Paul "Redeye" Chaloner is one of the most recognizable names in esports. He's something of an elder statesman to the young, burgeoning scene, and all that esports wisdom and experience is now telling him to give the Overwatch League a fair shake.
Redeye, through his esports agency Code Red, will be leading the charge on fan engagement for the London Spitfire, Cloud9's London-based Overwatch League team. While the team will play its games in Los Angeles for the first season, Redeye and his team are going to be handling the day-to-day operations back in London, where the team will eventually return to play matches. And while the OWL is an exciting new venture that Redeye believes in, growing UK esports is a very personal project for him.
"I'm very keen to make sure we give British players opportunities, and then it's up to them," Redeye told theScore esports. "It is truly up to them to succeed. And we'll give them everything we can in terms of support. In terms of function, in terms of avenue, in terms of training and assistance and help and all the things semi-pro players deserve to get, we'll make sure we put that in place. But we've still got to come up with the ability, it's going to be potentially a long road, because we haven't had those opportunities given to British players very often over the last ten years, and now we have. I'm hopeful that proves the players we bring up through British esports."
Redeye says that through his work with the London Spitfire, he wants to set up UK tournaments to potentially give players a show to play alongside the Spitfire players, or their Contenders team. Redeye says that UK esports has been very console-based lately, with strong players in Call of Duty and FIFA, but a lack of investment in infrastructure has made the scene weaker.
The UK used to field strong Counter-Strike teams, but without the infrastructure that modern esports has built in other parts of Europe, Redeye feels they've fallen behind. He doesn't believe the London Spitfire can do that, but he hopes the opportunities they can provide can help grow the scene into what it could potentially be. In the meantime though, he has to be concerned with how to sell an all-Korean team and their North American ownership group to a UK audience.
"We can't hide from the fact that we have a Korean team and that our owners are North America-based. That's the facts," Redeye said. "But we have the opportunity to build something brand new, based in London. We will be based in London as well, it won't just be in name only as has happened in the past."
Winning will be important to the team, certainly, but even though that's the best way to build a fanbase, Redeye believes there are other ways to do it as well. Most of the Overwatch League teams are going to have to deal with their players being far from their fans, and Redeye believes the way around it is bringing them back to London as much as possible.
"I want them to spend time here, I want them to get to understand the culture, I want them to interact with fans, we'll be doing lots of signing sessions and potentially taking them on the road and getting them to see a bit more of Britain," he said. "I know our content team has been discussing many ways in which we can help give them an authentic British experience, such as taking them out for scones and tea and fish and chips on the dock and all of the other bizarre things we seem to be well known for, and our content team are very interested in developing those stories and finding out who these players are and really making them human as it were. Not British, but human."
But perhaps hardest of all will be selling those potential fans on the OWL itself. Plenty of Overwatch fans have been upset about how Blizzard has handled the OWL so far, and esports pundits in general have been critical of Blizzard's approach. Blizzard has routinely shut out community-run tournaments and locked smaller teams out of the space with the OWL, but Redeye believes that those are growing pains, and while they're unfortunate, they often come with any big, new business venture.
"We've had these kinds of growing pains in almost every scene," Redeye said. "They may be slightly different because of the way Blizzard has come in with the idea of the OWL and Contenders as well. It seems, perhaps, more forced upon people, I guess. And I can definitely relate to that. I don't think from what I know and I'm not speaking for Blizzard, but from what I know, they are not the kind of company that would do that on purpose and upset people because they just want to upset people. They're not doing it because of that, they're doing it and building the OWL because they believe they can build something unique, and they have their own ideas of how to do that."
Redeye points to Valve as a company that has approached esports differently from everybody else, particularly when compared to Blizzard and Riot's very hands-on approach to their games. Redeye feels each one works in its own way, and there's room in this young industry to experiment, and find out which business model works because, at the end of the day, esports is a business.
"[Teams being left out] is disappointing from an old-school esports perspective, but unfortunately, it is part of the business, it's part of of growth and sometimes growth hurts," he said. "It's painful and we have to go through these things to get to the other side. Sometimes not everybody will get to the other side and benefit from it. That's just the way it is. I know it's a really harsh thing to say, but that's the reality of it, and it's the world we live in. For this league to be successful, Blizzard feels it needs to be set up in the way that it has been. Whether they're right or they're wrong, we don't know yet. We'll find out over the next few years. But, ultimately, their goal is true."
As for if it this new method will work at all? Redeye isn't quite sure. He's staked at least a small part of his livelihood on it now with his work on the London Spitfire, and his name is attached to the OWL in some capacity too, which makes the success and failure of the OWL a lot more personal than it is for others. But even while he's still unsure of exactly how things will shake out, he's willing to believe in the people that have invested millions of dollars into this league, if only because esports needs to keep trying new things.
"I don't feel that the people that have invested in this league would have done so had they felt that this wasn't something they could build, grow and make money from at some point," Redeye said.
"These people are far smarter than me, and I defer to them and their judgement. If they think this is going to work, then hell, it probably will. Let's be honest. It's going to have some failings, it's going to have some false starts, it's going to have some things that don't quite work very well. But it has the right people involved in order to make sure we bounce back from those mistakes and those challenges, and we come back stronger."
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.