Column: L.A. adds another rivalry, this time in the esports arena with the Gladiators and Valiant
The Los Angeles professional sports scene is full of rivalries with catchy nicknames. There’s “El Trafico” between the Galaxy and LAFC, the “Freeway Series” between the Dodgers and Angels, the “Hallway Series” between the Lakers and Clippers, the “Freeway Face-Off” between the Kings and Ducks and the “Fight for L.A.” between the Rams and Chargers.
L.A.’s newest rivalry took a big step toward joining its more established brethren Saturday when the Gladiators and Valiant, Los Angeles’ two Overwatch League teams, squared off in the “Battle for L.A.” at The Novo at L.A. Live.
The Novo is a 2,400-seat performance venue that will serve as the home of the Valiant next season as the Overwatch League, a professional esports league for the popular first-person shooter game, moves into the home markets of its 20 teams. Currently the city-based teams, which dot the globe from Shanghai to San Francisco and from New York to Paris, play most of their games at the neutral Blizzard Arena in Burbank, which was formerly “The Tonight Show” soundstage at the old NBC Studios.
Beginning next year, however, teams will move into their home markets and into their home arenas, and Saturday offered the first glimpse of what that will look like in Los Angeles.
“We want to change the narrative from L.A. being the home of the Overwatch League to L.A. being the home of the Valiant,” said Ari Segal, the CEO of Immortals Gaming Club, one of the premier esports organizations in North America that owns the Valiant with investment from AEG, which owns L.A. Live, Staples Center, Dignity Health Sports Park, the Kings and Galaxy. “When you walk in here, we want you to feel like you’re in the home of the L.A. Valiant. We want to be L.A.’s esports team.”
The Gladiators are owned by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, a company controlled 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. The Gladiators will play their home games at a 6,000-seat performance venue being built next to the stadium, which will be the home of the Rams and Chargers, but will play their first home games of next season at The Novo until it is finished.
Not only will the Valiant and Gladiators move into their new home arenas next year but Immortals and Kroenke Sports and Entertainment have also bought two Los Angeles spots for the Call of Duty League, which is launching next year. As the only city with two teams in the Overwatch League, Call of Duty League and the home of the League of Legends Championship Series, Los Angeles is further solidifying itself as the epicenter of esports.
“Los Angeles has two of our best ownership groups,” said Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, the developer and publisher of Overwatch. “They have a great vision for their home venues and it’s a great market where they support two teams in every other sport. This is one of the few markets where we considered two teams. The key is having great owners and L.A. has that.”
The Overwatch League launched last year with 12 teams and plans to expand to 28 teams in the future. Last season’s grand finals took place at the sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn and this season’s grand finals will take place at the sold-out Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia with the winning team taking home $1.1 million. The price of an Overwatch League franchise is around $35 million while the Call of Duty League slots are reportedly being sold for $25 million.
As fans entered The Novo on Saturday night, they were reminded that they were entering the home of the Valiant with pillars outside the building covered in the pictures and gamer tags of their players such as Kyle “KSF” Frandanisa, Brady “Agilities” Girardi and Johannes “Shax” Nielsen. There was a team shop selling Valiant merchandise ranging from green scarfs and jerseys and the concession stands sold “gamer snacks” created by Valiant players. The team was also selling season tickets for next year, ranging from $15 for a standing-room ticket to $80 for a front-row seat.
What has separated the Overwatch League from other esports leagues is its focus on geolocation and adopting a more traditional sports model of placing teams in home markets and home arenas, which creates regional rivalries. When the San Francisco Shock play the Gladiators or Valiant, for example, you can hear “Beat L.A.” chants from the Bay Area faithful, and when the two Los Angeles teams play each other, Gladiators fans in purple yell “Shields up!” while green-clad Valiant supporters scream “Wings out!”
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“When the Gladiators and Valiant play, the arena is louder than it ever is,” said Pete Vlastelica, CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports and the commissioner of the Overwatch League. “When you walk down the center aisle of the arena there’s nothing but green on one side of the aisle and nothing but purple on the other side of the aisle. The fans have made their pick but some fans are still deciding which team they want to support in L.A.”
The expectation is sports fans in Los Angeles who haven’t picked a side yet will become fans of Gladiators or Valiant at some point. Perhaps they pick a side because they prefer downtown and L.A. Live to Inglewood and Hollywood Park or maybe they are Rams fans and want to side with Kroenke’s other L.A. team or Kings or Galaxy fans that want to stick with AEG. Whatever the case may be, the hope is the “Battle for L.A.” will become the city’s next great sports rivalry.
“I think it’s already a great L.A. rivalry,” Segal said. “It’s only going to get better. The Gladiators are going to be playing in Inglewood. We’re going to be playing here at L.A. Live. There’s already an inherent regional rivalry there. Both sides are competitive and it’s nice that there’s a common enemy. It’s an exciting time to be a sports fan in Los Angeles.”
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