For the past nine months, writing about EnVyUs as a North American team has been like having a small stone in my shoe, slowly jabbing my European size 10 feet into submission, damaging my body and sole. A couple of months ago, Luminosity followed EnVy with a move to North America, then Misfits partnered with Miami HEAT, possibly preceding a move to the land of opportunity.
The final straw was Rogue’s relocation: a full lineup of Frenchmen, some of whom will barely be understood in their new home of Las Vegas thanks to their fabulously foreign accents, now being branded as a North American team.
Well I’ll be damned if I’m putting North American flags next to every relevant team in the West! This was supposed to be an invasion, not assimilation.
A Problem of Identity
This is more than a matter of pride though. I’m not particularly stirred myself by national (or regional) loyalty, but I do feel a nonsensical precedent was set by EnVyUs’ relocation early in the life of Overwatch. It’s one that will twist the identities and storylines of teams who move region, and it doesn't have a basis in reality for the open circuit or the OWL system.
It’s also genuinely confusing for fans, who for example were deadly serious in their chanting of “USA! USA!” to cheer on EnVyUs in the Grand Finals of the Overwatch Open - a tournament which had been purposefully designed to create a televised EU vs. NA final, compromising the rest of the bracket as a result. There were 11 European players in that match; apparently the majority of the home crowd were purely there as Talespin's cheerleaders.
Immediately it should be obvious that this has nothing to do with where the organisation is based, as proponents claim. There are many organisations with teams in different regions not affected by this strange public labelling: Swedish Ninjas in Pyjamas with their Finnish team; North American Tempo Storm with their Australian team; German mousesports with their European team; British Fnatic with their mixed team from the West living in the US; there are many more examples.
Labelling teams based on the location of the organisation’s headquarters tells you nothing useful. The community only aims to absorb teams into the North American identity after the players move there - because it does actually serve to tell you one useful thing: the ‘usual’ ping of the team in online competition.
Teams tend to compete in online competitions within their region to avoid a large disadvantage due to latency, and therefore qualify for offline events in their region as well. While invites could theoretically extend anywhere across the globe, budgets usually limit all but the largest offline events to one continent.
When playing online, it’s helpful to know when a team is playing in a tournament outside their region, as it provides necessary context for interpreting their results. Calling EnVyUs an NA team made sense for the first four months of their move, as they were competing solely in North American online tournaments and North American qualifiers due to ping. Overwatch has not reached a point where offline qualifiers are the norm, and making EnVy qualify for the Overwatch Open with 100+ ping in the European side would have been foolish. This is the primary benefit of our current form of national team identification.
The system has a lot of downsides though and barely works enough to be considered a benefit. For example, FaZe are classically considered a North American team as they play in North American tournaments and are planning to relocate to the United States, despite currently having players spread all across the globe from America to Russia ( Forsak3n’s flag is another issue entirely as an ethnic Russian raised in Latvia who studies and lives in Scotland - the mind boggles). Their usual US flag fails to help with identification of ping, as it does for every transatlantic roster, and their decision to become an “NA” team for qualifiers was arbitrary and even swapped midway into their life as a team.
When speaking to dummy about this particular gripe at a recent event, he offered me an interesting thought experiment. “Imagine if it was the other way around,” he said, laughing, “do you think for a moment that if an NA team moved to EU, their fans would consider them European?”
I have to agree with him. If Immortals moved to Europe to play in the EU tournament circuit (for the sake of argument it exists and is thriving in this alternate universe), would NA fans consider them a European team? Of course not! They’d relish the opportunity for intercontinental competition and would back their compatriots to the end, screaming themselves hoarse.
As a side note it’s interesting that I have to use Immortals here, as they’re the best team in North America with a full team of NA players: EnVyUs have none, Fnatic have three, FaZe have three, and Cloud9 have four - though as mentioned previously it’s as accurate to chant for Sweden or Canada as the United States if you support C9.
This assimilation of foreign teams into the home identity is only a common occurrence in North America. It seems very unlikely it would happen the other way around, and nor does it happen when North American or European teams move to Korea - though that is by its nature temporary, no matter how long they stay for.
Culturally, it seems that American fans are often intensely nationalistic in all sports, used to having second-rate domestic talent in esports, and quite willing to cheer on foreign players as long as they can attach themselves to a memorable brand they associate with the US. My heart particularly goes out to players from Canada, ignored in every “USA!” chant, absorbed as members of the 51st state.
