and there will be a couple of tears. But that’s the beauty of a game here.
BOB GARFIELD: Note the apprehensiveness. Because of a software revision or patch imposed late in the season by the game’s publisher, Overwatch [LAUGHS] had actually changed. A new character had been introduced, diminishing the importance of Saebyeolbe’s hero Tracer. It was something like baseball changing the height of the pitcher's mound in September.
RICHARD NG: Yes, they absolutely dominated the regular season but coming into the playoffs they’ve had an extra week off. We don’t know what to expect from this team. We have no idea how they’re going to adapt to the new patch that rolled in. There’s been some rumors that they’ve been slow to adapt to it.
BOB GARFIELD: And so, across the globe, Twitch viewers watch Saebyeolbe and his teammates take a live stage, just 12 athletes at 12 computers to face Philadelphia.
[SOUND OF GAMEPLAY]
And when the action began, as usual, the Excelsior were on their game.
ANNOUNCER: Pine’s got the blade out, already two kills, looking for the third -- beating his wings, trying to get away, succeeds in surviving a little while longer but now New York has set themselves up. The rest of the team is dying here but Billy -- and everybody’s gone, just like that. New York in the span of a couple of seconds wipe out the defense.
BOB GARFIELD: But then?
ANNOUNCER: That is a crushing and brutal attack round from the Philadelphia Fusion.
ANNOUNCER: Yeah, that may have been the most one-sided round of Overwatch I’ve ever seen.
ANNOUNCER: The Philadelphia Fusion is going to the Grand Finals.
ANNOUNCER: The season started -- New York’s first loss
was the Philadelphia Fusion and now it is --
BOB GARFIELD: Woah, that was unexpected. And for the Excelsior faithful, crushing, and for the young players, a painful lesson in the vagaries of a League competition. Suddenly the Excelsior weren’t shooting stars but fallen ones. And so, like countless pro teams before them, they were left to relive their failure and seek redemption next year.
After the big defeat, our producer Micah Loewinger, the mastermind of this episode, managed to track down Saebyeolbe.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Why do you think New York Excelsior wasn’t able to win?
INTERPRETER FOR SAEBYEOLBE: Our team was -- we got used to winning. Winning, like, kind of felt natural to us. That won’t happen ever again and we’ll play at every game like, like our best.
BOB GARFIELD: Natural humility, very Saebyeolbe, but what about the patch, the changes to the game outline called the Meta? Micah pressed Saebyeolbe but then something odd happened. The team’s PR guy who was Overwatching the interview, intervened.
MICAH LOEWINGER: I know that some people have been saying that it was the new Meta that threw --
PR GUY: We don’t, we don’t want to talk about that.
MICAH LOEWINGER: You don’t want to talk about the Meta?
PR GUY: Nah.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Okay.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Overwatch, it’s digital, it’s Twitched. It’s a whole new culture. But it’s run by and for the money man, so yeah, like they say, a pro sport like any other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Twitch IRL, paying streamers to play the game of real life.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.