Interview with Hangar 9’s Tony Ray on following London Spitfire this season and the pain of losing: ‘It’s been a process of accepting we are terrible. To have it as a competition over which team is worst… that feels bad, but we didn’t go out with a whimper. We didn’t go quiet into the sweet night. We did get one win.’

london spitfire skins 1
The London Spitfire have had a rough season to put it lightly. They finished the season with 15 concecutive losses and a final win over the Vancover Titans at the end. They finished being tied for the second worst map differential. It is fair to say that the expectations for this Contenders roster were not fully realised.
Peter Wellman talks to Tony Ray, chief marketing officer and community leader from Spitfire’s official fan association, Hangar 9. He’s one of the hosts of the Spawn Camp podcast and freelance graphic designer who has worked with the team, and in this article discusses the season, running community events and getting used to Spitfire losing.

Peter Wellman: So I wanted to chat to you today because you’ve worked with the London Spitfire and I’ve used your graphics in articles before, and I just wanted to ask: have you been following their season very closely?

Tony Ray: Yes. So following the London Spitfire and also coordinating with Hangar 9, we’ve been doing a lot of graphics for their individual matches. And then as things started to open back up post, huge air quotes, “post pandemic”, because it will never end. We’ve been organising viewing parties at a Central London bar called Platform. And we’ve been having people show up there and getting the community together, hosting small competitions and also viewing the matches.

That’s been a predominantly losing season up until the final match. And it was kind of a bell curve of like accepting that we were terrible, and then, oh no, we actually are really bad, and the kind of depression that actually comes with that. You know, there was some superiority of like, we accept that we’re bad. And then it kind of petered out.

We were like, man, this just hurts to watch at this point. Not that there was anything wrong with like the players or the team or anything individually, but you kind of, at most, you hope for the team to be middle of the road by the end of the season, at least. Maybe a mid-tier kind of team. To have it be a competition for which team is worst, feels bad, but yeah, following their season closely and being overjoyed that we got at least one win at the very end of the season.

Peter: Although it hasn’t been a complete wash of a season, there have been some very, very close matches. Did you attend any of these live events at Platform? You said you were coordinating them.

Tony: Yes. I believe that I attended all of them as I’m part of the leadership team with Hangar 9. So it was important for at least the main leadership to be there. My wife helps with event organisation with Hangar 9, and I make designs. And Oak [community manager for the London Spitfire] is like the main head honcho. He’s kind of our shining light, our guiding light. So yeah, I attended all of the ones that we were able to do, which was a majority of the second half of the season, I guess.

“It’s a kind of like a series of diminishing returns where we get excited at coming close to winning a series. And then we get excited when we win a map, or get a point. And then at the end of the season, it was like, we won a team fight! You know, I’m so excited. We got one team fight, but having other people to celebrate that with made a huge difference.”

And the energy, it was mostly just nice to kind of commiserate, I guess. If you’re going to lose, then losing with other people around feels better than just watching it home alone. And the energy of those close matches was really excellent. It was kind of a series of diminishing returns where we’d be excited when we’re close to winning a series. And then we get excited when we win a map and then we get excited when we get a point. And then at the end of the season, it was like, we won a team fight. You know, I’m so excited. We got one team fight, but having other people to celebrate that with made a huge difference.

Peter: I suppose it’s those levels of celebrating any victory we’re given. And I sensed that it was a lot better in person. Were you at a live event for the San Francisco versus London Spitfire match where we lost 3-2? That was so very close. And I know it was a personal highlight of my viewing experience.

Tony: Absolutely. I was there for that match.

Peter: The energy, that must must’ve been electric.

Tony: It was, it was very exciting because it was early into the season and we weren’t really sure where we were going to be sitting for the season. San Francisco Shock had been the two-time champs of the past two seasons. And there was a worry that, you know, going into the 2021 season, they purchased a majority of the best players and everyone was worried, like, are they just going to steam roll? Are they just gonna get a third championship title?

We weren’t sure how London Spitfire was going to be performing. The San Francisco Shock had just gotten a surprising loss from the Houston Outlaws. So it was like, okay, maybe this is a chance for us. And we pushed them all the way to the line.

