At first glance, the Spitfire’s wholesale roster swap is partially a testament to the Hurricane’s success — a reward for the team’s dominant performance through the European development circuit. But there’s a larger plan at play. The Spitfire’s management say they’re intentionally pivoting towards a European roster to develop the continent’s competitive Overwatch scene and to build a loyal fan base around the region’s talent. Heading into its fourth season, Overwatch League (OWL) franchises are still experimenting with two competing principles of roster construction: Do you chase the best talent, international or otherwise? Or, do you pull players from your local market in an attempt to woo potential fans?
Activision Blizzard created the league to pioneer a model built like a traditional sports league — relying on ticket sales and local sponsorships to balance team checkbooks — but the coronavirus pandemic put those revenue models on hold. Franchises are still trying out ways to market teams to their assigned cities. Now, with a growing number of vaccines being used to hopefully end to the pandemic soon, league owners are planning for the unspecified time when they can begin hosting live events.
Ysabel “Noukky” Müller, the general manager for the Spitfire and the Hurricane, told The Washington Post the change in direction for the team was decided by “upper management” from Cloud9 — the esports organization that owns the Spitfire — and Guinevere Capital, an esports investment firm that has partnered with Cloud9 since June of last year.
The goal is to build toward eventual homestand matches again. Dave Harris, the founder of Guinevere Capital, said that “even if the Hurricane hadn’t been so successful” last year, the franchise would have still shifted to a European roster because he said it provides “that narrative” for fans to follow and invest in. There’s a sense of pride fans have when they see players competing from their region, Harris said.
“It’s really been a matter of building up the on-the-ground community with the fans,” Harris said. “At some stage, we’re looking to really build out that U.K. base.”
So far, the London Spitfire has never been based in the United Kingdom. In the first two seasons, the team competed with the rest of the league in sunny Burbank, Calif. Last year, when teams were preparing to travel regularly for weekend competitions, the Spitfire and the Paris Eternal moved to New Jersey to train and compete near the larger pool of North American franchises.
Currently, the Spitfire roster and coaching staff are all remote, playing everywhere from the United States to Sweden. Jeffery “blasé” Tsang, an American DPS player and one of the two players on the Spitfire roster not coming from the Hurricane, said he’ll be based in Los Angeles at the start of the season. London’s general manager, Müller, said the team will continue to compete in different time zones until the world is “a tiny bit safer.”
The league is already preparing for a virtual regular season. The OWL introduced a new tool to ensure two teams competing against each other across hundreds of miles will always play with the same ping — the delayed response time in a game when two opponents are not playing on a local network.
Last month, Overwatch League Vice President Jon Spector told The Post he’s looking forward to seeing the former Hurricane players compete in the OWL this season. Spector said it has been exciting to watch new players “trying to make their mark and prove that they belong in the big leagues.” Half of the OWL’s MVP candidates last season were rookies.
“[The British Hurricane] had such an unprecedented run in Contenders, just continuing to dominate the competition, and they earned this opportunity,” Spector said. “It’ll be cool to see if they can hang out with the big kids.”
For the league, the Hurricane’s success story exemplifies a path to pro for any players pouring hours into the game to get into the OWL. Still, elevating rosters from Contenders has proven a mixed bag of results in the past.
The Vancouver Titans signed their entire roster from RunAway, a popular and proven South Korean Overwatch Contenders team, and the squad carried the franchise to the OWL Grand Finals in 2019. But, halfway into last season, the Titans parted ways with the former RunAway roster after an apparent falling out between the team and the organization. Vancouver went on to pick up a team of North American Contenders players and ended the season near the bottom of the league standings (18th out of 20 teams).
The current Spitfire squad does have some experience competing in OWL. London’s main support Kristian “Kellex” Keller played for the Toronto Defiant last spring before returning home to Denmark because his mom is a nurse in the middle of a pandemic, and Keller told The Post he couldn’t focus on the weekly competitions with everything else going on. Keller, 21, said he didn’t plan to return to Overwatch when he announced his retirement but, eventually, he ended up trying out for the British Hurricane.
Keller said people underrate the talent in Contenders; even he did. But, he said he’s more excited this season than he was playing on any of his previous OWL teams.
“I was really surprised by the Hurricane team before I joined them,” Keller said. “There’s a lot of undeveloped talent in Europe.”
Below the Overwatch League, European academy teams — the organizations that take in young players who are vying to grind their way toward a spot in the OWL — don’t have the same formal structure or investment to build up young talent like the comparable academy teams in South Korea, Müller said. The Spitfire want to change this by building their own “cohesive path to pro within Europe,” Müller said.
Five of the seven players on the Spitfire roster come from the British Hurricane but the Hurricane will rebuild and continue to exist as an academy team in Overwatch Contenders, Müller said. The Hurricane already hosted an open tryout in January where 150 players competed for five open slots on the roster. Müller said it’s all in an effort to find the next “up-and-coming talent in Europe.”
London’s head coach Justin “reprize” Hand said there’s plenty of raw talent in the European developmental scene.
“We’re doing all sorts of things to stimulate the European tier-two economy,” Hand said. “That’s a huge part of this. We’re in it for the long, long haul. I’m thinking two years down the road right now.”
The Spitfire and the Paris Eternal are the only two European teams out of 20 franchises in the OWL. “Everyone would like more European teams,” said Harris of Guinevere Capital, because once the pandemic ends it would make it easier for the Spitfire to practice and travel to nearby matches. But the lack of competition is also an opportunity for London to build and capitalize on a feeder system that pulls from an entire continent.
“Outside of French-speaking Europe … we are probably the team that a lot of fans are looking to,” said Harris. “We’d love to have a couple of local rivalries but we just see a lot of white space that we can hopefully help develop.”
Activision Blizzard has previously said the league hoped to expand to Europe ahead of the 2020 season, with a goal of ultimately adding eight more franchises for a 28-team league. The league could theoretically host a third division in Europe, cutting down on travel times and distances between the teams involved. But that plan would require multimillion dollar investments from new owners.