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Sam “Ch1pmunk5” Chipman, a 14-year-old high school student and hopeful broadcaster, was on his way to Arlington when disaster struck. A downpour started to pound on his dad’s car’s windshield, making it almost impossible to get a clear view of the highway ahead. It didn’t help that the rain was ricocheting off three big rigs driving ahead, causing a weird mist to spray in their direction.

The car slowed to 35 mph for nearly an hour of the 200 mile journey from Austin to the Arlington before the rain started to let up. Ch1pmunk5 said he was shaking the whole time, but not because he was worried about the road. He was on his way to see his favorite Overwatch league team, the Dallas Fuel play at his first live esports event with fans in North America.

“The rain was brutal,” Ch1pmunk5 said ahead of Dallas’s 3-0 shutout of Houston. “But I’m hoping for a good match. I didn’t drive all this way to watch three maps of Overwatch.”

The Dallas crowd still misses Decay

Ch1pmunk5 arrived just in time to catch the Washington Justice stomp all over the London Spitfire. The crowd roared with a mixture of anger and regret every time Gui-un Decay Jang’s McCree came on the broadcast.

“Dallas has a vendetta against Washington now that they have Decay,” Ch1pmunk5 said. I mentioned that Decay left Dallas after he had issues with Fuel management, according to team owner Mike “Hastr0” Rufail.

“It’s just the fact that they have him,” Ch1pmunk5 replied. “That’s it, that’s why there are a hell of a lot more cheers for London.”

Blue uniforms, shirts and capes filled the arena, and while the crowd may have been at limited-capacity, they held nothing else back. Boom stick claps and cheering could be heard from entrance to stage. Yeong-han SP9RK1E Kim and his team were sitting quietly on stage, practicing before their match while fathead cardboard posters of themselves stared back. Ch1pmunk5 kept an eye on his favorite player and fellow main tank, Lee “Fearless” Eui-Seok.

“Seeing their heads pop up behind the computers is awesome,” Ch1pmunk5 said while he was watching the Washington Justice match. “It’s a little distracting, but I’m ok with that.”

A moment one year in the making

Ch1pmunk5 said he participates in the Console Gaming League (a community of casters, players and organizers who run tournaments for games like Overwatch) but he had never been to a live Overwatch event before. Last year’s homestand was cancelled due to the pandemic, which robbed him of the chance to meet likeminded people, like his casting idol, Jeff  “Bullskunk” Fendley.

Bullskunk has casted various Overwatch tournaments for the CGL and helped train Ch1pmunk5 to be a better broadcaster, but Ch1pmunk5 had never met him in-person. I had planned to speak with Bullskunk before meeting Ch1pmunk5, and the 14-year-old’s face lit up as soon as that came up. We made our way to the lobby to find Bullskunk scarfing down a hotdog, taking a break from the hype in the other room with a little bit of mustard on his beard. Ch1pmunk5 walked up to him and thanked him for helping him grow as a broadcaster. It was a moment Ch1pmunk5 said he’d hoped to experience a year ago.

“I’m used to meeting people at events like this,” Bullskunk said about the encounter. “But not the thank you. I didn’t expect the thank you. It was nice.”

Ch1pmunk5 (left) meeting Bullskunk for the first time | Photo provided by Aron Garst

Bullskunk lives in the local Dallas area and has worked as a bartender and a lighting technician for a pop-up gallery, but his real passion has always been casting. He said the pandemic forced his hand, pushing him to work as a caster full-time. He went to events like these to experience Overwatch and to meet other fans, casters and community members.

Every fan I asked at the event was ecstatic to be back at a live Overwatch game again, although it did feel a bit odd.

“Everyone isn’t here,” Bullskunk said, citing the 50% capacity, that most his Overwatch group was not able to make it and the fact that Houston is playing from home, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”

A tailgate in 80-degree rain

Less than 30 fans gathered on the edge of the empty Esports Arena parking lot around 11 a.m. to play Mario Kart, trade pins, eat hotdogs and talk about Overwatch. Topics included the best Tracer in the West Division, how every match of the 16 regular season was important and whatever came up on the most recent episode of Plat Chat.

A light sprinkle — the same rain that made Ch1pmunk5’s drive a nightmare — hit Colin Corbett’s orange and white scarf as he stood next to his four cases of video game pins. He had flown all the way from the Bay Area in California to Arlington to see his favorite team and trade his pins.

“I haven’t made many trades this time,” he said. “But it’s about getting the word out so maybe someone brings a pin I like to the next event.”

He showed me a gold Overwatch logo pin that’s worth $300. Fans could only get one by earning the play of the game at the Overwatch booth at PAX West 2015. He didn’t achieve that honor, but he did trade another rare pin to get it.

Corbett’s four double-sided cases of pins includes most Overwatch heroes, pins from different events and a bunch of Mario Kart characters. He was fielding a steady flow of tailgaters ahead of the venue doors opening at 1 p.m. CT. Those pins were the reason he made the 1,700 mile trip and the reason he started following the Dallas Fuel. He joined every team’s discord to see which of the 53 homestand events would have pins, but he said he felt the most at home in the Dallas Fuel Discord.

“I was on the discord a lot during the live matches,” he said. “And it was really welcoming.”

Corbett's impressive collection of pins
Corbett’s impressive collection of pins. | Provided by Aron Garst

Pin trading, exclusive battle for Texas shirts, capes and meeting other Overwatch fans is what makes events like these special for people who love Blizzard’s team shooter. Reinhardt and Orisa cosplayers stood watching the action in the back of the room after taking photos with fans star struck by the quality of their costumes.

It wasn’t just Dallas Fuel fans either. A blue LA Gladiators shirt and green LA Valiant jersey showed up in the crowd. Fans from every team, even Houston Outlaws followers who got booed whenever they were shown on broadcast, made up part of the 1,250 fans that attended the event. But while many said they felt at home for the event, there was still something missing.

“It’s a glorified watch party,” Bullskunk said in a sentiment echoed by many. The match is still technically online since one team played from their quiet practice facility. Dallas just has their own private crowd, special clips of Tom Hanks saying ‘I have fire’ between rounds and a whole lot of noise getting splashed in their face.

“It’s about the people,” Bullskunk said. He could ease his concerns about Overwatch 2 and forget his worries about the real world whenever SP9RK1E or Fearless popped off on stage. “It’s good to cheer for a team that can go all the way.”