On the eve of Overwatch League, the game's most renowned (and likely best) player is ready to go pro in earnest
On the eve of Overwatch League, the game's most renowned (and likely best) player is ready to go pro in earnest
At 24 years old, Brandon "Seagull" Larned is the most famous Overwatch player alive. Arguably, he's also the only famous Overwatch player alive.
The numbers tell the tale: he has 82,000 Twitter followers and 600,000 subscribers on YouTube. On a good day, his Twitch stream pulls in over 20,000 viewers from around the world. For a professional gamer, these are respectable figures, but they're not uniquely impressive. The biggest names in other esports – say, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg from League of Legends, who has just south of 1.1 million followers on Twitter – own much larger followings than Seagull. His audience is conspicuous not for its size in absolute terms, but relative ones. There's no shortage of Overwatch pros, but they possess only a fraction of Seagull's audience. Some of his former teammates on Team NRG have well under 10,000 Twitter followers; others have under 500.
Social media is only one way of measuring influence, and an imperfect one at that. But the degree to which Seagull towers over his contemporaries in terms of visibility is striking, especially in a game like Overwatch, which averages 30 million registered players each month yet has struggled (so far) to build an audience for competitive matches on par with other esports. Seagull is a professional in search of proportion, a prodigy in need of peers. Few would argue that he is the best player alive – though he is very, very good – but he nonetheless has become the face of competitive Overwatch in North America. And with Activision Blizzard's gargantuan Overwatch League coming (in theory) later this year, that's a very valuable title indeed.
But it's lonely at the top. Today, more than a year into Overwatch's lifespan, Seagull remains the only player in professional Overwatch with any credible claim to celebrity, the closest thing the game has to a Bjergsen. For all the coverage Overwatch League receives about its audacious scope and soaring ambition, it's weirdly devoid of personalities. Why is that? And what does Seagull's singular popularity say about the state of professional Overwatch today?
ORIGIN OF HIS SPECIES
Larned's age – 24 – gives him a particular kind of insight into esports and its history. He's young enough to have been part of the first generation of players for whom "professional gamer" was not an oxymoron. Being the "best" wasn't just an ideal anymore; it could be a career, albeit an unlikely one. Larned grew up playing first person shooters, but could also tune into the first attempts at televised esports, like the DirectTV's Championship Gaming Series. He even tried his hand at competing.
"One random year, Verizon decided to throw $100,000 at Half Life 2 Deathmatch," Larned remembers, speaking with Glixel over Skype. "I was too young to play, but I was one of the best players." He mentions that the winner of that tournament had barely played the game before.
But Seagull is also old enough to have witnessed CGS's ignominious collapse, dragging down the mid-2000s iteration of the esports industry. There's a tendency among esports fans and writers to think of esports history as a triumphal march from basements to stadiums, but the real story is much messier. For every esport, tournament, and player that has succeeded, there are 10 more that failed. Larned knows this better than most.
Larned initially came to prominence in Team Fortress 2. At its peak, the game had millions of active players, but a comparatively tiny competitive scene. Valve provided virtually no support for "professional" TF2, but fans, and even a few third-party organizers, found ways to make a threadbare circuit work.
"In that game, you didn't 'go pro,'" Seagull explains. "You played because you were passionate about the game. But everyone knew that we were small fish. The game didn't have a future. The community was too fragmented or never big enough, and it was the wrong timing for everything."
For years, that was fine with Larned. Winning, and a passion for the game, was enough to make it emotionally, if not financially, fulfilling. Even the most successful of TF2 players could not afford to play the game full-time. Who could, Larned noted, were the community's biggest content creators, mostly YouTubers making compilations of in-game highlights and bloopers. They had only a fraction of Larned's in-game ability, but they were still able to make a decent living playing video games.
Meanwhile, the confluence of Twitch and a number of new titles designed with serious competitive play in mind laid the foundations for a new esports boom. In the early 2010s, when Seagull's TF2 career was at its peak, StarCraft II's competitive scene was wildly popular, and League of Legends was on the rise. Their success, built on support from the developers and corporate sponsorship, made what was missing from TF2's scene all the more obvious.
"I thought about swapping games," Larned recalls. "I was near the top of the StarCraft II ladder, but I just didn't like the game."
Larned retired from TF2 in 2014, citing a diminished competitive environment. "After you play a game for that long against the same people, you want to win because you want to beat the other person," he remembers. "But the community stopped growing and people stopped caring. It became boring."
I was tryharding in school because I wanted to have time to play Overwatch for 20 hours a day. So I aced my midterms and skipped class for a week and a half.
In total, Larned's winnings in Team Fortress 2 were just over $3,000. The same year that he retired, the Dota 2 pro Zhihao "Hao" Chen made $1.1 million.
