It was January 24th, 2018, when the first city-based rivalry in modern esports began. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t Madrid and Barcelona, nor New York and Boston.
Instead, the Los Angeles Gladiators took on the Los Angeles Valiant in Burbank, California for the first time in Overwatch League history, marking the beginning of a new regional rivalry.
Each time that the two Los Angeles teams met, the Blizzard Arena would be divided right down the middle. A wave of green fans would flood one side as a crowd of purple occupied the other. The City of Angels packed the stands and filled the room with thunderous chants and cheers. Regardless of how well either team had been doing in the season, the Battle for Los Angeles always held high stakes, and were some of the most exciting matches to watch in the Overwatch League.
Now, in 2020, the rivalry hasn’t changed much— but the rosters and players aren’t quite what they used to be. Indy “Space” Halpern, previously an off-tank player for the Valiant in 2019, joined the cross-town rival squad in the off-season. Upon the completion of 2020’s first Battle for Los Angeles on Thursday, Space became the second-ever player to compete in LA rivalry games under both teams (the first being Ted “Silkthread” Wang).
“Yeah, it definitely is a significant game, and we want to win and dominate the Battle for LA,” Space states. “But [for] my mentality, I just treat it as any other game: no added pressure.”
Johannes “Shax” Nielsen, a sophomore DPS player for the Valiant, also sees the rivalry game as a big match.
“Well, to an extent,” he clarifies. “Because when we play online, you know, we don’t see the fans or the other players, so… it’s kind of not the same. But they’re our rival, so it’s still kinda there.”
Due to the recent COVID-19 precautionary measures around the globe, the Overwatch League began moving its matches to be played online. This year’s Battle for LA was held live on YouTube, where over 35,000 viewers virtually attended the series. This meant that the live audience and home stages were non-factors in this year’s match.
Like the rivalry games of the past, the most recent iteration of the Battle for LA was competitive, if not a clown fiesta. The Valiant opted to stick with Ashe throughout the series, with Kai “KSP” Collins manning the unconventional DPS pick for nearly the entire match.
“We’ve been playing the Torb/Ashe thing all week and it’s been working,” explains Shax. “So that’s basically the reason we played Ashe— because our comp just worked in scrims— and we were pretty confident in it.”
While the Gladiators took an early 2-0 lead, their opponents refused to switch up their composition. It looked like the team in purple had the match in the bag, but the Valiant continued to put up a fight.
“For us, we played rush this whole meta, but their comp was a really slow, stalling comp,” Space analyzes. “Their Ana and Ashe played really far back, so we couldn’t play Doomfist. We had to adjust mid-game, so we swapped to dive. Obviously, that didn’t work out as we wanted it to.”
The Valiant pulled off two wins of their own on Route 66 and Hollywood to force a tiebreaker. Despite swapping multiple heroes across the board, KSP’s Ashe remained the sole constant of his team’s composition. What seemed like an unconventional pick was working for the Valiant, and the Gladiators simply couldn’t find an answer.
Prior to the fifth and final map, Gladiators’ head coach David “dpei” Pei had just one thing left to say to his team.
“It was really just David saying, ‘Just mirror them,’” reveals Space. “Whatever they play, we’d play. And so we knew that they were going to play Pharah/Mercy. So we went for Pharah/Mercy/Ashe, and we just ended up playing better than them.”
While map 5 was as tense as the rest of the series, the Gladiators clutched out the victory as the Valiant unfortunately failed to touch the control point in overtime.
“We had to touch the point, so we were all panicking since we didn’t have a lot of time,” Shax admits. “We could have won. Everyone knew we could have won.”
“It was pretty hectic,” Space agrees. “We were just saying ‘mark D.Va, mark D.Va, MARK D.VA!’ Then Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni and I double-booped D.Va off, and everyone just started screaming at the end.”
The Battle for Los Angeles has always served to be a highlight of each Overwatch League season. As the Gladiators take the win this time, the overall head-to-head record now sits at four wins apiece. The Valiant lived up to their name in matching their city counterparts, but they’ll have to wait until later this year to get a rematch.
“I’m a bit sad,” Shax laments. “We almost got a reverse sweep, and we didn’t complete it. But I’m also kind of happy because in the start, it wasn’t that pretty, but we got it back to a map five.”
“It was more of a scrappy win than a proud victory,” Space laughs. “And I know the Valiant fans think I’m a traitor— but we caught the W, so it doesn’t matter!”
Watch the highlights of the Battle for Los Angeles on the OWL YouTube channel.