Golden State Warriors seek new territory in esports leagues

Golden Guardians and Warriors Gaming Squad Logos.
Golden State Warriors/Courtesy
The logos of the Golden State Warriors' two new esports teams, the Golden Guardians and the Warriors Gaming Squad.

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The Golden State Warriors are a household name among Cal students and Bay Area residents alike. Having won two NBA championships in the past three years and now on the verge of a third, the Warriors have set the gold standard for basketball greatness.

What most basketball fans don’t know, however, is that the company behind the team, GSW Sports LLC, is hoping to extend that level of greatness into the world of esports: professional multiplayer video games.

Within the past half a year or so, the company has created two teams, the “Golden Guardians” and the “Warriors Gaming Squad,” in order to make its mark in esports leagues.

The Golden Guardians compete in “League of Legends,” one of the most popular online multiplayer video games in the world. They acquired a spot in the newly franchised North American League of Legends Championship Series, or NA LCS, at the start of 2018. Unfortunately, the 2018 Spring Split, which represents the first half of the competitive season, did not go as hoped.

The Guardians started off the split with seven straight losses but briefly managed to turn things around, winning four of their next six games. Those wins included victories over the likes of 100 Thieves and Team Liquid, teams that would eventually face off against each other in the Spring Split finals. Despite these bright flashes of success, the team lost its final five matches and finished in last place.

“It was a tough split competitively, and it definitely didn’t go the way we hoped,” said Hunter Leigh, the head of esports for the Golden State Warriors. “More frustrating than the actual losing was the inconsistency between our best games and our worst games.”

Week 9 Day 2 at 2018 NA LCS Spring Split in Los Angeles, California, USA on 18 March 2018.

Week 9 Day 2 at 2018 NA LCS Spring Split in Los Angeles, California, USA on 18 March 2018.

In light of that variance, the Guardians hope that giving head coach Tyler “Akiri” Perron a chance to establish a formal system will stabilize the team’s performance. Perron abruptly stepped into the lead position after former head coach Yoonsup “Locodoco” Choi was fired just two weeks into the Spring Split. The team also brought in former NA LCS champion and support player Alex “Xpecial” Chu as an assistant coach to refine its play in the bot lane.

The Guardians have also announced the departure of mid-laner Hai “Hai” Lam, a well-respected veteran of the NA LCS who was once hailed as the team’s “Steph Curry.” He will be replaced by Son “Mickey” Youngmin. The Guardians expect that Mickey will be a stronger laner and will bring a new “competitive element” to the roster.

“Hai was an amazing leader, and we’re creating a leadership vacuum that we’re asking our young guys to step in and fill,” Leigh said. “We think we can ask each of them to take on pieces of what he was doing and give them the opportunity to flex those muscles.”

Although the decision was widely panned by “League of Legends” fans, the team feels confident in the trade-off and expects to make a push to qualify for summer playoffs.

Just one month after the end of the 2018 NA LCS Spring Split, the Warriors esports franchise expanded; on April 4, the Warriors Gaming Squad, or WGS, was one of 17 NBA teams at the very first NBA 2K League draft. WGS ended up with the last pick in the draft because of the lottery, and many analysts pegged it as a bottom-tier team, but Leigh remains optimistic.

“We really tried to put together a mix of players that we thought could step in and play well together,” Leigh said. “They’re a very emotional group, but they’re also really great guys who communicate well, have a really good head on their shoulders and are good teammates to each other.”

The team surprised analysts when it won its group at the Tip-Off Tournament. It remains to be seen whether the team can find success throughout the regular season.

LONG ISLAND CITY, NY - MAY 02: during the NBA 2K League Tip Off Tournament on May 2, 2018 at Brooklyn Studios in Long Island City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images)

LONG ISLAND CITY, NY – MAY 02: during the NBA 2K League Tip Off Tournament on May 2, 2018 at Brooklyn Studios in Long Island City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images)

For many years, “NBA 2K” has been one of the world’s most popular video game franchises. Through the 2K League, the NBA aims to tap into the growing market of esports, especially as more and more esports tournaments are being held in professional basketball arenas, such as the Staples Center, Madison Square Garden and Oracle Arena.

The NBA 2K League is the first official esports league to be run by a U.S. professional sports league. It is also the only esports league so far that is based on a traditional sport, which makes it far more accessible to viewers who are new to esports. Nevertheless, making the jump from traditional sports to esports viewership can be somewhat complicated.

Fans of traditional sports teams, such as those of the Warriors, typically show loyalty to the teams that represent their cities. Esports are more difficult to define regionally. There are no home games in “League of Legends” or “NBA 2K”; the Guardians are currently based in Los Angeles, and the WGS flies to New York every weekend to play live. Regardless, both teams still feel that their true home is in the Bay Area.

“I think, at its core, this is a Bay Area team,” Leigh said. “That spirit of innovation, the risk-taking, the diversity and other things — those are the things that we’re keeping in the team. The energy that you feel in the area, that’s the same energy that we all feel internally, and I think it’s going to help make us successful.”

Leigh also hopes that the Warriors and the two associated esports teams can form a symbiotic relationship so that Warriors fans might become Guardians or WGS fans as a result of exposure or cross-promotion on social media, and vice versa. Additionally, fans may see what the basketball team and esports teams have in common and come to support both.

“I think the journey that the Warriors went on over the last 10 years or so is similar to the journey we want to go on, maybe a little bit faster,” Leigh said. “Where you can take young players who were not the No. 1 overall draft pick and assemble a roster and watch it grow together.”

If you’re a Warriors fan and are searching for something to follow after the NBA postseason concludes, the Guardians or WGS could be your answer.

Julia Shen covers League of Legends. Contact her at [email protected]. Lawrence Zhao covers esports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @CelticsWpn.