With a final shot in stage 4 of the inaugural season of Overwatch League, Jiri “LiNkzr” Masalin’s Widowmaker took out Dylan “aKm” Bignet with a clean shot, sealing the match as the Houston Outlaws pushed the payload onto the first point. It was the nail in the coffin that gave Houston the win over their most bitter rival and the other team in the lone star state, the Dallas Fuel.
“There was a tension-- a different feeling to that match, as well as the other we played against the Outlaws,” Mat Taylor, general manager of the Dallas Fuel, tells Heroes Never Die. “We had a couple unfortunate things happen and some things didn’t fall our way but that didn’t take away from how intense it felt. It just goes to show how important these specific matches are to us. Sometimes it feels like they are the most important game of the season.”
The Houston Outlaws and Dallas Fuel have only been playing in the Overwatch League for just over one season, but as many esports fanatics know, their rivalry has been brewing for much longer. Team Envy, who own the Fuel, and Team OpTic, who own the Outlaws, have a history of matchups, trades, and drama throughout their time in competitive Call of Duty and other games. That history, alongside the classic Houston vs Dallas sports rivalry, has made the matchup the most talked about rivalry in Overwatch.
It’s also the most clear example of how the Overwatch League has changed how rivalries have worked in esports. Their new city-based structure takes the multi-faceted history that many of these teams have and contextualizes them in easy-to-approach ways. It even goes as far to give some teams advantages in building a franchise — something that’s arguably just as important as winning. Teams with bigger and more passionate fan bases can fill up home and away stadiums, and will have an easier time finding local support once they move to their home cities.
“Every team is going to being playing catch up with the two of us,” Rodriguez said. “When Optic goes to any event, whether it be Las Vegas or New York, people show up in droves to see them.
When we do play in New York, it’ll be interesting to see how many Houston fans show up. If it’s a lot, that’s an advantage. You don’t want to be in a situation where your fans only show up at home.”
While franchises in Overwatch League were meant to be separate from esports franchises like Optic and Envy, it hasn’t turned out they way in the case of the Lone Star state duo. “I don’t know how much any of the history would matter as much if we weren’t both in Texas,” Rodriguez added. “When Immortals played Cloud 9, when the LA Valiant played the London Spitfire, I don’t think anyone cared about the history those teams have.”
Not all esports are created equally, as different genres have different types of fan bases that follow them closely. Fans of shooters like Call of Duty and Halo are more likely to cross barriers to watch other games. Fans of League of Legends, Rocket League, and DOTA may not be as enthusiastic. “A lot of it has to do with Call of Duty,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know if there are a lot of other communities that built a community as passionate as Call of Duty.”
The rivalry between Optic and Envy originated in the bunkers of Activision’s wartime esport. Mike “Hastr0” Rufail, the owner of Team Envy, and Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez, the co-owner of Team OpTic, had been longtime friends during their days competing. Fans of both teams would often root for one another if their own team got knocked out in tournaments. That started to change when Joey “MerK” Deluca left Optic to join Envy. “When the loyal players started to switch teams it made a big rift between fans and that spurred it a lot,” Taylor said. “This stuff doesn’t fall on deaf ears. It’s intensifying the rivalries, it gets dug up by fans who don’t already know.”
Rivalries aren’t just something that helps players motivate themselves, their lifeblood to fans of sports and esports alike. They drive them to attend local games and events, they make fandoms more like families with how strong feelings of comradery are, and they strengthen team loyalty. Teams with strong rivalries embedded in their culture after so little time in Overwatch are going to have an easier time once teams move to their individual cities.
Other teams have been trying to put in the work to build rivalries through astroturfing. The California Cup between the LA Valiant and San Francisco Shock, something that makes sense geographically, is mostly getting pushed by the teams. Rodriguez even views the recent XL2 roster moves as a move to help create local fans for the NYXL.
“The XL2 change made a lot of sense. They were getting a lot of flack, if you look at the way their Contenders team went, they had a lot of players from the west that didn’t get pulled up,” Rodriguez said. “One of the bigger ideas was having our academy team do local events, it makes sense to have a bunch of locals to go be with fans.”
One of the biggest critiques of the Overwatch League is how it’s getting built from the top-down. Any grassroots communities that may have sprung up before the announcement of the League were completely squandered. Now some are speculating that Overwatch may not have as long of a lifespan with out that core following. It could be that rivalries install a similar feeling in fans that it does in players, who have already shown strong reactions.
“The biggest part of those matches is stress, you’re always afraid of losing. When we lost in preseason before the league started and everyone was upset, it was a bad way for the season to start,” Rodriguez said. “Every time we played again it was like we were playing to not have that feeling come back. It’s almost good we had them play in the preseason, it gave us the taste of that loss. Now it feels like we’re always playing to not have that feeling again. It’s emotional destruction for some losses ... Dallas included.”