A North American Contenders Team Challenging The Status Quo

Before the Overwatch League, endemic esports organizations had ventured into the Overwatch scene to establish their brand presence and competitive rosters in hopes of gaining a coveted franchise spot in the world’s first geolocalized esports league.

Even before the announcement of the Overwatch League, notable names in the esports space such as EnvyUs, FaZe Clan, Team Liquid, and Fnatic all established teams as early as 2016, and had their presence in a myriad of online and, to a lesser degree, LAN tournaments.

At the time, it appeared as if Overwatch was poised to challenge the three esports titans of CS:GO, Dota 2 and League Of Legends. With the establishment of the OWL and Contenders, many of these organizations have left the game altogether while the fortunate few were able to secure a franchise partnership with Activision Blizzard. Team Envy turned their decorated roster into perhaps the most popular team in the league, the Dallas Fuel, while FaZe Clan left the game entirely.

The announcement of a franchised league and the reported multi-million barrier of entry created a situation where large esports organizations either invested in the OWL or pull out of Overwatch entirely. That is to say, with many of the endemic esports organizations joining the top-tier OWL, there was simply not enough of an incentive for others to invest solely in Contenders, where there is a far smaller prize pool, a far smaller number of viewers and a lack of general stability outside of the franchised league.

With the exception of Skyfoxes who recently entered a partnership with Meta Gaming, almost all participants in Contenders are currently either unsigned grassroots style teams made up of a group of part-timers such as Second Wind who do not hold a steady salary from the game, or Academy teams backed by their OWL ownership. As a result, academy teams have become a goal for many up-and-coming players as they offer better resources, such as being able to pay their players a salary to enable them to focus on practicing the game full-time, scrims with their OWL sister team and of course the potential to be promoted as a two-way player.

However, if we look to the other side of the world, endemic esports organizations are still doing exceptionally well for themselves with only Contenders teams. Element Mystic and RunAway in Korea are fan favourites which apparently also manage to house and pay their players a salary, while well-known organizations such as Talon Esports and Nova Esports (under the name Nova Monster Shield) maintain a presence in Contenders Pacific.

In North America, however, there is the sad case of EnVision, who dropped out of Contenders ostensibly due to the owner’s frustration with how Blizzard treated non-academy teams and a lack of financial incentives to maintain such an operation. The situation is better in Europe, where organizations like HSL Esports and Samsung Morning Stars compete in Contenders, but, surprisingly, there are so many unsigned teams in these regions, which are more well-developed and popular than regions like Pacific and Australia.

It was at this point that Triumph Gaming burst onto the scene in Contenders Trials 2019 Season 1. A relatively new organization that also has an Apex Legends and Paladins team, Triumph made waves with its extremely high quality of graphics and social media engagement, thanks in no small part to the hiring of notable figures in the Overwatch scene such as current Florida Mayhem graphic designer Anthony “AntwnPls” Salzarulo. An argument could be made that their very presence in the Tier 2 and 3 scene has made people rethink the way they look at the Overwatch esports scene and its sustainability and viability.

It was them I turned to, therefore, to find out why an esports organization was taking the unusual step of investing in Contenders, to say nothing of grinding its way through Open Division and Trials, and how exactly the Western scene differs from, say, the Korean one. To find out more about this unique organization, I spoke to co-founder Jake “Epic” Laumann, as well as Triumph Community Director Mackenzie “Guard” Varnagatas.

A Story of Triumph

Triumph Gaming was first started by Laumann, who had previously worked for organisations such as Infinite Entertainment, smash.gg and Winston’s Lab, and Brad “PYYYOUR” Ross, who was previously a competitive Team Fortress 2 player and head coach for the Houston Outlaws’ academy team GG Esports Academy. The two first met in person in Frisco, Texas, and after a while realized they had something in common. As Laumann tells it, “[I]t was clear the both of us saw a similar vision for how a team specifically in Overwatch could be run, as well as a shared bigger picture outlook on discrepancies that existed, and could be filled, in the broader esports world.” One thing led to another, and after much planning and recruitment, Triumph was launched in October 2018.

