Fan support sees Valiant through disappointing homestand

Emily Rand recaps the L.A. homestand (1:28)

Emily Rand is back from the L.A. Valiant homestand and gives her thoughts on the last homestand of the season with georelocation on the horizon for 2020. (1:28)

LOS ANGELES -- Competing chants started well before either team took the stage.

"Wings Out!" the Los Angeles Valiant faithful shouted.

"Shields Up!" the Los Angeles Gladiators contingent replied.

The call and response traveled across The Novo at L.A. Live. A red carpet, which had gone unused for the majority of the afternoon, was cleared as Valiant support Scott "Custa" Kennedy stood at its entrance, shifting his weight from foot to foot, waiting for his name to be called.

"It was honestly amazing just seeing the crowd constantly going," Custa said. "And obviously it was an incredibly close match, lots of ups and downs; you've just got to give props to them. Even though we lose 3-1, these guys came out and cheered us on the whole time. That's the main thing that matters, and that's why we play the game.

"We're just here to be entertaining. We're here to have a good time. It was really good to do that at our own homestand."

The good times were mixed with more disappointment for the Valiant on Sunday, as the team's 4-0 loss to the San Francisco Shock eliminated the team from playoff contention. But after a loss to a crosstown rival Saturday that all but sealed the home team's fate, the Valiant remained in surprisingly high spirits.

The fanfare that accompanied their entrance into the venue and the crowd that swelled at each elimination helped numb the team to its heartbreaking results. After a rough start to the year, including a winless Stage 1 and 3-4 record in Stage 2, Los Angeles was one win away from a playoff berth and had a chance to play for that spot in front of a home crowd.

What could have been a cathartic final weekend of the season began with Custa, the leader of this team, making his way across that red carpet.

The Valiant's entrance was accompanied by the Game Music Ensemble at UCLA, led by conductor Jose Daniel Ruiz and DJ/composer Gerard K Marino. On the left side of the theater facing the stage, a Gladiators fan sat on a platform above a large tank of water. The opposite side of the stage featured a Valiant fan, with the fan of the losing team bound for an evening dip.

Unsurprisingly, the splash tanks were the highlight of the weekend, even with captivating matches on both days and the home team's playoff hopes in the balance.

The "Battle for Los Angeles" has taken place at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank for its previous six iterations. Even then, the near-deafening, competing cheers of "Wings Out!" and "Shields Up!" were a hallmark of not just the matchup but what rivalries in the Overwatch League could be.

In a league that, from its inception, has focused tying teams to cities with the intent of geolocation, both the Valiant and the Gladiators have some of the largest and stickiest fanbases because of the organizations' marketing strategies and the location of the Blizzard Arena in the greater Los Angeles area.

On Saturday, the intimate, theater-style setting of the Novo recontextualized the popularity of both Los Angeles franchisees' popularity. Although the Valiant were undoubtedly the home team, Gladiators fans showed up in near-equal numbers in the floor seating, giving the entire homestand a different feel than Dallas Fuel's or the Atlanta Reign's Stage 3 outing at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta.

And unlike the Fuel or the Reign, the Valiant's path to success at their homestand was treacherous. They faced two of the league's top six teams -- one of them, the Shock, is widely considered the team to beat going into the OWL season playoffs. The Valiant had to win one of those two matchups to keep their playoff hopes alive after a disappointing start to the season that was unexpectedly turned around by key roster and coaching staff changes.

The squad fell just short of that goal in front of their home crowd, a setting they credited with giving them a boost even if it didn't amount to much.

"It's super cool looking out in the stands and seeing a sea of green," Valiant main tank Russell "FCTFCTN" Campbell said. "Right when the final map ended and the crowd is chanting, 'We still love you, we still love you,' that meant a lot to me personally."

"It's just a different energy where a lot of the home team is prominent," Custa said. "You see the fans always cheering for us, and you get the feeling of home and community from your team. That was really awesome to experience because when you're at Blizzard Arena, even though we're in L.A., there's teams from all over. Here the stands are filled with Valiant fans, and that was awesome to experience."

If the Dallas Fuel homestand was a spectacle, set in the larger, more traditional arena setting of the Allen Event Center in Arlington, Texas, the Valiant homestand and the Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend were more of what we're likely to see from Overwatch League teams come 2020: Smaller in regards to the size and scope of the venue, but well-executed with a distinct focus on the fans themselves. Highlights from the Novo floor included the aforementioned splash tanks, caricatures, an immersive virtual reality setup and, of course, gamer snacks.

With all teams still located in the greater Los Angeles area, there was little to no travel involved for both fans and players, which also gave this weekend a different feel than the prior homestand tests, both of which required airline travel.

"The game in Dallas was a new start for the homestand platform," Hangzhou Spark DPS Kim "GodsB" Kyeong-bo said. "In L.A., we're still in L.A. The arena is still in L.A., so it was more familiar."

Next year's schedule will be the largest test that the league -- from the organizations to the players, staff and Blizzard Entertainment as a whole -- has faced yet. Coordinating travel, facilities, practice times and player visas to multiple countries was already a daunting task, in theory. Teams have started the steps to put geolocation into practice, but until players, organizations and staff experience it, no one will know how smoothly it will go, let alone what the league will actually look like come next year.

But if Sunday was any indication, even in more intimate venues under less-than-stellar circumstances, an Overwatch League crowd will make itself heard.

The Valiant fans kept cheering Sunday, from the start of a match against a seemingly unstoppable foe to the end of an easy sweep for the Shock. The players packed up their peripherals to the sound of their supporters issuing a familiar chant: "We still love you."

If there's anything to be learned from the first two seasons of the Overwatch League or any sign of what geolocation could bring, it was on display in that moment: The fiercely dedicated Valiant crowd thanking their team for the season, telling them that even when falling short, their efforts were loved and appreciated.