Brandon "Seagull" Larned has had quite a year, going from esports player to full-time streamer and back again, all while continuing to grow a fandom of millions who love him for his easygoing demeanour and gravity-defying Pharah and Genji plays. Over the weekend, his new team, EnvyUs, swept the finals of the $US100,000 ($128,498) Overwatch Contenders tournament, but with Overwatch League just a couple months away, uncertainty looms for the Overwatch pro scene and Larned himself.
Image credit: Blizzard.
In another life, Larned would be just another 25-year-old fresh out of university, but instead he "skipped class for a week during the Overwatch beta", and his stream blew up. These days, he's Overwatch's most popular player, and he's excited that he'll soon be playing on the Dallas Fuel Overwatch team, representing a city where he used to compete regularly in Team Fortress 2 tournaments. He isn't resting on his laurels, however. He's seen other pro players go from the top of the world to the darkest corners of obscurity, and he has no intention of being forgotten.
I caught up with Larned after his big win at the Contenders tournament in Blizzard's new esports arena in Los Angeles, California, to discuss Overwatch League, streaming, and why Bastion is extremely good, actually.
Pictured: Brandon "Seagull" Larned. Image credit: Blizzard.
Nathan Grayson: You dropped out of pro play to pursue a career as a full-time streamer, but now you're back as part of arguably the best pro team out there. How are you acclimating? Do you feel rusty?
Brandon Larned: Coming back to pro play, the hard part about it isn't necessarily getting mechanically good again, because mechanics are very easily kept up playing solo queue or ladder or anything else. It's more about adapting to how teams have improved within the last eight months.
For example, when I was doing Overwatch League tryouts and playing Genji, I could never get any kills with his ult at all. That was because teams had become so good at dealing with Genji in particular because they had been playing against Genji now, pretty much Genji specifically, for six months because he was such a big part of the meta. So I had to adapt to how professional teams were playing, and I couldn't easily see that through a spectator perspective. That was one of the things I had to play in order to experience it rather than spectate. I needed a first-person perspective. "This guy is here, therefore I can blade," or things like that. You have to really put a lot of time into it to be used to it again.
Additionally, just experiencing tournament matches again. I had pretty bad jitters on my first match just because I haven't played a tournament in forever. But getting over the nervousness and stuff, I think that just comes as you play more, especially when Overwatch League is coming.
Grayson: When Overwatch League officially begins, what happens to your stream?
Larned: I haven't fully decided how I want to handle that. The way I look at it is: Right now, I'm in on every single scrimmage and every single practice block the team does, even though I'm a sub and I'm only there partially. Because not only am I just subbing, I also provide analysis on whatever went wrong so I can give input. Overwatch League runs for only a portion of the year. During the off season I could potentially full-time stream if I wanted to for a few months. But the other teams who are full-time practising will just catch up again.
Being a pro gamer is a full-time thing, so having a stream at the same time is almost like juggling two jobs. To me, it comes down to making the streaming a small portion of my everyday routine. Maybe I don't stream for five or six hours, [but] I stream every day, for two and a half or three, no matter what. Just comes down to building it in the routine. For someone like me, streaming in the morning is much easier than after our team practice. Because after you do team practice, you're just fucking done.
Grayson: What does streaming offer you that pro play can't?
Larned: I've always looked at streaming as something that you build that no one will be able to take away from you. Beyond just losing popularity or anything like that, but that's like normal stream stuff. Let's just look at all the players trying to get into Overwatch League right now. They're pro players, or formerly pro players. A shit ton of them are not going to make it to Overwatch League, and they are no longer pro players.
For me personally, it's security. That is what you do after pro play. You have your stream, people like you. It engages directly with your fan base, and it's also just really fucking fun. It's just, it's everything. It feeds off of pro play. I think pro play and streaming are very much two sides of the same coin. Like you want to stream and you want to be a pro player because the more you stream, the more popular you are for pro play. Then the more popular you are for pro play, the bigger your stream is. They can go back and forth like that, and it works really well.
