Tank player Christopher “ChrisTFer” Graham is the first member of Team UK to enter the press tent. His arrival is accompanied by a loud ripping sound of velcro as a staff member separates two of the canvas flaps. The rest of Team UK shuffles in behind him, taking their seats behind triangular signs with their names.
“Kruise, Boombox, you’re so cool,” ChrisTFer says in a mocking falsetto as he sits down, heckling his popular teammates before the press conference begins. “Did you hear them in the crowd?”
It’s the first day of the Overwatch World Cup group stage stop in Santa Monica. A large exhaust tube blows cool air from a nearby air conditioning unit, causing the flaps from the tent entrance to flutter slightly and the name tags to skid across the table a bit.
Inside Barker Hangar, sound reverberates through large steel trusses that curl over a screaming audience. Dust and steam drifts in the air, lit by large rotating spotlights. Team United States is the crowd favorite, but Team UK receives almost equally vocal support from the same crowd whenever the six players walk onstage.
Team UK entered the weekend as favorites to exit Group H in first place and claim its spot at the main event alongside the full Flash Wolves roster representing Taiwan in Group G. Before the event, members of Team UK said they wouldn’t drop a map.
Come Day 2, it becomes apparent that Team UK is on track to do just that. In its second victorious news conference, questions turn from event and Overwatch League-specific to more disconnected personal queries about how they handle community criticism.
“I think, honestly this is going to sound a bit bad,” ChrisTFer says. “But whenever I have a good game, I’m checkingRreddit like, ‘Oh, this guy thinks I’m good, blah, blah, blah.’ And if I have a bad game, don’t need to read that, that’s not important. I guess I use it to boost my own ego.”
He sheepishly admits that he hasn’t been roasted a lot, or discussed much at all, and immediately turns the spotlight onto teammate Harrison “Kruise” Pond.
“Chris,” Kruise interrupts him. “We’re not going to be friends if you mention that.”
Both Kruise and ChrisTFer are smiling as the tank player and team captain playfully mocks Kruise for his inability to handle public criticism at a time.
“That was months ago,” Kruise continues to protest.
ChrisTFer is always the first, and often the last, player to speak on Team UK. While the eUnited duo of Kruise and Isaac “Boombox” Charles are the most well-known players on the squad — and Kruise is equally, if not more, talkative — it’s ChrisTFer who subtly guides the team. He keeps answers lighthearted when need be, but becomes serious when a weightier answer is required. Above all else, he incites the playful banter that characterizes Team UK throughout the weekend, giving his teammates a hard time in front of the gathered staff and press.
“I got voted captain by the team,” ChrisTFer says. He shrugs. “Outside of game I show signs of being a leader I think.”
Once outside of the press tent, away from the team, he takes on a much more serious and introspective demeanor.
“I’m very fortunate that I get to play with some of the players I did,” he says. The tone of his voice is full of genuine gratitude.
“I don’t know if they look up to me as a leader but I take that role as best as I can.”
The Santa Monica Qualifier came at an odd time for the members of Team UK, a microcosm for the disquieting undercurrent in the competitive Overwatch scene. All eyes are on Blizzard’s latest baby, the upcoming Overwatch League. With information finally trickling out bit by bit, players in the United States and Europe mostly remain in limbo, while Overwatch League organizations presumably are assemble their rosters behind the scenes. At the Santa Monica Qualifier itself, Immortals’ Noah Whinston and Cloud9’s Jack Etienne were both interviewed in between matches regarding their upcoming Overwatch League teams in Los Angeles and London, respectively. Although this is a fun event meant to showcase national prowess and pride, Overwatch League logistics, potential rosters, and the effect it will have on the competitive landscape not only in the West but in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia, bleeds into qualifier discussions.
Europe specifically, ChrisTFer says, is currently in a tough spot regarding Overwatch esports. Although there is still a good amount of talent in the region, there are few sponsored teams, and many of their more talented players end up on North American organizations. This includes ChrisTFer himself, who until July 31 was a part of the Hollywood Hammers with an all-European roster in Overwatch Contenders Season Zero: North America.
