Meet the Titans: Canucks-backed Vancouver esports team seeks Overwatch League glory
$5M US gaming competition draws its owners and structure from established major professional sports
The Vancouver Titans don't hit the ice, take to the turf, or step between the painted lines.
Instead, Vancouver's newest pro sports team plies its trade over keyboards and across from monitors, all while inside a California studio as part of a made-for-media spectacle capable of drawing millions of worldwide online viewers.
The Canucks-backed Titans are one of eight expansion teams joining the second season of the Overwatch League (OWL), an esports competition with 20 teams across six countries and three continents, all centred on the popular first-person shooter game Overwatch.
"I'm pretty sure we're the only league out there where fans from Vancouver have a chance to watch their team play Shanghai or Seoul or London or New York," said the Overwatch League's Jonathan Spector.
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Teams of six compete against each other in pro sports-style regular season, capped by a playoffs and championship finale in a league modelled after traditional sports complete with city-branded teams, conferences and standings, uniforms and logos and a post-season capped by a championship game.
"One of the easiest hooks that you've got is Vancouver has got a team and, oh, they're playing Toronto next week ... I hope we win."
Established sports teams like the Canucks can build their brand with a young, tech-savvy audience through OWL, but some in the industry warn that its city-versus-city competition is untested in esports and may not be sustainable.
Ready to win
The Titans are a newly-formed team, but one with an experienced roster, having played together as team RunAway in Korea since 2016.
"I think we have the potential to win every game that we play," said Harsha Bandi, Titans assistant coach.
Runaway won four major Overwatch tournaments in the last 14 months prior to be signed en masse to the Titans.
"They really feel like a family," said Bandi. "That comes from working together for so long. It's a cool strength that we have."
Last year's season one finale, won by the London Spitfire, carried with it a $3.5 million US prize pool and drew close to 11 million online viewers.
"I certainly think we have the ability to win the whole thing."
Build it they will come?
Not everyone in the industry is convinced that mimicking pro sports is a good fit for competitive gaming.
"It's such an easy sell because it's an existing model that people just kind of take it for granted," said Duncan 'Thorin' Shields, a Dutch-based esports journalist and historian.
Other major esports are less structured, with seasons based around a series of major events rather than a set regular season schedule.
Overwatch's developer claims the game has 40 million players across the globe and draws a substantial online audience well into the millions of viewers.
Shields says the game itself isn't problematic, rather he thinks OWL got it backwards when it came to treating it as an esport.
"It's very much like that cliche from Field of Dreams, 'if you build it they will come.' The problem is no one's ever actually been able to do that yet. Usually you go the other way, you get all the people and then you try to monetize them."
Still, pro teams, investors and millions of young gamers will nonetheless all be watching this weekend as the Titans make their OWL debut.
As Spector points out, the league is only in its second season. But he says the teams and their owners are in it for the long haul.
"We're trying our best to stay hungry and continue to do better."