Los Angeles is a two-team city with a pair of franchises in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and two traditional college sports powerhouses in USC and UCLA.
Most people have chosen a side in these intercity battles, but perhaps the rivalry that will become the most interesting to watch in the coming years, particularly if you’re younger than 30, isn’t taking place on the field, court or ice.
It’s taking place on what was formerly “The Tonight Show” soundstage at the old NBC Studios in Burbank, which was used by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno before the show moved to New York in 2014. The building is now called Burbank Studios, and Studio 1, which Carson and Leno called home for 40 years, is now called Blizzard Arena.
The arena, which opened last year, is the home of the Overwatch League, a professional esports league for the video game Overwatch. The game, which is developed and published by Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, is a multiplayer, first-person shooter video game in which two teams of six battle each other.
The league launched last year with 12 teams, each connected to a global city such as New York and London, and eight additional teams were added this offseason. The league’s second season begins Thursday, with plans to expand to 28 teams in the future.
For the second consecutive season all competitions outside of three “homestand” series matches in Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles and the grand finals, which were held at the sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn last year, will take place at Blizzard Arena, with the league hoping to place all 20 teams in their home markets and home arenas within the next couple of years.
The only city with two teams is Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Gladiators and Los Angeles Valiant were two of the first 12 teams in the league. The Valiant are owned by Immortals, one of the premier esports organizations in North America, with investment from AEG, which owns Staples Center, Dignity Health Sports Park (formerly StubHub Center), L.A. Live, the Kings, Galaxy and other properties and teams around the world. The Gladiators are owned by Stan and Josh Kroenke, who own the Rams, Arsenal, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids and the under-construction Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, which is opening next year in Inglewood.
Both teams not only have gotten a head start in building a fan base in their home city, they have already cultivated the best rivalry in the league.
“Los Angeles is the hub of esports in North America so it’s one of the few markets that could support two teams, so it made sense to have two teams here and have a built-in local rivalry,” said Pete Vlastelica, president and CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues. “Those L.A. matchups are on fire. It’s incredible to watch. Half the crowd is purple and the other half is green and they’re yelling and cheering. It’s electric.”
What has made Overwatch League unique compared to other leagues in the multibillion-dollar world of esports is attaching teams to cities and trying to build a hometown fan base like traditional sports. Overwatch League crowds often resemble traditional sports crowds when rival cities face each other. When Boston or San Francisco plays Los Angeles, you can hear “Beat L.A.” chants, and when the two Los Angeles teams play each other, Gladiator fans in purple yell “Shields up!” while green-clad Valiant supporters scream “Wings out!”
“Picking an esports team is so weird because I grew up in an esports scene where there was no geolocation,” said Tyler Erzberger, a Los Angeles native and sports fan who has been covering esports professionally for nearly a decade. “When I became a fan of esports in 2009, I was watching Korean esports and the best teams were owned by phone companies, so I became a fan of players and colors. For new esports fans, geolocation is amazing. You’re going to get more people liking a team because they’re from your city.”
The Overwatch League has not shied away from adopting a traditional sports model, with some of the owners invested in more traditional sports teams. In fact, players from Kroenke’s Gladiators watched the Super Bowl with players from the Boston Uprising, which are owned by Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
The Gladiators and Valiant played each other six times last season, including one preseason match and one postseason match, and the Valiant won all but one of those meetings. The Valiant (27-13) and Gladiators (25-15) were the top two teams in the Pacific Division last season and two of the top four teams in the league last year. Each figures to be near the top again this season. They both realize the way to capture the hearts of the city is no different than any other team in the market — they have to win.
“We know how important it is to win and how big those games are,” said Brady “Agilities” Girardi, who plays for the Valiant. “It’s a great rivalry and I loved those games more than any other games we played in season one because anytime anything happened the crowd would go wild. It’s such a good feeling looking out into the crowd and seeing one side in purple and the other side in green and whenever we’d win our fans would go crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
When Overwatch League teams move into their home markets and arenas, the Gladiators are expected to move into the amphitheater being built next to the future home of the Rams and Chargers, while the Valiant are expected to move into The Novo at L.A. Live.
“It’s going to be great to see how this rivalry evolves when they move into their own separate arenas and we have home and away games,” said Nate Nanzer, vice president and commissioner of the Overwatch League, whose office at Blizzard Arena used to be Carson’s old office.
“I don’t think we’re that far away from seeing a level of passion for these teams and this rivalry compare to traditional sports in the city because you have a whole generation of kids growing up in Los Angeles and video games are a huge part of their lives and they’re growing up to be Gladiators or Valiant fans. This is going to be one of the best rivalries in Los Angeles.”