In many ways it’s similar to Andy Murray being hailed by the English as their sporting icon, but I certainly don’t think English football fans are under any delusion that home talent is what makes the EPL great.
Here’s another thought experiment: what will happen if every relevant Western team moves to North America for the Overwatch League’s first season? If Misfits, Ninjas in Pyjamas, eUnited, or even more make the journey over and are included in OWL, would they all become North American teams? Does it make sense from any angle to view the OWL as a North American league if the teams are from all over the Western hemisphere, with some players from as far east as Russia and Thailand?
Returning to the example of EnVyUs, the quintessential import to North American Overwatch, and analysing where they've lived over the last five months opens up another can of worms. nV have spent only a few weeks living in North America since October 2016, with the rest of their time spent in Korea. While it’s difficult to tell without knowing flight details, it would appear from the outside that EnVyUs have spent as much time competing in North America as in Korea throughout the team’s Overwatch life so far. How much longer before we pronounce them Korean?
It does make sense to invite teams to the online qualifiers that they are geographically close to, at this stage in the life of Overwatch, but they are clearly foreign teams in those tournaments.
In CS:GO, which has a much larger circuit with frequent qualifiers, teams travel to their home region to play in offline qualifiers rather than playing in foreign ones closest to them. Qualifiers in CS:GO, particularly for the Majors, are designed so that the main tournament has a balance between regions. The qualifiers are not open to whichever teams happen to be close by, to avoid teams deliberately moving to areas of reduced competition and getting an ‘easy ride’. This system leads to increased diversity, with more regions represented, but can create a large variance in skill.
Though it does ensure that all fans have a stake in the tournament and makes for great storylines, this might not necessarily be the best system - why should there be an even representation of regions? Why shouldn’t European teams be able to move over to North America and qualify there if they’re better than the local competition? If you accept that we want the best teams to get to the main event, to have the absolute best competition in the world present regardless of where they’re from, then theoretically there is no reason to lock qualifiers to regions.
In reality, however, a completely open qualifier system like Overwatch has currently is a bad thing. Fans generally don’t enjoy watching a single region dominating the competition, especially if it’s in the qualifier stage, and having strong foreign teams move to areas of weak competition can crush the potential for local talent to develop there.
Even within Overwatch's young lifespan, it’s clear that this open qualifier system has had a negative effect. The financial disparity between the EU and NA circuit has led to an exodus of top European teams and contributed to a huge downward spiral. If limitations on foreign teams in qualifiers and tournaments were put into place, then orgs would be less able to flock to wherever the money is, leaving top teams and fans (i.e. viewers) of those teams spread across regions, incentivising tournament organisers to spread their wealth slightly more evenly.
Even if you do allow teams to travel to other regions and play in their tournaments/qualifiers, they shouldn’t just be absorbed into that region’s identity. Those foreign players are from a specific country, they speak a specific language, and they have cultural ways of acting related to that place - they are foreigners and should be labelled as such.
If imported teams and players are recognised as domestic and their success is taken to reflect their resident scene’s, then wider issues are far more likely to be ignored. Little effort will be done to rectify problems with developing real NA talent, for example, if everybody feels the scene is doing well because the top teams all have foreign players.
Likewise Europe at the moment must be recognised as a developing ground for excellent talent, since it fills up the majority of both the NA and EU top teams. If the players all move to North America and get recognised as American, the EU scene will not be given credit and helped to develop more talent.
Correct labelling of these teams as foreign helps with fan identification as well. Fans can root for a team from their region, even when watching tournaments they would otherwise be disinterested in. Fans can also root for players that they have national ties with and can communicate well with. Under the current system, the best 'North American' team could be Lunatic-Hai if they moved, full of players who don’t speak English well and couldn’t connect with their regional fanbase in any meaningful way outside the game.
None of this matters in traditional sports. Teams in the English Premier League or MLB are full of players from foreign countries, but the fans tune in to watch the teams and follow their storylines, not the players'.
The reason the esports system can’t work in the same way as traditional sports is that the power is with the players. They drive the success, their styles and personalities drive the fanbase, and they often stick together as a unit when changing organisations.
Esports orgs don’t have geographical ties with their fans or their players, and the esports players often have widely spread international fanbases powered by the internet, often larger than the organisation they play for.
EnVyUs as an organisation is from NA, but you don’t tune in to watch nV. You tune in to watch Taimou, to watch HarryHook and Mickie, to watch INTERNETHULK and chipshajen and cocco. And they are from EU.