In every game, young players have risen up to become stars. Four-time League of Legends Worlds competitor Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg began playing at the age of 16, as did Fnatic’s allstar Heroes of the Storm Tank player Pontus "Breez" Sjogren. In North America, esports organization Immortals have already found immense success in Overwatch by picking their players based on merit and dismissing the relevance of age.
Boasting three 17-year-old players, Immortals have proven that young players can succeed as professionals — even while balancing hesitant parents and high school diplomas. DPS players Christopher "GrimReality" Schaefer and Brady "Agilities" Girardi, and secondary support Stefano "Verbo" Disalvo are all 17 years old. Starting their Overwatch careers at 16, all three are in their final semester of high school.
From high school straight to the pros
Sacrificing school in the name of a professional gaming career isn’t a new concept. This past February, League of Legends player Jung "Youngbin" Young-bin dropped out of University of California, Irvine to rejoin Team Liquid. What makes Immortals unique is that all of their players already in school continue to attend despite being full-time professionals. What’s more, the organization has their back at every turn. We had the chance to speak with Verbo and Agilities about what it meant to get signed by Immortals and the struggles they’ve endured to balance school work and in-game play.
"Even when I was playing League, I've always dreamed of joining a professional team so having it happen especially with an org like Immortals ... It was cool to get signed by an organization I was a huge fan of," said Verbo.
As avid League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) fans, both had watched Immortals’s North American LCS team play and cheered them on. Having the opportunity to sign with an organization that they’d admired from afar for years was a dream come true.
“It's pretty unreal,” Agilities agreed. “I did watch Immortals play for League of Legends and my old League friends were really big fans of them as well. ... I didn't think I'd be able to get on a team in Overwatch, let alone get an organization like Immortals, so it was definitely an amazing feeling. It felt pretty unreal."
GrimReality, Verbo and Agilities are all in the final year of high school and are projected to graduate between June and July. It hasn’t been an easy journey for any of them. As Verbo explained, the first hurdle he had to overcome was closer to home than his school: his family.
"Initially, my parents were definitely against it,” he said. “They would start by taking away the router, cutting me off from the internet, things like that. The way they look at it now, well, two weeks before I got the contract from Immortals I was basically told to quit because my parents thought it was a waste of time, there wasn't anything really coming out of it. But once I got the contract and they reviewed it, they saw this was something serious. This was something that could be big for me, good for networking, good for building a career, so they're pretty cool with it now.”
Meanwhile, Agilities had the support of both his mother and his brother, proudly stating that his brother now uses his old computer to play Overwatch himself. One thing both players agreed on was that traditional school was nearly impossible while trying to uphold a competitive schedule. For Verbo, that meant convincing his parents that the stress of the competitive balancing act was too much.
“I was basically going to a traditional school studying six hours at school then coming home and doing around eight hours of scrims, so it was becoming very stressful for me,” said Verbo. “I was not getting much sleep. My parents eventually understood that I wasn't going to be able to balance the two so they let me take the online course rather than go to a traditional school.”
Overwatch is a job
Having taken online classes since sophomore year, Agilities had an easier time convincing his mother to let him stick with full-time online learning. Surprisingly, the biggest change in his educational work load came from Immortals themselves.
"I had a work experience course,” Agilities explained, “I actually got 15 credits just off of my job in Overwatch because Chance, our coach, signed some forms and approved my hours, so I got credits from playing Overwatch in school."
Immortals have stepped in to help their scholarly players in other ways, too. Verbo was the unfortunate victim of exams immediately following the OW Winter Premiere, where Immortals took home first place. Luckily, Immortals were able to defer his exams by writing a letter to his school explaining his situation, giving Verbo the time he needed to wind down after a heart-racing 3-1 victory over Ghost Gaming in the Finals.
Older teammate George "Hyped" Maganzini joined team Sodipop before they were signed by Immortals in 2016. Due to his background as a professional Hearthstone player, becoming a member of a six-member squad was a transition he worried about. Hyped expressed that he was unsure if he could handle his fate resting on the shoulders of teammates after the amount of time he’d spent as a solo player.
“I thought I would struggle, I thought I would get annoyed at my teammates or I thought I'd just be annoyed that I couldn't control them,” Hyped said. “Maybe I just got lucky and I found a team where everyone gets along but I found that I actually don't mind the team environment.”
While working within a team environment was a concern for Hyped, the prospect of working with teenagers as someone in his twenties didn’t sound appealing. As he explained, though, Immortals have made it work.
"It's been very smooth sailing just because we've been very lucky with the younger guys on the team. If you would have told me before that I'd be on a team with three 17-year-olds — 16-year-olds at the start — I would have been worried about their maturity level, but since I know the guys and they're super mature there haven’t been any issues at all."
Immortals goes west
That sentiment is shared among all members of Immortals, which becomes even more important given their upcoming move to Immortals’s new training facility. Aiming to have a team complex in California by the end of the players’ school year, Immortals are shaping up to have several of their powerhouse teams practicing and living in one central location. While it will still be a couple of months until the players are ready to move into their new homes, the synergy their Overwatch team has found at past events will be crucial.
“When we were in San Antonio, seeing all the guys face-to-face was definitely a healthy atmosphere, so moving into a team house will obviously help that and replicate what we felt in San Antonio. Even Chance, I know he wants to do a lot of things and it's kind of hard to get his points across just over a voice call,” explained Verbo.
The Chance Verbo is referring to is Coach Zac "Chance" Palmer, who will be looking to take the team from North American victors to global dominators with a more hands-on approach. Previously playing for the team as their secondary support, Chance transitioned to the role of coach with the addition of Verbo to the Immortals roster. The team will be joined by Chance in the new complex, giving him the opportunity to put his coaching to the test in a new country.
Still kids after all
“The main thing I'm worried about is homesickness,” admitted Agilities, who will be moving from Canada alongside Verbo and Chance. “There are three people on the team, Aythen, Grim and Hyped, who are two hours away from home, right in California as well. But I'm going to be in a completely different country, so it's going to be weird adjusting to it especially because I'm a teenager as well. It's going to be a hard adjustment at first but all in all, it's going to be good.”
"Some initial concerns that I have,” said Verbo, “is if we're going to be living in a team house — it's kind of like living with a sibling, right? You're seeing the same people every day, so when you're living with siblings some unnecessary conflict comes up so I'm hoping that doesn't happen."
In the upcoming Overwatch League, Immortals will be gunning for top spot. Until then, though, the three teens of Immortals will have to continue living dual lives as both students and professional players. Once they graduate, their greatest test will begin: Learning to live together in California.
Source: Redbull Esports