The Overwatch League Toronto Defiant announcement reveal was admittedly near and dear to my heart, as a Toronto native. Fans lined up outside Berkeley Church hours in advance, waiting for an opportunity to see the team that would represent their city. It’s the kind of esports spectacle that Toronto fans rarely get to bear witness to, and if the staff behind the Defiant get their way, it’s just the beginning.
Heroes Never Die sat down with Splyce co-founder Marty Strenczewilk after the reveal. Splyce, an established esports organization, will be working with OverActive Media to run the Defiant as they enter their first season of competition.
Heroes Never Die: So, how’s your reaction to... [gestures to the crowd] the reaction so far?
Strenczewilk: It’s very humbling! The way I look at it is, we have to make hypotheses all the time in a start-up, things we think we’re going to work, right? Localization is the biggest hot topic in esports right now, and a lot of people don’t believe in it. I very much believe in it after a while, because I know, me personally, I wanna go to things, I wanna be around other people. I don’t want to sit at home by myself.
So for me personally, to come here and see people excited to be here, in line three hours beforehand... not just to get tickets, they just want to be the first ones through the door! That’s very humbling for something we’ve built. Then the brand announcement, you never know how fans are going to react. Twitch chat can be brutal, and they loved it! Getting Twitch chat to love something is not an easy feat, so we’re very excited.
I wanted to talk about the branding. You’re going for a very tough, rough, Toronto against the world kind of brand. Talk to me about that decision.
I’ll openly admit that I have much smarter people working on the branding stuff than me. Ultimately, we put a lot of great creatives together and let them dive in, and they’d bring and ideas to us for what they thought would be best to represent not just Toronto, but the region. I was concerned about that coming in because we haven’t created a brand in four years. It’s so important to have a quality brand in esports, to get people attached to it, so I think that was a big part of it; something that you can attach yourself to, feel connection to, a real world connection.
Speaking of Toronto, Toronto’s a little unique because we have Toronto proper, and then Brampton, Mississauga, Hamilton... Now you have a Toronto brand, but you have a very big region with all of these connected cities. What’s your approach going to be like for this? Will there be events all around the GTA?
We think of it broader than that. Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester — our territory is Lake Ontario in a lot of ways. The northeast is starved for events. You live around here, I live around here, we know we don’t get events around here. We’ll be doing what we’re already doing with Splyce; activating more events. We’re doing a big event at BlizzCon for our team, we’ve been to Dreamhack this year, we’ve been at Rift Rivals, doing fan activation. We’ll have to do this in our new territory.
I don’t know what that looks like; that’s not my territory, we have a marketing team and such, but at the end of the day we want fans to have stuff to do in the north east.
You’re coming in as an expansion team, and Overwatch is a game where we’re seeing a ton of women fans, a ton of LGBT fans, and this is a market that may not be as involved in League of Legends or Splyce’s other esports. What are your plans to deal with this sort of market and say hey, the Defiant wants you with us?
One of our core statements at Splyce is that we want everyone to belong. It comes from the idea that gaming is a place where you can belong, and we want to be an active participant in that. Everything we’re doing is to build a community where people can come out and be a part of that. It’s part of a big, solid structure we’re building in line with our mission statement, and we’re operating the team.
The second thing I would say is having someone like Chris at the helm, where Chris is a heavy believer in the huge opportunity we have in esports to reach a much broader group of people than traditional sports. That tends to be heavily skewed male, heavily skewed middle to upper class with your ticket buyers. Esports is a much wider demographic, it reaches old, young, everyone in between. I think that’s an important value we share, and it’s part of why I love working with Chris.
I don’t know what exactly what we’re going to do, but we’re already having those conversations. We realized that [the Defiant] is a huge opportunity to reach women, so we need to start thinking now about how we’re going to do that in a positive way. It’s not about next year, it’s not about the year after, it’s about 10 or 20 years down the road.
Toronto’s a city where Leafs fans are as loyal as anything, there’s the Raptors base, how are you going to be reaching out to the existing sports fans and converting them to Overwatch?