Triumph first fielded an Overwatch team for Open Division 2019 Season 1 and that season of Contenders Trials, competing in North America. Instead of directly buying a spot in Contenders, as one might expect of an organisation that had substantially more resources than the unsigned teams competing in Trials to do, Triumph took the step of qualifying through Open Division. Laumann revealed that this was a calculated move to build a story around the team and players, instead of suddenly coming into the scene. “It’s in the name, Triumph. The ability to build a brand and tell stories like we have thus far only happens because of the shared triumphs and failures,” he explained. “The goal is for the Triumph name to become synonymous with our capacity in helping to move people from point A to point B, whether drastic or slight, in whatever their goals and ambitions might be.”

Despite how new and relatively unknown the organisation was, they impressed with their high quality of social media engagement and graphics, earning themselves a name for visibly putting far more effort into their social media than other Trials and even Contenders teams. Notably, well-known community figure and then-Game Haus writer Brandon “Thibbledork” Padilla joined the social media team, while graphic designer Anthony “AntwnPls” Salzarulo also made a name for himself with his graphic designs and presence in the community.

Later on, other notable community figures, TheMasterKrook and Chase “Syphyt” McKenzie, would also join the social media team. “In Open Division Season 1 of 2019, we wanted to come into the scene by making a splash and instantly setting the standard for what a structured and semi-professional team should look and feel like if they want to continue to compete at higher and higher levels.” Laumann said. “We were able to do that, not only with the structure we were able to provide for the players, but for the awesome work our creative team did to bring a whole new look to graphic design, branding, content, and social media to a scene with a severe lack of these things.”

And so, despite failing to qualify for Contenders that season, the Triumph organization had begun to cultivate a fan base, something virtually unheard of in a North American Contenders scene mostly viewed as a scouting ground and a league for temporarily embarrassed OWL players. In a competitive scene with an extraordinarily high turnover rate of teams and players from season to season, it was telling that Triumph was again the talk of the town during their run in Open Division and Contenders Trials Season 2.

“Moving into Season 2, we had already made our splash and set a name for ourselves, so our goals shifted from focusing on making a grand entrance to now being able to follow up that entrance in a significant way,” said Laumann.

Triumph indeed turned heads as they finished the Open Division season undefeated. The team would finish second overall in Contenders Trials, only behind Uprising Academy with a 5-2 record. At the same time, Triumph never stopped their pursuit from producing the best content they could, as they were well aware that social media is often the most important contact point for fans, especially for a new organization. As Varnagatas tells it, “Often social media, especially Twitter, is the first point of contact that people have with any team. Fans, prospective staff, and players alike are looking at Twitter pages and things other people are saying before getting invested or reaching out. Setting ourselves up so that we are putting our best foot forward is incredibly important for helping us to continue to attract the best talent in every scene.”

This, in turn, translated into focusing on quality to set them apart from other teams, with Varnagatas stating, “We have a high bar and take the time to make sure that the things we make and put out are up to that standard before it ever reaches the public eye.”

Similar to the Hangzhou Spark’s effect on match posters in the Overwatch League, Triumph’s emphasis on social media presence helped raise the bar for other Tier 2 teams to step up their social media game. Other unsigned teams such as Phase 2 and Wave Check began to pay more attention to their media efforts compared to what the community has come to expect from Contenders teams traditionally.

It was an outcome that did not surprise the content team. “I think that our approach to things inherently raises the bar,” Varnagatas said. “The expectations for teams at this level gets higher every day, and we’re going to continue to push it upward. I think people notice things like that; it’s hard to ignore.”

In fact, it could be said that Triumph’s entry into the scene began to change the way people viewed Tier 3 Overwatch. Previously, Trials had mostly been seen as an unimportant tournament, as sort of a prequel to the more exciting and interesting Contenders. But the effect of Triumph’s storyline, coupled with their social media engagement, and complemented by Clockwork Vendetta’s fairytale run in Europe, catapulted Trials into the public eye.

