Since the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, teams have been signing talented players that they can’t put on the field. A player needs to be at least 18 years old in order to play in the Overwatch League, but teams are signing younger, but promising, pros. This strategy first made headlines in October 2017, when the New York Excelsior signed Hwang “Fl0w3R” Yeon-oh … even though he wouldn’t be able to play for the entire inaugural season.
This wasn’t a one-off incident. Matthew “super” DeLisi and Jay “sinatraa” Won signed in September 2017 to the San Fransisco Shock, and were not eligible for play until March of the following year. Guangzhou Charge signed Charlie “nero” Zwarg and Lee “Rise” Won-jae in November 2018. The pair were not able to play until late into stage two of the 2019 season. Most recently, star Chinese DPS player, Huang “leave” Xin joined Chengdu Hunters. He is currently pending league approval and will presumably be joining the Hunters in the upcoming 2020 season.
Why would esports teams take the risk of investing in an inactive player? Not only does the player cost money and resources, but they take up a valuable spot on the roster, ensuring that it’s harder for a team to pull from their bench. These acquisitions are risky, but the reward can manifest in multiple ways, including some that many fans wouldn’t expect.
Signing an underage player is an exciting moment. It’s a way for teams to say “we’re in it for the long haul,” and they’re willing to invest in young and sometimes unknown talent. It builds fun speculation when your team is finding success (will the new player fit in well with the team?) and breeds hope when a team is tanking (just wait until they can put the new player in!).
Take, for example, the season one iteration of the San Fransisco Shock. Even though the team’s start to the inaugural season was less than ideal, the discussion around the team was defined by a question: What does this team look like when Sinatraa and Super are able to play? As a fan, there’s always that convenient caveat that you have to mention when talking about teams that have underaged players that are unable to play — things could turn around at any time. The team clearly has a plan!
If the roster was built with these underage players in mind, is it foolish for the viewers and the community to assume the narrative that the team is playing a kind-of “long term” investment? This also echoes what happened with the Shock in 2018. With their less-than-stellar results in the first few stages the narrative was less that they were a mediocre team, but was shifted into unsure optimism.
These PR shifts are a subtle way to ensure the team and its branding always has some positive follow-up to any possible criticism. At the end of the day, there still is a business side to esports and competitive gaming, and being able to show not only the community but your investors that there is always hope is powerful.
The most obvious reason to sign a player that’s under the minimum age is to deny other teams the opportunity to secure that same talent. This is still a competition, after all. If you can act fast and find young talent before your rivals, then that’s an edge that you hold over them.
Take for instance the Guangzhou Charge and its acquisitions of both nero and Rise. They’re incredible talents, and probably would have been signed during the 2019 season once they became of age. Both players could have easily sat in an Overwatch Contenders team and done reasonably well for themselves, but the Charge invested into scouting ahead and denied teams that needed a midseason bump the opportunity to sign some incredible upcoming talents.
Even with the 2-2-2 role lock set in place, player longevity is still a question that has not fully been answered due to the league slowly moving into its travel-heavy schedule for the 2020 season. Having the foresight and ability to find young talent early and deny your competitors those same opportunities is going to be important.
With all the scouting and PR spinning set to the side, when you sign a player that isn’t able to immediately see play, you’re looking at investment. If you’re banking your season or creating a roster with this specific player or players in mind, then they must be good enough to take a loss now, for large improvements later. Teams are going out and signing these kids because, in most cases, they simply are too good to pass up. And in most cases they dictate the postseason roster shuffles.
Take the press frenzy around Sinatraa when he was signed to the San Fransisco Shock in 2017. This happened again with Los Angeles Gladiators player Jang “Decay” Gui-un leading into the 2018 season. And I expect the next bright young talent to be highly sought after for 2020. Why? Because they not only are going to last longer, because they’re entering the game so young, but — if they’re talented enough — they can be your ace in the hole once they become eligible.
Overwatch is moving in the right direction with the role lock, but it’s a very fluid game. Things can change at a moment’s notice and that’s going to affect players, both in their ability to perform on stage and their motivation to continue playing and studying the game for up to 10 hours a day. And with the 2020 season adding even more stressors to the league, you could see more teams opting to sign academy rosters to play in Overwatch Contenders with the intent of promoting them once they become of age.
Having a strong second string is going to become increasingly important especially once the league finds its wings and begins traveling. This allows the teams to still foster young talent, but better acquaint them to their future teams and coaching systems so that once the player becomes of age, they can transition easier into the main roster. And to be fair to the Guangzhou Charge, that’s exactly what they did with nero and Guangzhou Academy. Yes, the team in Overwatch Contenders China didn’t find the success that they might have hoped for, but integration into the team’s culture and coaching structures is important.
And look where the Charge and nero are now. They both are doing incredibly well in stage 4 with the new role lock and are looking ahead to playoffs.
Young players like Super, like Sinatraa, and like nero, are the lifeblood of the league. And while it is a risk to sign them before they’re of legal age to play in the Overwatch League, it is a risk worth taking for the right player.
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