After his retirement, Larned tried to slip into the relative anonymity of collegiate life at Washington State University. But at Blizzcon 2014, Blizzard announced Overwatch, a class-based PC shooter that drew on the legacy of TF2. Details were scant, but that didn't matter; it seemed tailor-made for Larned.
"Before I even played the game, I knew I wanted to play it professionally," Larned says. "It was everything I wanted in an FPS game, and I knew I wanted to be the best in it. Overwatch was the beacon of all the garbage scenes that never amounted to anything."
Larned was well-positioned to capitalize on Overwatch before anyone knew anything about its professional scene – or, indeed, whether it would even have a professional scene. He had a natural talent for shooting games, along with FPS mechanics he'd honed over the years.
"I did all the hard work in TF2," Larned says. "I have the mechanics, I know how to aim, and I have good movement. So I compared Overwatch to as many Team Fortress 2 mechanics as possible."
In the months leading up to Overwatch's closed beta in late 2015, Larned spent countless hours studying the game, even though he, like everyone outside of Blizzard, didn't have access to a playable build.
"I made spreadsheets of of all the damage numbers I could find," he remembers. "I wrote strategies for maps I hadn't even played by looking at three to four minute gameplay previews on Blizzard's YouTube channel. I tried to track the internal balance patches to see how the designers viewed the game and what direction they wanted to take it. I wrote 10,000 words on Overwatch before I touched it." By the time the public gained access to Overwatch, it's very possible that Larned knew more about the game than anyone outside of Blizzard.
But after watching a decade's worth of competitive gaming, Larned understood that making it in esports takes a lot more than good mouse accuracy and map knowledge. The real question was how to transfigure in-game excellence into a living. But here, too, Larned knew a script he could follow.
"From day one, my entire plan for Overwatch was to blow up a stream," Larned says, which is exactly what happened. "I went from streaming to 1,000 concurrent viewers to 20,000 in less than 200 hours on air. It wasn't like I cultivated a stream over a long period of time, because I never had a long period of time."
Larned attributes his streaming success to "good luck," but he's being humble. By 2015, he'd seen enough of competitive gaming to know what worked and what didn't. Celebrity is never a foregone conclusion, but Larned knew how to exploit the openings in the fabric of his situation.
"I was tryharding in school because I wanted to have time to play Overwatch for 20 hours a day," Larned says. "So I aced my midterms and skipped class for a week and a half."
That strategy paid off at a moment when public interest in Overwatch was extremely high. "In Team Fortress 2, I'd have 100 viewers or less," Larned says of his Twitch stream. "But in Overwatch, I'd use a clickbait title like 'Top TF2 Player' – which was true – which would get me 500 viewers. A week later, streaming scrims against people from Blizzard got me 1,000."
Larned's mechanical prowess, combined with his extensive preparation, meant that he was miles ahead of his in-game competitors in Overwatch during the game's closed beta. Viewers began mining his Twitch stream for highlights, which routinely hit the top of the Overwatch subreddit. By the end of 2015, Larned was the most popular Overwatch streamer on Twitch by a wide margin, and widely seen as an elite player.
The success of Larned's stream meant it was finally possible to play videogames full-time. At his parents' encouragement, Larned took a leave of absence from WSU to pursue Overwatch. "My parents basically told me, 'Why don't you just take off the spring semester and summer off?,'" Larned remembers. "Worst case, I'd miss one semester of school and go back in the fall. Best case, I'm a progamer."
Because of his popularity and his skill, it didn't take long for esports organizations to take an interest in signing Seagull. By the end of the second closed beta in February 2016, he'd been approached by almost every organization in esports. Eventually, he signed with Luminosity Gaming in March 2016 and – following a personally addressed, public invitation from Shaquille O'Neal – Team NRG several months later.
Between August 2016 and April 2017, Seagull competed with Team NRG across a constellation of midsize third party tournaments, in addition with a handful of larger, Blizzard-backed events. Team NRG had only modest results during this period, failing to win any major titles but nevertheless taking home around $50,000 – not an especially impressive figure by modern esports standards, but a lot more than Larned had ever earned in TF2.
Streaming is far more important than practice in the early stages of the lifespan of a game. People who get in the ground early with streaming stick around, and it's the easiest time to do it.
Though Team NRG's middling results led to accusations of Seagull underperforming, the losses didn't weigh especially heavily on him. The game's competitive scene was in its infancy and there wasn't yet a rich field of elite competitors. Players, by and large, still formed teams with their friends, rather than who they thought they could win with.
"In the first two years of any game is completely fucking garbage," Larned says. "How are you going to undo all the things you learned playing another game for seven years and instantly be a pro six months in?"
"I made a team with friends, and we tried our best to win. That was essentially the NRG lineup."
But the demands of pro gaming soon began to wear on Larned, especially as the tournament scene started to peter out in 2017. Third party organizers were, understandably, wary about investing into Overwatch when it would possibly mean competing against Blizzard's own league. Increasingly, Seagull found himself caught between his low-return desire to play professional Overwatch and his high-return identity as a streamer.