We didn’t go out with a whimper. We didn’t go quiet into the sweet night. We did get one win. I think that was really admirable. It’s not even like the team needed a win to validate themselves to the fans, but I wanted to see them be happy. I just wanted to see them feel useful and for them to feel good about themselves.”

It’s always 99% all the way down to the last final minute. And it was really close. And I think that was a good energy for the team where they’re like, maybe we can do good and end up being that way, but it was also a revealing thing for San Francisco Shock. And for the fans that were there at the Platform Bar for the actual viewing the livestream, it was a very exciting, even though we didn’t get the win, we were still celebrating how close we came.

Peter: We were expecting pre-season for San Francisco to be this absolute monster of a team. And they haven’t. With London Spitfire, with the promotion of most of [the academy team] British Hurricane to [first team] Spitfire, what were your expectations at the beginning of the season?

Tony: So there was a lot of hesitance, or I guess a lot of unknowns. Are we just a group of people that were big fish in a little pond? Cos there is a lot of divide between tier one and tier two, between the Overwatch League and then all of the feeder teams that compete to get into that. British Hurricanes were dominant for a majority of the seasons that they played leading up to this point. I think they went on like a 40-something game win streak.

Peter: 42 and 0, I think.

Tony: To the end of that streak, some of the cracks started to show, like the teams were changing up their strategies, they’re changing up their compositions and really pushing us to our metal, to the point where we were dropping down into the loser brackets and dropping the ball.

And so that team fed into the London Spitfire and we’re like, okay, so it’s a put up or shut up moment. Are we going to be able to show people that tier two players can compete at that higher level? And in a lot of ways, unfortunately it kind of run hollow, I guess that element of being a big fish in a little pond did ring true and ultimately their dominance in tier two didn’t equate to a dominance in tier one. It was unfortunate.

“I guess that element of British Hurricane being a big fish in a little pond did ring true, and ultimately their dominance in tier two didn’t equate to a dominance in tier one. It’s unfortunate.”

Peter: Yeah. It was about players coming in and sort of having to say, no, tier two is real. I mean, considering a couple of seasons ago, I think it was a member of the one OWL team’s staff saying: ‘Don’t pick up Contenders’.

I don’t know who else they were going to pick up. What are your thoughts on the sort of rivalry between London and Paris?

Tony: During the 2020 season, I think it was titled ‘The Battle of the Channel’ or something along those lines. And us at Hangar 9 have coordinated in some small way with the fan group for the Paris Eternal, which is called the Rooster Club. So I think that there’s elements of a goo- hearted rivalry there. So there’s a desire for EU players and talents to prove themselves, and that combination of Paris and London being some of the only European teams.

I know there’s a lot of desire for a German team or an Italian team. I don’t know if that will ever happen, given that Overwatch is having a slow, steady decline into the pits of hell, but there is this kind of partnership and joint support between London and Paris where it’s like, if we’re not succeeding, we at least want to see Paris succeeding and vice versa.

So even if we have a rivalry with each other, it’s more just kind-natured. And honestly, I’ve been very impressed with Paris and how they’ve been able to take their season, and elevate themselves higher as the season’s gone on. It’s what I wish we would have seen from Spitfire.

OWL 2021 Playoffs update

Peter: And just on the decline comment, in a recent article on the future of the Overwatch League by Liz Richardson and Jacob Wolf of Dot Esports, they reported about how the plans for next year season are incomplete. I think [Overwatch League VP] John Spector released a tweet saying ‘we’re not going to be doing live events’.

(Liz Richardson later reported that an early build of Overwatch 2 will be used next season.)

So if the league went to a more organic base, would you still follow the London Spitfire if they returned to being Cloud9, or other things changed, would you be happy with the Overwatch league next year?

Tony: With the state of everything at Blizzard. It’s very tricky. It’s not necessarily that the Overwatch team of Activision Blizzard has been called out specifically as being an issue. It’s more like we’ve singled out, you know, this, this body as a problem, and Overwatch League is just one of the feet. And it’s like, I can’t be mad specifically at the foot. It’s the body that’s doing the problems, but OWL is still attached to body.

