Before the San Francisco Shock became synonymous with success, the Overwatch League's inaugural season proved to be less than electric. Ending the 2018 season in ninth place with a 17-23 record, the Shock struggled.
The 2019 team shocked the Overwatch League by competing in every stage final, achieved the league's first "golden stage" in Stage 2 when they didn't lose any maps and swept their way through the losers' bracket in the end-of-season playoffs that culminated with their 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Titans in the grand final.
Ever-present throughout the Shock's journey was their extremely energetic owner, Andy Miller, chairman and founder of NRG Esports. Miller's deep knowledge of the Shock and their needs has led him to build a team that has been forming strong connection with its fan base. As the Overwatch League's 20 teams continue their preparations for geolocation for the 2020 season, Miller is ready to bring home the Shock to San Francisco for two homestands in March and July and continue building the foundation of a championship-caliber team.
Building the foundation
A lot of the Shock's struggles during their inaugural season can be traced to two players. They didn't have Matthew "super" DeLisi or Jay "sinatraa" Won on their active roster for most of the season due to them being underage for most of the year. Looking back on San Francisco's beginnings, Miller said he took some major risks in making two 17-year-olds the cornerstone players of the organization.
"The idea of bringing in super and sinatraa before they could play could've been a disaster ... but with sinatraa, it was worth the investment because we knew he was going to be a superstar," Miller said. "When we sat down with Jay, we realized he was a really good kid who just wanted to win. He was somewhat misunderstood and a little immature, but as you can see, his development in his personality over the years, he's a sweetheart."
Miller laughed while recounting how super made his case to lead the Shock, with the tank player bringing charisma only matched by his main hero, Reinhardt.
"With super, he was an unknown, but he talked like he was the best no matter what, even though he wasn't at the time," Miller said. "He was like, 'I'm ready to roll, I'm ready to take over the team, be the leader, the clubhouse guy,' and we knew that every team needs one of those. Super and sinatraa were such a great pairing -- they got along even though they didn't know each other yet."
"I'm hoping we're like the Patriots of the NFL in that it's the system, and the players over the years will come and go, but they'll be better players and people playing for the Shock than elsewhere." Andy Miller, Shock owner
Miller has an encyclopedia-like memory in recalling the other additions to the team's main roster, with detailed stories describing how integral they are to the team's transition from bottom tier to the best team in the world. From analyzing coach Park "Crusty" Dae-hee's dissection of key plays to Grant "moth" Espe's steady presence to GM Chris Chung's ability to balance it all, Miller's meticulous and conscious developmental strategy is evident.
"This team works hard; they want to stomp everybody," Miller said. "You can see that our guys don't wilt in the big moments. Even though the meta changes and new heroes and players come in, everyone is still there to help each other.
"I'm hoping we're like the Patriots of the NFL in that it's the system, and the players over the years will come and go, but they'll be better players and people playing for the Shock than elsewhere."
The systems and infrastructure of the Shock will be tested like never before due to the challenges of geolocation in 2020, as the league's 20 teams move from playing at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, to playing in homestands around the world in each of the team's home cities.
"It's tough," Miller said. "We've just started getting schedules and are seeing the long Asia trip, guys are moving up here to the Bay Area -- it's a bit of a scramble. You need all of those pieces together, to put your arms around all of these guys and move in the same direction and communicate.
"We're trying to figure out what the healthiest format is, build structure around the guys for travel, and have them be able to lead a healthy lifestyle while practicing. ... What we'll probably see is fewer guys traveling than the full squad, which might mean fewer options in a game. But we'll have different looks with people playing a lot."
While Miller and the Shock are concerned about ensuring player health and team structure during travel weeks, geolocation also brings a new set of opportunities. San Francisco's two homestand weekends, dubbed ShockFest, have given the team the ability to not only engage with their local community, but to also redefine how live sporting events are run.
Coming home to San Francisco
As the co-owner of the Sacramento Kings, Miller is no stranger to the pre-existing expectations and often formulaic layout of traditional sports events.
"You go to a basketball game and maybe hang out with your friends beforehand, then there's a cool intro, the mascot comes out, you have two halves of basketball, and you drive home," he said. "We had the opportunity to do something else. This was one of the main reasons we got into the Overwatch League from day one, there's not a structure that exists already."
The San Francisco Shock will surround the Overwatch League's international broadcast with an engaging festival environment at their first homestand, ShockFest: First Arrival, which will take place March 28-29 at the Cow Palace. Between facing the Los Angeles Valiant and Los Angeles Gladiators, providing entertainment such as a Lucio-themed DJ soundstage, and as Miller teases, potentially showcasing 2019 championship rings. The homestand will strive to celebrate Overwatch like never before, but Miller also hopes to achieve a personal feel in this first ShockFest.
"One of the big differences is that if you love gaming, if you love Overwatch, this could be the first time to connect with other people who share your passion," Miller said. "Maybe you play Overwatch and your friends don't, so when you put your headset on you only play with strangers. But here you can actually meet people who love what you love, so if a fan wants to sit down and talk with someone, let's let them play games together, have a fair with cosplay and an artist's alley."
A Silicon Valley spin will characterize the team's second ShockFest, celebrating the South Bay's culture and dedication to innovation. Not only will there be two tripleheaders for fans to enjoy, but a showcase of augmented and virtual reality will entertain fans attending the event. Miller believes it was extremely important to embrace the tech region's support of the Shock.
"Someday, people will say, 'San Francisco's got the Warriors, the 49ers and the Shock.'" Andy Miller, Shock owner
"We wanted to do something that represented the city and the South Bay Area," Miller said. "In the heart of Silicon Valley, there are so many startups here that do cool work, we wanted to try to help people showcase it and show how it relates to gaming. South Bay fans have been super supportive of us. We've done watch parties with them over the past two years, and it's just as popular as our Berkeley or San Francisco watch parties."
The Shock will face another challenge unique to geolocation. As teams begin to create roots in their home cities, their ability to connect to local markets will directly impact the longevity of the Overwatch League.
Creating a legacy
Each Overwatch League team will be tasked with hosting two to five homestands, taking over the responsibility of advertising and bringing in local fans into arenas. While the Shock have seen great success at their community events, Miller said there are still obstacles ahead.
"Our biggest challenge is awareness in the San Francisco market. There's so many things to do," he said. "We need to grow hometown fans. If you were born and raised around Sacramento, you're probably going to root for the Kings at some level; that's what we want. That's going to be the challenge, creating lots of generations of fans, even people who don't play the game per se but love gaming and just want to be in this environment."
The 2019 champions are ready to become hometown heroes by sharing their commitment to excellence with the Bay Area.
"We want to become integrated into the fabric of Northern California, we want people to know who we are, be proud of us, and root for us. We want to put out a good product so we can really be considered one of the hometown teams," Miller said.
"Someday, people will say, 'San Francisco's got the Warriors, the 49ers, and the Shock.'"