SANTA MONICA -- A young boy stood in the zig-zagging autograph line beside his father, holding an unopened Overwatch figurine in hopes of getting it signed by the United States Overwatch World Cup team. He was still a few people from getting to the table where the six American players were taking pictures and signing autographs for fans, but his eyes didn't leave the players while he clung to his figurine like it was worth its weight in gold.
When the boy finally got to the front of the line, Jay "Sinatraa" Won was one of the first Team USA members the boy got to talk to. At 17, Sinatraa might be less than a decade older than the boy, and he obliged his request by scribbling his autograph across the figurine box. Sinatraa is one of the new generation of esports stars in the West, following the rise of Overwatch as an esport. As part of the United States World Cup team and with the Overwatch League on the horizon, Sinatraa is being noticed by fans, and he is considered one of the brightest DPS talents in North America.
The Overwatch World Cup qualifier last weekend in Los Angeles was the first time Sinatraa has been in this situation, conducting interviews with the press, standing in front of thousands of fans cheering on his every move and signing autographs. But if he continues on his current trajectory, this will be the first of many to come over the years.
"I dropped out of real high school beginning the second semester of junior year and moved to Atlanta to be in the Selfless gaming house," Sinatraa told me, later clarifying that he is still in school, but now he is taking online courses along with his budding pro-gamer career. "[My family] is OK with it. From the start, they always let me play video games and were never super strict about things. So they wanted me to pursue my passion, no matter what."
Sinatraa started his love affair with video games at a young age. Halo 3 turned into Call of Duty, and then Call of Duty turned into Counter-Strike. Each first-person shooter led to the next. As he got older, quicker with reflexes and gaining the respect of his online peers, the competitive side came naturally to Sinatraa. He began playing in online tournaments, and the dream of one day becoming a professional player in a first-person shooter started to become something more than a fantasy.
Still, at his core, Sinatraa is a kid. He chose his name because it was the nickname of Logic, his favorite rapper at the time. His parents had to be in attendance at the World Cup because he isn't old enough to compete without a guardian present. In games, it's hard to miss him. Sinatraa is known for his patented Tracer saying "Hiya!" over and over again in the face of his opponent -- until Sinatraa takes the opponent out with a Pulse Bomb.
"In Overwatch, you need way more hand-eye [coordination] because you're moving really quickly," he said, comparing Overwatch to other first-person shooters he has played. "You have to have really good aim while moving around a lot. In Counter-Strike, you're just holding an angle and stuff like that, more precise. In Overwatch, it's faster-paced, fast reactions."
At the World Cup event, Sinatraa displayed his mechanics to the world, the owners of the various Overwatch League clubs in attendance and those watching at home. With only two months remaining for teams to pick up pros for their rosters, Sinatraa is confident in his chances of joining one of the pro teams. Over the course of the three-day competition, the United States dropped only one map -- to Chinese Taipei in the last match of the group stages -- but won the series 3-1. After clinching the top spot in Group G, Team USA played the second-place squad in Group H, Germany, in a best-of-five series to see for entrance into BlizzCon later this year. The Germans put up a fight, yet Sinatraa and his team wouldn't be outdone, sweeping the series and locking their place in the quarterfinals alongside giants such as South Korea and France.
When asked how to make a name for yourself in the pro Overwatch scene, Sinatraa explained that there is a lot of money coming into the space, but getting noticed is still at a grassroots level. Knowing the right people or, better yet, stream-sniping a top pro while he streams on Twitch are ways to get your name out there. If you can play against one of the better players on Twitch and repeatedly knock him out of the game, doors can open for you.
Things will change with the launch of the Overwatch League and possible expansion of minor league systems, but for now, Overwatch is caught between a giant, sponsor-fueled esport and a smaller, more community-driven one.
One thing Sinatraa thinks will help move Overwatch in the right direction as an esport is help from the creator, Blizzard.
"[They need to] definitely promote their own game," he said. "That's the first. I don't think they're doing that yet. I don't know if they're doing that yet, but I'm pretty sure they're not. Even if you just added an 'esports' button on the front page, [advertising] Overwatch League Season 1, Patriots vs. Mets, something like that, then people will click on that, and everyone will see it on the front page. That's a good start because it needs more than 50K viewers. It needs a lot like LCS gets."
Sinatraa wants to grow personally alongside the game in which he is going pro. Like many teenagers, he has been pointed out for his erratic and immature behavior inside the game. As a player in the spotlight, it's impossible to completely mask his antics. One bad clip turns into two, and before you know it, the Internet has judged you, and everything you do inside the game and on stream is what you must be like in real life.
"In Season 2, ranked was all I had to get noticed by people, so I really wanted to win every game," he said. "So when I lost because of someone, I got mad. It just happened. I was 16. But now, I'm a pro, I'm on the USA [team], and Overwatch League is my goal, so I'm trying not to ruin my brand anymore."
At Blizzcon, Sinatraa will do his best to give the hometown crowd something to cheer about.