While the players were not paid during Open Division and Trials, similar to other such teams in this period, all the players and staff began receiving a salary once the team reached Contenders. This is more uncommon than one might think. With multiple academy teams such as NRG Esports and Mayhem Academy disbanding, as well as Fusion University switching to compete in Korea, there are more unsigned teams in North American Contenders than ever before, almost all of whom do not have the resources to pay their players. Many are less of a team and more of a very dedicated group of players and staff, who sacrifice grades, sleep, and leisure time in pursuit of their OWL dream, all with zero compensation. That leads us to the next question: what makes North America and regions like Korea different in terms of the organizations that are able to support the scene?

Running An Organization In NA Contenders

Korea is perhaps the region that is most comparable to North America for Overwatch: there is a large amount of investment in it, similar to how academy regions play in NA, and players in both regions regularly get signed to OWL teams. However, Laumann revealed that there is really very little room for investment in the Overwatch scene if you are a North American organization that does not have an OWL team, for two main reasons. “[The first is] Overwatch is incredibly popular [in Korea], falling right behind the likes of League of Legends and PUBG,” Laumann explained. “There are many games that NA-based orgs are jumping on that really aren’t even possible or viable in the Korean esports scene, such as Fortnite and Apex Legends.”

As a result, this means NA organizations are more likely to pursue opportunities in Fortnite and Apex Legends due to the promise of higher returns as compared to Overwatch or League or Legends, while Korean ones will tend to stick to those that are more popular in Korea. This, in turn, means a much higher degree of investment in the Korean scene as compared to others.

The second is that there is simply a much higher chance of a Korean player being signed to the OWL. “Korean orgs have an easier path to profitability. It’s evident that Korean players dominate the Overwatch League, with more than 50% of players coming from the peninsula.” Laumann said. “Having a path to find and develop talent that doesn’t include the significant burden of visa and travel costs like potential NA counterparts is one advantage. Another advantage is that, compared to US nationals, who only make up about 1/7 of OWL players, Korean orgs have a more likely chance to get players to OWL teams quicker and for a better transfer fee.” Indeed, with just two all-Western teams in the OWL in the Paris Eternal and Houston Outlaws, the chance of a Western player is simply that much lower, and makes organizations which might, for example, attempt to survive off transfer fees more reluctant to invest.

It is perhaps telling that even Triumph itself, which is run by people with a great deal of experience in the Overwatch scene, does not expect to be able to support itself purely off the prize money Contenders provides, with Laumann describing such an outcome as “very unlikely”.

“Even with the potential to earn prize money in the regular season, playoffs, and the Gauntlet, it is likely not possible to recover the expenses that Triumph will incur over the next few months on prize money alone,” said Laumann.

In fact, Laumann does not view the current system of Contenders as viable for teams that do not have or are not supported by an OWL team, at least in North America. “The current Overwatch competitive ecosystem is not built for the capacity to have non-affiliated or non-sponsored teams competing at this level,” he says. That means that, like many unsigned teams, their only end goal right now is to be able to help their players move on to academy or OWL teams. “In this current cycle of the Path to Pro, I think it is obvious that we are looking to show up and show off and help provide as many resources to our players/staff as possible to move them on.”

So if the outlook is so gloomy for the NA scene, why then did Triumph decide to invest in an Overwatch team? On this Laumann was coy, but implied that there were bigger plans in the works. Despite his comments on the state of the scene, “with how I [Laumann] envision Triumph’s future, I do think it’s both viable and valuable to have a team in Contenders without an OWL team,” he said. “What is in store for a bigger picture Triumph, both inside and outside of Overwatch? You will have to stay tuned…there are big things coming right around the corner.” We can surely speculate; perhaps increasing Blizzard support for Contenders in the form of regional Showdowns and the Gauntlet means it makes more sense, or Triumph want to use the name they have made in Contenders to springboard themselves into a larger esports organization. Perhaps a further investigation into other regions such as Pacific are required to figure out exactly what makes these teams tick.

Whatever the case, if Triumph Gaming has figured out how to successfully run a Contenders team in North America without relying on Academy support, then I am certainly all ears.

from Akshon Esports’ Jing Hao Liang