"When I was on Team NRG, it was nonstop travel for months," Larned says. "We didn't have the time to do much content."
Things came to a head in April when Seagull announced that he'd be taking a break from competitive play to focus on his stream. In a Twitlonger post, he lamented the fact that Overwatch pros have found themselves caught in a frustrating limbo while they wait for the Overwatch League to launch later this year. "I've been struggling to justify streaming hours to play in the competitive scene during this downtime," Larned says in summary. "Expect to see me back in pro play for Overwatch League's first season."
THE PRICE AND PROMISE OF STREAMING
Since the reveal of Overwatch League in November 2016, most of the work Blizzard has done on its massive undertaking – likely the biggest in the history of esports – has focused on building an enormously complex ecosystem and enticing investors. What's languished in the meantime is the "soft" aspects of professional sports, like building an emotional connection between fans and players.
For Larned, some of that responsibility begins with would-be professional players introducing themselves to the world, just as he has. Seagull's break from competitive play is a privilege that few others can copy. Without a popular stream, professional Overwatch is, for now, a high-risk low-reward venture. Some players, like Cloud9's Derrick "Reaver" Nowicki, who was once expected to be a top Overwatch player, have retired for precisely that reason.
Asked to account for the relative absence of high profile Overwatch pros who also stream, Larned says that it comes down to professional players' priorities. "A lot of players who could have potentially have made popular streams actively chose to prioritize practice over streaming," he says.
But at what cost? One of life's great frustrations is that while you can always describe your experience, you can never confer it. Seagull is polite when he talks about other top players' choice not to stream, but it's clear it irks him that other players don't take building their profile more seriously.
"Streaming is far more important than practice in the early stages of the lifespan of a game," Larned explains. "People who get in the ground early with streaming stick around, and it's the easiest time to do it."
Few would seriously argue that streaming isn't good for players, but Seagull insists that it's also good for the game itself. Building an audience through Twitch is one way to ensure that when cameras start rolling, there will be fans tuning in. For if not them, then who, exactly, is watching?
"That's what's so ridiculous about Overwatch!" Larned says, voice rising. "Pros don't stream, and a lot of them just don't want to. I don't know how to describe it. I tried to convince some players to stream. I will host you! I will tell you exactly when to stream! I even told certain players when to stream and they had, like, 4 to 5,000 viewers. And now they get like 800."
OVERWATCH NEEDS HEROES, TOO
The two months that have passed since Seagull announced his break from competitive play have not been kind to professional Overwatch. Many organizations – Splyce, compLexity, Denial, Team Dignitas, and Red Reserve among them – dropped their Overwatch squads amid rumors that buying into the Overwatch League could cost up to $20 million, a sum few independent esports organizations can levy without taking in outside investment (other reports suggest that even the traditional sports teams Blizzard appears to be courting have balked at the price tag; the rumor mill surrounding Overwatch League is hyperactive, but it is in no way unified).
That limbo Larned bemoaned when he announced his break from competitive play has only become more treacherous as the number of tournaments has dwindled and teams have abandoned their rosters. "I'm really concerned about these players who get dropped from their organizations," Larned says. "What are they going to do over the next few months? Are they financially stable? That's why I always host someone – usually a pro player – because I try to build their streams as much as possible."
The success or failure of the league, after all, rests almost entirely on its ability to create and sustain a massive, international player base. No small part of that involves building fandom around players, something professional Overwatch, for the most part, has failed to do – with one glaring (or is it beaming?) exception. The fact is that Overwatch League, in some ways, needs Seagull – and players like him, players who understand and see the value in cultivating something fans want to follow – a lot more than Seagull needs Overwatch League.
"No matter what, I'll be fine," Larned says, with just a touch of defiance. "I have a stream. The other players – they're the ones who should be shitting their pants right now."
Maybe Blizzard too, because the truth is that almost no one watches sports (or esports) for a CitiBank sponsorship or because Robert Kraft opened his checkbook. We watch sports because they capture the wide gamut of human experience – victory, defeat, fear, hubris, vengeance, jealousy, and so much more – and lay it bare under blinding stadium floodlights. We watch sports, that is to say, because of the people who play them.
"I love to stream, but I also love to be a pro player," Larned says. "I look at Overwatch League as 'I want to play pro in Overwatch League.'" To succeed, that league will need a lot – sponsors, merchandise, contracts, and balding men in well-tailored suits quibbling over performance incentives. But these are merely the body of a sport; they are not its soul. When Overwatch launched last year, it leaned on the slogan "the world needs heroes." Turns out that Overwatch needs them too; heroes whose triumphs we can savor, and heroes whose losses we can endure. Out of great desire, tempered and directed by experience, Seagull has answered that call. Who else is listening?