The building itself is unassuming from the outside, nothing special in the grey landscape of Los Angeles. The nearby street is under construction and, from the entrance, the only indication that anything of note is occurring inside is an unassuming LED box which reads BLIZZARD ARENA.
The entryway of the building is consumed by the Blizzard store, which I ignore to sprint up the adjacent stairs and into the balcony seating. I’ve arrived at the tail end of the Excelsior v Spitfire match, and the walkway is crowded by staff and media personnel who are straining to catch the final moments before they have to disperse to attend to their various responsibilities.
Excelsior clutches a 3-2 victory and the crowd bursts first into cheers, and then into a flurry of movement: everyone wants snacks or to use the bathroom, and no one wants to miss a moment of competition. The stadium is peppered with vacant seats that won’t stay empty for long. The couple next to me — a pair whose hair is dyed blue and white — marks their territory with noisemakers and League hoodies before leaving. Their seats are too good to give up.
I take my place in the crowd and wait patiently as various player stats flit across the screen and the stadium slowly repopulates. The analyst desk segment serves only to exacerbate the crowd’s restlessness. As the cast breaks down the previous series, fans periodically burst into cheers and shouts for no discernible reason other than to serve as an outlet for their pent-up energy.
The online broadcast cuts to a break. Malik throws out some free merch and cheap jokes for the live audience before the desk returns and the players are finally introduced. Rawkus leads the charge in an oversized cowboy hat, tipping the brim to the delight of the crowd, and then promptly walks to the wrong side of the stage. Boston enters a moment later. This team has no gimmicks, no smiles, no fan-service – their entrance is as unassuming as their roster but elicits just as many cheers.
If jerseys are of any indication, the audience is here for this series: the Boston Uprising versus the Houston Outlaws. I am no exception, decked out in an OG FNRGFE t-shirt and an Outlaws baseball cap. The broadcast is unrelenting and nerve-wracking in its reminders of the importance of this match.
“If Houston is winning this one, they’re in. It doesn’t matter what score they are winning, they just need to win. If Boston wins by two maps or more, they’re in. And if Boston wins by just one map, the Valiant will be in and Houston and Boston are out,” says Soe for what must be the thousandth time.
The game finally begins. Houston takes point A with blazing speed, but can’t close out Eichenwalde. The arena explodes into cheers as a well-placed Self-Destruct from NotE eliminates two and ends the Outlaws’ final push before it even starts.
On Houston’s defense, Coolmatt isn’t one to be upstaged. He cleverly throws his bomb up into the atmosphere and traps a high-flying Pharah and her Mercy pocket in its blast radius, earning a collective “ooh” from the crowd.
The man at the end of my row sits alone in a jersey of some sort. He is timid, quietly observing the game and containing his excitement as if the idea that he paid to watch competitive video gamers hasn’t quite settled with him yet.
His self-consciousness doesn’t last long though. The enthusiasm of the crowd is too infectious. Soon, he is caught up in the electricity of the arena, screaming and shouting at each point capture, gasping at each Widowmaker headshot with the rest of us. The Outlaws take Eichenwalde, going up 1-0.
Boston makes a statement on Anubis. They punish Houston’s sloppiness and each of Striker’s sticky bombs is rewarded both with kills and ear-splitting shrieks from the blue-jersey-clad clan behind me.
“Gamsu spends an hour everyday practicing getting kills with Winston’s ult,” one fan says conspiratorially to another.
The player cams, which are expansive and omnipresent in person but not on-screen for much of the online broadcast, tell a story in and of themselves: Coolmatt and Striker lean into their monitors and unconsciously mirror one another’s intensity; Bani and Kellex may very well be the only players in OWL to sit properly, and Muma appears nonchalant until the end of each round.
The League’s unabashed poster boy, Jake, elicits audible sighs from girls in the crowd whenever his cam is shown on the main monitor. During matches, he and DreamKazper are intensely animated, seemingly always talking or laughing or scowling at their screens regardless of the scoreboard.
When the Outlaws step off point B and hand Uprising Anubis on a silver platter, Houston, Boston, and Valiant fans alike guffaw and shriek with laughter. Muma and LiNkzr shrug dramatically for the crowd — a non-verbal “oh well.”
Even during breaks, the sound of the arena is cacophonous. Between commentary and game sounds, cheers and straight up blood-curdling screams, the Overwatch League is not for the faint of heart. It is beautiful, even in its overstimulation – the stadium is bathed in various team colors throughout the day and the art of the upcoming map periodically consumes the stage.
I stand up and head to the bathroom (which is always remarkably clean, all things considered). If you are observant, you will spot various pros dispersed throughout the crowd. On my way, I pass xQc and Cocco from the Dallas Fuel as they slink to the top of the stands in white team hoodies. Half of the Fusion roster is clustered together on the right side of the stadium, and four or five of Excelsior’s lineup have stuck around to size up the competition.
The atmosphere of my little Outlaws group turns nervous as Ilios: Well envelops the screens. Our team is notoriously bad on control and we have all correctly predicted the outcome. But for the Boston fans in the audience, this easy 2-0 is everything and their cheers reflect it – Uprising is still in playoff contention.
During the break, various new and old friends stop by to say hello and chat about the matches. Everyone has an opinion to share about the teams’ performances and is positively buzzing with excitement, regardless of who they want to win.
“NotE is unkillable,” declares a friend as soon as he walks up, shaking his head in amazement.
“It’s not that,” argues another. “Our ultimate economy is trash. Did you see that Valk? What was that Valk?”
“LiNkzr is feeding,” says yet another dismissively.
It is impossible to not be swept up in it all. At home, each one of these fans may be calm, cool, and collected during games, but here, your excitement is magnified by the number of fans around you whether you like it or not. Each headshot is worthy of a round of applause and each match victory deserves a standing ovation. The arena, although relatively small and not always full, achieves what it ostensibly set out to do: connect fans to each other, the players, and the esport.
After a season of mostly dry, 4-0 stomps, the final day of stage one fortuitously showcased the potential of Overwatch esports. Each match ended in a tense tiebreaker as the best of the best pushed one another to play better and better, to prove that they want and deserve stage playoff honors more than any other.
The Outlaws narrowly clutch the series victory over the Uprising. It goes down to the wire – a third round on Lijiang – and I shout myself hoarse as the arena is bathed in OpTic green for their last proper map of stage one. Mere moments later, the arena is a flurry of movement once again - there’s another match coming up, and no one wants to miss a moment of competition.
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