North American rosters are also shuffling through players, with many endemic esports organizations dropping their Overwatch teams in light of few available details about Overwatch League. With only one slot in Europe thus far (C9’s London spot), and the first season to be held in Los Angeles, Europe appears to be behind the curve regarding organization and, more importantly, money.
“If you go back six or nine months or so, the European teams versus their North American counterparts were better,” ChrisTFer says. “But eventually it’s very hard to stay on a European team and not get paid if an NA team wants to bring you over. All of the talent drifts over and then you have good teams scrimming against the stragglers that are left. The reason why Europe is struggling right now isn’t because of any decisions they’re making currently. It’s because of decisions that were made six or seven months ago.”
I ask ChrisTFer about Cloud9 picking up the London spot, and how he thinks it will affect the European Overwatch ecosystem. He is quick to point out that European players will be on the same playing field as NA players regardless. With no region-locking in place — or planned — Overwatch League organizations are free to pick up as many players from any region for their rosters.
In a way, the Santa Monica group stage is an audition stage for ChrisTFer and his free-agent UK teammates who haven’t been picked up by larger organizations.
On the third and final day, Team UK qualifies as the second team out of the Santa Monica group stage with an unexpected victory over Taiwan’s Flash Wolves. Team USA, the first team to punch its ticket to Blizzcon from Santa Monica, is back inside the hangar, greeting an autograph line that wraps around past the final few rows of a sold-out crowd. As they are wont to do, Teams UK and USA have been trading insults throughout the event, promising to take each other out of the event en route to Blizzcon. Instead, on the last day, the two sides admit they’re friends and congratulate each other on their respective qualifications.
“I personally feel really, really good about my performance,” Christfer says. “I won’t say flawless, but it’s the best I’ve ever played by far.”
He sits back in his chair and stretches his legs out a bit, placing one arm behind his head.
“As for London, I am also a free agent, I know they have a main tank spot open yeah?” He laughs and sits up slightly straighter. “I’m somewhat excited about it, but we’ll wait and see.”
A week later, ChrisTFer trials for EnVision Esports, loading into game as their main tank on his signature Reinhardt. EnVision faces the all-French squad of Rogue, who also qualified for Blizzcon out of the Shanghai group stage as Team France.
Although the Reinhardt doesn’t work out well, ChrisTFer switches over to Winston. His Primal Rages are surprisingly well-timed with a team he’s played with very little. At the end of it all, EnVision holds out in a shocking victory. Members of Rogue immediately disconnect from the game following the loss while analysts and the competitive Overwatch community tries to digest the series.
“Been a pretty good week of Overwatch for me,” ChrisTFer simply posts to Twitter after the upset win.
Like the Overwatch World Cup, Contenders is another chance for players to showcase their skill in hopes of landing a permanent position on an Overwatch League squad. Come Week 2 of Contenders, former NRG Esports tank player and fellow Brit Seb “numlocked” Barton starts for EnVision. ChrisTFer has found another opportunity.
Reflecting continuing uncertainty in the competitive landscape prior to Overwatch League, this season of Contenders has already seen unpredictable upsets, roster changes, and most recently the disbanding of Team Singularity. With the organization of Singularity no longer involved, ChrisTFer, alongside Mads “fischer” Jehg and Singularity support player Kristian “Kellex” Keller, have formed a new team for Contenders using the Singularity spot.
The purpose of this new team is to keep these players in the competitive scene while serving as another audition stage for Overwatch League organizations. In his statement announcing the roster, ChrisTFer is quick to say that all members have agreed to support and prioritize any Overwatch League offers above all else. To an outsider, a team like this might seem unusual, but signing a contract with a team outside of the upcoming Overwatch League could potentially close the door on possible Overwatch League offers. Stuck at a nebulous point in Overwatch’s esports development, it seems safer for Western players to remain free agents.
Like Team UK and his Week 1 Contenders trial with EnVision, Team Singularity is another Overwatch League audition stage for ChrisTFer, and he’ll certainly make the most out of it.
Photos by Robert Paul/Blizzard