It’s become cliché for gamers to make jokes about how their parents told them they were wasting their lives playing those damn video games while standing next to the sports car they just bought with the money they made in a video game tournament. But for anyone who wonders how professional video game playing became something that’s no joke, there’s Young Guns: Obsession, Overwatch, And The Future of Gaming (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview about it, writer Austin Moorhead discuss what prompted him to write this book, as well as the famous sports book that influenced his approach.
Photo Credit: Sabrina Hill
Let’s start with the basics: What is Young Guns about?
Young Guns is about the most ambitious esports league effort to date, the Overwatch League. Why were sports titans like the Krafts, owners of the New England Patriots, and Wilpons, owners of the New York Mets, willing to pay $20 million for a franchise in the Overwatch League? The book answers that question and follows the key teams and players through the first two seasons of the league.
What was it about esports that not only caught your attention but also made you think it could be an interesting subject for a book?
A friend of mine gave me a copy of Paper Lion by George Plimpton, which I loved. I was amazed at the access he had to an NFL team — going to training camp, receiving the playbook — which would never happen today. I wanted to write something like Paper Lion, and I thought esports were still nascent enough that teams would be willing to let a writer behind the scenes. I was right about that, though wrong about publisher interest having me involved in the story!
And what was it about Overwatch and the Overwatch League that made you think they’d be the best game and esports league to explore for this book? Because you very easily could’ve written this book about League Of Legends or Madden or Call Of Duty?
I wrote the proposal in 2017 when the only big esports were L.O.L. [League Of Legends] and Counter-Strike (also sort of D.O.T.A. 2; D.O.T.A. 2 esports is really just one annual $25 million tournament, The International). Those had been around for ten years and were much more popular internationally than in in America. OWL had been announced with a $20 million franchise price and big-name traditional sports owners. Madden, Call Of Duty, and other esports league were small potatoes, and Fortnite didn’t exist. L.O.L. LCS still used the relegation model, though they would come to the same conclusion as OWL, that they needed to adopt a franchise model to attract investment from billionaire sports team owners. OWL was doing a lot of unique things: trying to bring esports to the American mainstream, attracting traditional sports team owners, and guaranteeing a $50k minimum salary for players — with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it. Plus Overwatch is really fun, and I’ve always loved Blizzard games, so it was the obvious first choice to me.
By coincidence or serendipity, my literary agent, William LoTurco, worked in the WME mailroom with Brett Lautenbach, who ran NRG Esports, owners of OWL’s San Francisco Shock. Brett and NRG co-founder Andy Miller were willing to let me tag along for the ride.
I also have to ask — though you kind of just answered this — but what do you think of Overwatch as a game and did that influence your decision to write Young Guns about it? Because I could see how liking a game would make it that much easier to write about.
Overwatch was an innovative team-based first-person shooter. Other popular team-based first-person shooters like Counter-Strike and Call Of Duty have nearly identical characters, i.e. the differences between players is mostly which guns they use. Similar to L.O.L. and D.O.T.A., Overwatch has distinct heroes with unique abilities that perform one of three roles: damage, tank, and support. The dynamic this creates in team play — where tanks have shields to protect their team and supports can heal teammates — made Overwatch more interesting to play and watch. With other first-person shooters, the analysis wasn’t much more than “didn’t shoot fast enough.” Fans and casters can analyze Overwatch on dimensions more familiar to traditional sports fans — e.g., having strong damage but weak supports is like an NFL team having a good offense and a bad defense. That increased the appeal for me.
Non-fiction books can strike different tones. Some are academic and fact-heavy, some are more anecdotal, and still others strike a humorous tone while still being informative. What tone did you take with Young Guns and why did you feel this was the best one for this book?
The latter for sure: humorous while still being informative. There’s a lot of money on the line in OWL, and there’s many players and coaches a pursuing their dreams, but we’re still talking about dudes playing video games (though halfway through the first season, the first woman, Geguri, joined the Overwatch League). Video games are supposed to be fun, so a book about them should be fun, too.
Was that decision driven, or maybe suggested, by some other non-fiction book you had read?
Yes, Paper Lion. So much of that book made me laugh: player stories, the dorm pranks, plus the inherent ridiculousness of this lanky writer trying to get on the field as an NFL quarterback. I wanted to strike a similar tone.
In a similar vein, did you write Young Guns with the idea that the audience would be gamers or non-gamers?
This was tough. There are so many things that are intuitive to gamers but foreign to non-gamers. I wanted to bridge that gap, to try to explain the appeal of these games and what’s happening within the league to someone who’s never played a video game. At the same time, I wanted to show gamers how pro teams think about team-building, strategy, and tactics. I tried to strike a balance between those two, leaning more towards a non-gamer audience.
One of the things you did in researching this book was that you were embedded with the London Spitfire. What did doing that add to Young Guns?
Having a second team made up of all South Korean players offered a different perspective on the league and allowed me to embed with a team in the season one playoffs. There were some great stories and moments in that part of the story, but it can be a bit jarring for the reader to suddenly switch teams (most of the critical feedback has been along these lines).
Now, as you mentioned, some of the teams in the Overwatch League — including the Los Angeles Gladiators, Vancouver Titans, and the Boston Uprising — are owned by people who also own such, let’s say “more traditional sports teams” as the Los Angeles Rams, the Vancouver Canucks, and the New England Patriots. Did you interview any of these owners, and how were their perspectives different from the owners that are esports companies?
I interviewed Andy Miller, who’s part of the ownership group of the Sacramento Kings and the Modesto Nuts (Single A of Colorado Rockies). He loves sports, and enjoys owning and running sports teams, so he’s combining that passion with the investment appeal of esports. He was very focused on the investment rationale.
I also interviewed Jack Etienne, Founder / CEO of Cloud9 — Forbes considers Cloud9 to be the world’s most valuable esports organization ($400 million) — [as well as] someone who considered purchasing a team but couldn’t get comfortable with the investment case. I thought that was enough, to have a traditional sports owner, an esports legend, and someone who decided against becoming an owner.
Young Guns was been optioned by 20th Century Fox. If it does get made into a movie, do you want to be played by Adam Sandler or Ryan Reynolds?
I don’t expect to be portrayed in a movie, but I’d be thrilled with either. My head says Ryan Reynolds, but my heart says Adam Sandler.
Finally, if someone enjoys Young Guns, what other non-fiction book about video games would you suggest they read and why that one?
I recommend Blood, Sweat, And Pixels by Jason Schreier. It’s a look at the lives of video game developers, with lots of interviews and first-hand accounts. It’s a great read.