“What are you doing here?” asked my friend as he sat down across from me in the dining hall. It was 9:30 in the morning. “I thought you never woke up before noon.”
“I had a thing,” I muttered, gloomily staring down at my cornflakes.
“Dude, have you been crying? Are you okay?”
I didn’t know how to say “yes, I’ve been crying, and no, I’m not okay, because my favorite Overwatch team just lost their second grand finals and frankly, I am devastated” in a cool way, so I just waved both questions off and pulled my jacket tighter over my tear-stained pink shirt. The kind of emotional attachment that would lead me to shed tears over something so meaningless was a source of embarrassment for me when there were real things to be sad about, such as global warming, or the fact that I wasn’t going to see my cat again for another two months.
Looking back on it now, I miss the way I felt that cold October day. I miss clasping my hands and praying that my team might be able to come out victorious. I miss choking out a sigh of relief, my palms covered in sweat, when they somehow managed to bring the match score to 3–3. I even miss the sharp ache in my heart as I had to watch them sit sullenly and silently in their seats, listening to raucous cheers that weren’t for them.
The relationships between fans and the teams they support can be intense, devoted, and oftentimes heartbreaking, but I’ve never met a fan who truly regrets choosing the teams that they chose. All that hope and pain and love pays off eventually, whether it comes in the form of a single match win, a ticket into playoffs, or an entire tournament victory. It’s the best kind of feeling when after a year of second-place finishes, your team finally hoists that long-awaited trophy and you cry just as much as you did the last time you watched them play in a Grand Final, but for a different reason.
Esports is driven by narratives, no matter how hard people try to shift focus purely to gameplay. While in-game moments can be genuinely iconic and memorable, when I think of a player like Striker, what comes to mind first isn’t one of his many Tracer highlights — it’s him bursting into tears after a hard-fought victory over the London Spitfire, or the nervous exhilaration on his face as he narrowly manages to beat Pine in a Widowmaker 1v1.
Players and teams are noticed for their skill and loved for their stories. It’s the reason underdog teams with heart like GC Busan Wave and (formerly) RunAway are so adored around the world, despite not having the results to back it up. It’s the reason Geguri gets the loudest cheers of anyone on the stage whenever she plays.
Yeah, maybe skill should be valued more highly by fans at times, and maybe certain “undeserving” players are largely kept relevant because of their image. Ultimately, Esports is an industry and not a work of fiction, and the best players should reap the best rewards, but fans are a huge part of what makes the industry run, and tapping into the narratives of individuals and teams will always be the most effective way to maintain fan interest. The success of parody accounts like Incorrect OWL Quotes and silly videos in which NYXL players do their best JJonak impressions should be proof enough that what fans want to see is content that shows us who these players are as people — goofballs, leaders, perfectionists, idiots who won’t cut their hair because they’re in a “transition phase” — rather than content that shows us the exact in-game settings they use.
Even though RunAway have finally won their first championship and can never reasonably be called eternal underdogs ever again, I’ll still wear my (now-faded and outdated) pink shirt from last summer whenever they play. It reminds me not just of their story, but of all the stories from 2017 that have stayed with me all this time.
Maybe in another two years, I’ll be able to look at my Overwatch League jerseys and think the same thing.