Why Canadian gamer ‘Verbo’ dropped school to pursue pro Overwatch

L.A. Valiant members walk up to the stage in pre-season Overwatch League action (Blizzard)

Faith, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” But to Stefano Disalvo, it means so much more.

“Faith is the reason why I’m doing this in the first place, faith is the reason why I’m here today,” Disalvo says, by phone from Los Angeles. “I took a leap of faith in completely dropping school for this and it paid off. So, faith is a huge part of who I am and why I’m here.”

The “this” Disalvo abandoned school for is Blizzard Entertainment’s popular team-based first-person shooter Overwatch. The “here” is the Overwatch League (OWL), the fledgling professional esports outfit organized by the video game developer that launches its inaugural season Wednesday with Disalvo and the Los Angeles Valiant taking on the San Francisco Shock at 7:00 p.m. ET on Twitch.

Better known in the Overwatch community by his gamertag “Verbo,” Disalvo is a Greater Toronto Area native who managed, through hard work, perseverance and talent, to become one of just 113 people on the planet to crack an opening day OWL roster — and one of just seven Canadians.

But more than natural ability or the hours he’s put into playing, Disalvo credits his spot with the Valiant to his faith.

“Verbo” comes from the name of the church he attended in Vaughan, Ont.; the place where, as Disalvo explains it, he was able to find his own greatness during a rough period in his life. Translated from Italian or Spanish to English as “word” or “speech” but interpreted as “The Word of God,” Verbo isn’t just Disalvo’s alias, it’s representative of who he is, and his path to the OWL is proof.

After all, he always had faith.

Like many boys growing up in the GTA, Disalvo occupied his time with a lot of sports — traditional ones, that is. Hockey, tennis, swimming and even gymnastics were what he was all about, but then competition of a digital nature took hold of him. It started with the Call of Duty series of first-person shooters, then the uber-popular League of Legends. But neither grabbed him like Overwatch.

“When I first saw the trailer of the game, I knew that I wanted to pursue an esports career in Overwatch,” Disalvo says. “So before I started playing I knew I wanted to do it.”

Talk about a leap of faith.

One of the factors holding the esports industry back from truly exploding into the mainstream is the unpredictability of which games become popular enough to pull in big audiences and world-class competitors. Lots of developers try but few games make it the way League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have. Overwatch, when first unveiled at Blizzard’s annual convention, Blizzcon, in November 2014, looked to have all the makings of an esport, but it was impossible to tell at the time if it would ever actually attain that status because, ultimately, communities determine which games take off.

Even after the game came out in May 2016, it was difficult to say if it would really catch on with the competitive community, sponsors and tournament organizers, but Disalvo always had faith.

“I saw [Overwatch] as a brand-new opportunity, a new game. Basically, everybody starts fresh, nobody has an advantage over someone else. So, I thought, ‘Why not, right?’ I saw a lot of opportunities for it to be a big esport, and I’ve always wanted to pursue an esports career, so I thought Overwatch would be my game to do it in.”

Coming from Canada, where pro esports endeavours are few and far between, Disalvo knew he was at a disadvantage from an exposure standpoint, but not from an ability one.

“My physical location had nothing to do with whether I would make it or not because when it comes to online gaming, I play Americans as soon as I hop into a game,” Disalvo says. “But the steps that I took, I basically made my own team in Overwatch when I first started playing, just participating in small amateur tournaments that were being broadcasted online — not too many viewers, nothing too crazy.”

Disalvo’s first team was called “Bold Purpose Gaming,” created while he was in high school.

“During my lunch break I actually wrote up a Reddit post telling people what my goals were in Overwatch, what I wanted to do,” he says. “I basically just pitched to a bunch of players this team that I wanted to create and I got a bunch of responses.”

The result was valuable tournament experience from almost the moment Overwatch first launched. Those early teams ultimately acted as “stepping stones” for Disalvo, providing a means to eventually get scouted and picked up by professional esports organization, Immortals, near the end of 2016. From there, as luck would have it, Immortals decided to invest in the OWL as the owners and operators of the Valiant.

Whether it’s is a happy coincidence or it was part of Disalvo’s plan all along is up to you, but with the Valiant kicking off the OWL’s inaugural season, we can only wait to see what heights Disalvo’s faith lifts him to in the future.

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