I think a big part of the value proposition of Toronto in general is that there’s love of professional sports period here. Baseball, hockey, basketball, Overwatch, there’s no difference in a lot of ways. It’s a growth sport. It’s the reason why minor league football doesn’t do well here, it’s minor leagues, but every other sport does tremendously well.
That’s part of why Toronto is so attractive, besides being our region, is the dedication and love for those teams. There’s only a few cities that have that: Boston, New York, maaaaybe Chicago? There aren’t a lot! And that’s very powerful, look at this venue. With social advertising only, we filled this up in a heartbeat.
Season one of the Overwatch League was all in Los Angeles, with teams having limited local events. Season two is going to give weeks off for local events, and that leads into season three with the idea of hometown venues. What’s the plan for balancing stage time with local events, especially as an expansion team?
We had a year less to figure things out. A big part of why we partnered with OverActive is we knew if we were going to be local, we needed local people. So we have people like the Kimels, who are a big part of Toronto here. You’ve got people like Sheldon Pollack, who built his business here in Toronto. So you have these people with resources to help us move quickly to set things up.
That’s first of all, a big part of it. We believe in a year from now, we will be one of the top, most well staffed teams operating out of our region. Hands down. Second of all, we’re already proactively doing a lot with local groups. We’re doing a very small comic book convention, doing outreach, getting to know local fans already. We have things like EGLX up here, for instance, where we’ll be able to get that connection as well. I think long term, a lot of it is going to be not just about Toronto, but getting to know the region outside of Toronto proper to doing exhibitions. I think colleges are going to be really powerful here, honestly. I don’t think people realize how powerful the college region we have here is.
I know Toronto has had a problem with getting into esports, getting big in Toronto, and then heading to Los Angeles. When you’re looking at talent recruitment, do you see a lot of opportunity here despite that?
I think any league that’s mobilized like this, the opportunity for talent is going to be long-term. So we talked about this already, how do we make great North American and Canadian talent long term? We can’t do that today, we have no infrastructure, we just have a great General Manager and a coach. So today we’re going to put together the best team we can with what’s out there. Long term, we have a responsibility as the #1 Canadian team to build up that long term talent.
I don’t have simple answers as to how we’re going to do that, but it’s no different as to how we look at other games [Splyce is in]: League of Legends, Call of Duty, Rocket League. Rocket League is a great example; we started low with one player, built a team around with her, and now we’re in the qualifiers for the major leagues. We’ll be building local talent, probably through Contenders, probably through colleges, and building the talent that way.
I couldn’t help but notice that “#1 Canadian team”. You’re already counting Vancouver out, eh?
I know who my competition is. We’re #1 in a lot of games for a reason. And I can’t help but take a little jab at [Luminosity CEO and founder] Steve Maida when I can. That’s out of love.
Season one of the Overwatch League, we saw a lot of players. We saw players burning out, we saw gaffes on social media, we saw mental health issues. Obviously, that’s very unfortunate. As an expansion team, you guys are forewarned, right? Are you forearmed as well?
I think part of it is how the league is doing some changes to the schedule. That’s very helpful, you know? They’ve talked about some of that stuff already, as a league figuring things out the right way. I think secondly, it’s infrastructure behind the players. I can tell you confidently that we will have more than just a coaching staff.
If you look at our League of Legends team, a physiotherapist works with them weekly on hand health. In 2016, we almost lost one of our best players to a hand injury. We learned the hard way about not taking good care to all the things you don’t think about: physical fitness, mental health... We have a sports psychologist with our League of Legends team! All of those things are things we want to put in place with our Overwatch team as well, so we can help manage the lifestyle.
It also comes with having great general management. I think you’ll see a lot of turnover in the next couple of years with general management because a lot of people just phoned in the job. We didn’t have enough talent for how many teams there are now with all the Overwatch expansion teams. It used to be just the core 15 or 20 of us multi-game teams, now there are a whole bunch of new single-game teams. There aren’t enough good general managers to help with that, and I think that’s part of the fatigue issues and part of the other things, is just not running a well managed team.
I can confidently say with Jay at the head of Overwatch, and Kyle supporting as a general manager for all of Splyce with Bishop, we’ll have well run practice for a well run team so we don’t have those issues.