To me though, the biggest thing has always been job security for specifically after Overwatch. When I first got into Overwatch, I had watched a crap ton of StarCraft 2. If you watched StarCraft 2 during 2011 to 2014, you got to see like the rise and fall of a lot of pro players. The pro players you don't see winning tournaments any more, where did those people go? You don't know. I didn't want to be that guy in Overwatch. I don't just want to go back to school or whatever after I'm done playing in tournaments. Pro gaming isn't about tournaments. It's about playing games professionally. There's a difference in terms there. That is why I wanted to become a streamer and a pro player, because I want to be a pro gamer for a long time, not just a competitive player.
Grayson: You used to play Team Fortress 2 competitions all the time in Dallas, and now you're representing Dallas in the Overwatch League. That's gotta be kind of a trip.
Larned: I like that. I don't know, it feels nice. It feels right to go back there after so many years being there. Just playing casual tournaments there two to three times a year. It's like, "Yeah, I'm going to go back there and rep them." I think that's cool.
Grayson: It strikes me as odd that Blizzard's trying to superimpose this traditional city-based sports structure over an esport that's still very young. Plus, just looking at Envy as an example, you might have a history with Dallas, but most of your teammates aren't even from America, let alone Dallas. The structure feels archaic, in that way. How do you feel about the structure of OWL?
Larned: I actually like it a lot, because I feel like one thing esports players do lack is the interaction in real life, a lot of the time. You just travel to tournaments and you see small groups of fans, and that's kind of it. They don't really feel like your fans. If I'm living in a city, and people know I'm living in that city, just walking around that city, if we have Overwatch League games there, maybe I'll get recognised a lot. Things like that. That's kind of crazy to think. I like the physical location aspect a lot. I think a lot of people will be interested in it.
Grayson: You've mentioned that a lot of guys on Envy are older. You're 25, which is young by life standards, but old in the world of esports. How does it feel to be playing against a lot of younger players? Are you worried it's a matter of time before they pass you by?
Larned: I don't think people really age out of esports so much as they get burned out. Realistically, look at how long normal sports players stay within their games. Look at how long esports players stay in their games. Why are esports players just burning out? We're not even physically moving as much as [traditional sports players]. What's going on here? It doesn't really make sense. It definitely feels weird playing against 17 and 18 year olds. But I think it should be more normal, more expected. Because realistically, in esports, there should be way more older people than there are. I think the only reason there isn't is because so many people just get burned out, or just get sick of the game they're playing and move on.
Pictured: EnvyUs. Image credit: Blizzard.
Grayson: Do you think the unsustainability of the lifestyle stems from structural issues, as well? Team rosters don't last long, paychecks are unreliable, and some players don't get health benefits. If you're looking to raise a family, that doesn't seem like a great foundation. Despite all the possible downsides of OWL, annual salaries and benefits seem nice.
Larned: Yeah, I would say that's true for a lot of players in other games. But even then, look at the Overwatch League structure. If you're in your early 30s or something, and you're like, "I want to have kids," do you really want to have kids if you're travelling around every couple weeks to different events for six or so months out of the year? It just drains on people after a while.
Grayson: During the Overwatch Contenders finals match against Faze -- which your team swept -- you switched to Bastion at one point. Bastion is a million miles away from the current meta, to the point that he's kind of a joke. Why'd you do it then and there, with all the pressure on?
Larned: I love Bastion. He's a very unique character. I think Bastion is the most under-used character in the game, and he's also the most viable. Even with an upcoming patch making him less useful, I just think he has a lot of uses that teams haven't experimented with. Envy has so many skilled players that if somebody suggests something, everyone's like, "Yeah, why not try it?" I like that sort of, I guess, casual-ness this team has. Where it's like you're in the finals of a tournament, and sure, you might lose a map. We're up 3-0. It's OK. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? You lose the map? If we keep using another strategy that's not working, we're probably gonna lose anyway. Might as well try something else.