So there are a lot of things that need to be addressed and solved and commitments made. Going forward I don’t think things will be addressed, solved or commitments made. And as far as the longevity of what the Overwatch League is looking at, six months ago I would have been a lot more optimistic. But at the moment, the main drive of any of these endeavours is to have a financial incentive – and all of that major financial backing from partnerships and sponsors is absent.

So you have something that seems to be in decline, a losing proposition financially and optically. For anyone jumping into our Overwatch League right now, it’s kind of tainted. And I don’t see that being resolved anytime soon. All of the aspects that would make an Overwatch League environment successful, like home stand in-person events, something to bring the community together, continue to be impossible given the current state of the world.

So it’s a bunch of different things that are all coming together to be like – this just isn’t going to happen. As much as I desire a carefree, interesting and fun 2022 season, I think there are a lot of problems that come into that… stigma, guilt, a complete inability for it to actually happen. So I think this is probably the end of the road, as much as it’s kind of disappointing to say that, but this is without touching all the Overwatch 2 unknowns: When will it come out? Will the league be playing?

“With the state of everything at Activision Blizzard, it’s very tricky. It’s like we’ve singled out this body as a problem, and Overwatch League is just one of the feet. And I can’t be mad specifically at the foot when it’s the body that’s doing the problems, but OWL is still attached to body. So there are a lot of things that need to be addressed and solved and commitments made. I think this is probably the end of the road [for the OWL], as much as it’s kind of disappointing to say that.”

Peter: There are just so many questions where we don’t have enough information. So to end on a sort of lighter note, do you have from this season, from watching all these matches, a particular memorable moment? One that will stick with you?

Tony: Yeah. I mean, there’s one that sticks out for a lot of people of gosh. It was against a team relatively recently, I can’t remember who it was now, and they were on Nepal and it was coming to the end of the map. And Kellex did this very cheeky boop where the team had been walled off.

Peter: It was against San Fran. I think he got ChoiHyoBin and someone else.

Tony: It was at least two or three people. And he came around into the cheeky boop into the main pit of the map. And even though ultimately we ended up losing, that exchange, that power move on such a perceived dominant team was really cool to see. And everyone was just like, what just happened? You know, it wasn’t even like we were watching it from Kellex’s point of view. We were in someone else’s part of the map. And then you just look at the kill feed and there’s this huge, weird swing where you’re like, what the hell just happened. It was very exciting.

Peter: Get the team fights going in our favour, we’ll take this victory.

Tony Ray: Yeah, exactly. So that was a very exciting moment that I definitely think of, but the time spent with these players and with how hard they’ve played over this entire season, the amount of emotional and mental fortitude it takes to keep diving into game after game and having these really brutal losses. They’ve also been competing against a lot of stuff, that a lot of other teams haven’t had to deal with. None of them are on the same location. They have extensive ping. None of this is like an excuse for what they’re going through, but I think that it causes strain where there might not need to be. And so they’ve been coming together as a group of lads and trying their best.

I think that just getting back up on that horse every time is so respectable and seeing how happy they were for that final match against Vancouver, to get one win and kind of validate their whole season that way, where they’re like, at least we…

Peter: Did not go winless.

Tony: …we didn’t go out with a whimper. We didn’t go quiet into the sweet night. Like, they did get one win. I think that was really admirable. And I think that a lot of other teams got enjoyment from that as well, seeing them weirdly and identical season to Vancouver, but finish out strong. I think that was really impressive.

I would’ve been happy even if they didn’t. It’s not like they needed a win to validate themselves to the fans, but I wanted to see them be happy. I just wanted to see them feel useful and for them to feel good about themselves.

Peter: And I mean, that last match did certainly go the distance and it was touch and go at some points. I think it was a fantastic end to the season. Well thank you, Tony, for taking your time and taking time out of your day to do this. Thank you ever so much.

Tony: Absolutely.

If you want to take part in any of the Hangar 9 events you can join their Discord. Tony’s Twitter is @TonyRayUK

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