Stefano "Verbo" Disalvo plays Lucio for Immortals, one of the best Overwatch teams in the world. He's a shot-caller, which means he plays a huge role in leading the team. He's also 17 years old. Before he could become a pro, he had to overcome one very big obstacle: His parents.
When Disalvo started high school, he had no idea what he wanted to do. People around him assumed that he'd graduate, go to university, and then work a nine-to-five until his soul withered into a depleted pile of dust with a little sad face on it. But that wasn't what he wanted to do. First with League of Legends, then with Overwatch, he found something to be passionate about. He decided to he wanted to go pro, even if that meant leaving his educational future in limbo. His parents didn't love that idea.
"My parents were completely against it," Disalvo told me in an interview. "They would take away my modem and cut me off from the internet. I was told to quit many times, because they thought I was wasting my time."
Image credit: Immortals.
Some friends, too, told Disalvo he should just give up. But that wasn't going to stop him. If he couldn't, you know, play the game he was practising to play professionally, he'd just have to get creative. Usually, that involved a lot of visualisation. "I would actually visualise or even grab some paper and try to improve in any way I could," he said.
"On my phone, I'd take a screenshot of the layout of some of the maps, and I'd look at that on the bus ride from school to home," he added. "I'd visualise strategies and game plans. Then I'd store it in my head so if I found myself in that situation, I could relay the strat to my team."
He'd also sometimes hit up a pizza place or a McDonald's and use their Wi-Fi on his phone to study footage. It wasn't hands-on game time, but it was the next best thing.
During that time, Disalvo's relationship with his parents cooled from warm and accepting to downright icy. "I was really close with my parents [before they tried to stop me from becoming a pro]," he said. "When I wanted to pursue esports, the relationship started falling apart. I was very distant from my mother, especially. It was rough."
But he stuck with it. Fortunately, timing worked out in his favour. Two weeks after giving his parents an ultimatum, telling them that he wasn't going to university after he finished high school, he got a tryout from Immortals. He made the team, and the rest is history. Now he's taking online courses to finish out high school.
While pushback from his parents was painful, Disalvo is happy it happened. It gave him motivation to prove everyone wrong, something he's not sure he would have been able to conjure up otherwise.
"I can't entirely blame my parents," he said. "Before, I wasn't really providing evidence that this was going anywhere with esports, because I wasn't really going anywhere with it... If I didn't have that [pressure], I don't think I would have had enough motivation to push me. I'm not sure I would have had my breakthrough into the pro scene. If you look at the best athletes, they have gone through hell. It makes you stronger."
On top of that, because he wasn't always able to play games like League of Legends and Overwatch, he was forced to adapt. He learned to think about games differently and, in doing so, found his calling.
Image credit: Immortals.
"It definitely helped me be a more strategic player," he said. "I'm not really known for crazy mechanical or flashy plays. I like being more tactical and strategic. That's why I enjoy the role of a shot-caller. It gives me a chance to use those ideas."
As for Disalvo's parents, they're much more receptive to his career choice now. Playing for one of the best teams around — sometimes even on live stages, with an audience — tends to have that effect. It's all a little surreal for Disalvo, who had to fight an uphill battle to even reach a point where he was allowed to fight online battles. "It's really weird to see them be like, 'Hey, quit,' and now they're encouraging me to do a lot more," he said. "It's hard to wrap my head around the idea."
Where once Disalvo was grounded, he's now getting flown out to California to train with the other members of Immortals in a team house. With Blizzard's official Overwatch League on the horizon, he may even end up living with his teammates full-time. It's a big change, one that the whole team — made up mostly of similarly young players — is nervous about. Disalvo, though, describes this as his "dream", and now more than ever, he's ready for the big stage.