I had the opportunity to sit down and speak to Austin Moorhead, the author of Young Guns: Obsession, Overwatch, and the Future of Gaming. The book chronicles the rise of the Overwatch League, with direct access to teams and players as they navigate through the trials of this new growing sport. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Bailey: Could you give a brief background on yourself and why you decided to write this book?
Austin: I was in the business world, but I always wanted to write and then I finally talked to an author that I have known for a couple of years. I had been doing my fiction projects but I had never finished anything so he said why don’t you try nonfiction, do you have anything going on soon? I was going to a Magic the Gathering tournament in Las Vegas so he said why don’t you write about that and then see if we can get that in a magazine.
I wrote that piece and it did not sell to a magazine but got into the hands of an agent and he said why don’t you develop a book proposal along these lines but could you sort of broaden it from Magic to eSports because that’s more popular. One proposal that was I’m going to try and find a tier-three team and write about the scene from the inside and part of my failings will be comedic fodder for the book. So that proposal took 30 editors and 29 said no, one said maybe but nobody cares about you and there are too many games here so could you narrow it down to which one is the most interesting to you and instead focus on the players and the people.
To me, Overwatch was the obvious choice as it had been announced and it was interesting that these billionaire sports owners like Robert Kraft and Sam Kroenke were investing in this one as the big eSports push. I grew up gaming and I love Blizzard, like Diablo 2 LAN parties were one of my favorites parts of senior year of high school. I was excited to go in and look at the world because I’m a gamer but I also see the business side of things so it was a perfect combination of interests that would let me have some success at a first book.
Gaining Access to Overwatch League Teams
Bailey: How were you able to get access to the Overwatch League teams?
Austin: It was a mix of luck and connections, my agent worked in the WME mailroom with Brett Lautenbach who is now co-president of NRG eSports so I gave him the pitch for the book where I want to do nonfiction from the inside where I follow the story for the season and I would need access and he said yes but I would have to get permission from Andy Miller so he set me up with him I went to Silicon Valley and pitch Andy on this. It’s funny because it could be dangerous to have a writer around. After all, you don’t know what their agenda is and how they might interpret things but I was never given any sort of prescription on what had to happen. The only thing Andy said was “don’t make us look like assholes” so they were on board.
Once I was able to get into the Blizzard Arena and the practice rooms then I could start meeting people and talk my way into getting access for the rest of the season. Blizzard is quite controlled about where the media can be and who they are supposed to be talking to but I was operating more behind the scenes so it turned out well and I had amazing access.
Bailey: A major focus of the book is the money involved in the Overwatch League, do you know if the teams were making a return on investment?
Austin: Andy told me the first season they broke even, and then they made money in the second season but I don’t know the numbers because they’re very tight-lipped about that. I don’t think they’re making fantastic fortunes by any means. The fundamental bet is that there are a lot of people who watch eSports and it’s also growing. Previously sponsors had not been willing to come in because partially the games they were playing like Counter-Strike had terrorists win half the time so that was unappealing.
Overwatch League would have an open and welcoming community and we can have all kinds of people as fans that big brands want to advertise to and so over time we know the eyeballs are there and over time the money will catch up to the eyeballs.
Coronavirus’ Affect on the Season
Bailey: Speaking about this season, how do you think the coronavirus pandemic will affect the Overwatch League?
Austin: I talked to Brett and they were on a call with all the team owners and he thought that it would be a short call but it ended up being a very long call and I think there is no way for the coronavirus to not dampen prospects because there are ticket sales now and merchandise off ticket sales. More importantly, this was the year they were supposed to go to local markets and connect with fans and start building a local fan base and see fellow fans walking around in jerseys and go to events and things so it’s definitely a big setback.
Bailey: How do players feel about the switch to online matches and how it could affect play?
Austin: I don’t but I do know that players hated playing onstage at the Blizzard Arena because it was freezing cold. I follow the players on Twitter and talk on discord and there’s a lot of complaining because the hotel is like 45 minutes from the event venue so going online is likely better for the players because it cuts down on the travel issues.
As soon as these guys are in the game there is no awareness besides the game. They have the headset on, six guys are talking and the incredibly fast-paced play of Overwatch means it doesn’t matter. The only concern is that they are remote means it’s harder to control for cheating like aimbots or how do you account that one team might have better ping to a server so there are some competitive issues but in terms of the ability for the players to play won’t be affected at all.
South Korean Dominance in the Overwatch League
Bailey: A majority of the top Overwatch League players seem to be coming out of South Korea, why do you think they are such a powerhouse?
Austin: The Asian financial crisis happened at the same time Starcraft came out so when the Asian financial crisis happened the South Korean GDP went down by a third over the course of two years. Nobody was hiring so these kids all of a sudden couldn’t get a job so that’s how Starcraft took off because of unemployed young men who were highly competitive because of South Korean culture so that is why South Korea is the hub of eSports.
There is a list of average hours worked by country, and South Korea has been on the top of the list for at least 20 years. It’s an extremely hard-working population and competitive in school they rank you number one to whatever and keep the leaderboard updated all year. It’s a very communal culture. I remember when they were paying off the world bank loan post-Korean War they said we need help so people were donating their jewelry to be melted down into gold so that they could help pay off the debt. The combination of a hyper-competitive scene plus a community-oriented culture means that they have the two key factors for success for a team-based game like Overwatch.
The Transition of eSports in America
Bailey: Do you think we will see a shift from traditional sports to eSports in America?
Austin: You can find that youth participation in all kinds of athletic activities is going down one percent a year, kids are playing fewer sports and spending way more time online. I think that the gamers are making more money like Sinatraa has the $150k contract when he was 17 so I think that has validated it in a way at least. In the book, Brad has to convince Sinatraa’s mom that this is a real thing and that is part of the concern for parents that I don’t want my kid to go down this path of gaming that leads to nothing in terms of income so now that there is a path it will go towards validating it.
Bailey: Who is your favorite Overwatch hero?
Austin: D.Va, I don’t have fast reflexes and she’s a tank so I tend to survive for a while and she’s fun to play. On the character side, her backstory is really awesome that she’s a young girl piloting this mech and I think it’s really cool. She was an eSports pro in South Korea and they’re saying her amazing reflexes allow her to be an amazing mech pilot.
Bailey: What was something you learned through the process of writing your first book?
Austin: One thing is the amount of research you do. Basically, for everything that is in the book, there is at least twice as much material that is not in there. My lesson was you should be doing more research than you expect to do and keep pushing because then you have more to choose from. As the story becomes clear and you have that interview you didn’t think was relevant then becomes highly relevant, so I learned to respect the amount of research.
The Future of Overwatch League and eSports
Bailey: What do you see as the future for the Overwatch League and eSports?
Austin: For Overwatch League, the player base has been declining which is normal for games. How much Overwatch 2 revitalizes the player base which then translates to more fans watching that plus the ability to get to local markets will be what causes Overwatch League to be successful or not.
For eSports more broadly, one thing is it is definitely here to stay. It is so fast-paced to watch an esports game. When I went from watching an Overwatch match to two days later a friend had tickets to go see an NBA game. I used to think of the NBA as a fast-paced sport but after coming from an Overwatch match I was bored and didn’t feel like anything was happening. It’s unlikely that these eSports fans are going to switch over to the traditional sports. It’s here to stay and is going to keep growing like crazy.
For anyone that is even a little interested in Overwatch and the growing eSports scene, Young Guns is worth checking out. Even for someone that is not interested in eSports, the book is a fantastic examination of the business of sports and how they become the giants that they are.