Despite being a bit of an unknown factor and at times an underdog during the inaugural Overwatch League season, the Philadelphia Fusion have had an incredibly successful first year as an organization. While their OWL counterparts were making their way through the rankings and qualifying for the Grand Finals in Brooklyn NY, the organization’s Tier 2 team, Fusion University (FU) was quietly preparing for their hat trick victory in the Overwatch Contenders North America.
For the third and final season of Overwatch Contenders, Fusion University managed to keep a flawless record and bring home yet another championship title as they made quick work of ATL Academy in the Season 3 finals.
What makes this feat even more impressive was how this hat-trick achievement was accomplished despite the roster having gone through structural changes as prominent members such as Zachary "ZachaREEE" Lombardo were picked by other OWL teams this off-season.
One of the keys to the strong track record of Fusion’s Contenders team has been Support player Elijah Hudson "Elk" Gallagher. Many would consider Elk as an instrumental player who has led his team to victory through consistent shotcalling, synergy with Alarm and mentorship of junior players.
As of the 2019 season, Elk will be joining the Fusion's OWL roster as a two-way player, lending his expertise to both teams as needed.
To celebrate his entry into the Overwatch League and as a prelude to the start of the season, I had a chance to sit down with Elk to discuss his journey through esports, his thoughts on Contenders, as well as his new position between two teams.
(The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Adam: Everyone has their own story into how they managed to make a career out of esports. Can you give me a rundown of how you got your start in gaming and your introduction into Overwatch?
Elk: How I got into gaming was from much more of a strategic standpoint rather than an FPS standpoint. I played Magic: The Gathering, I tried to travel to events, I played Chess pretty competitively in my region. I kind of moved to video games because people in my school would stop playing me in games when I got too good, and that was soul crushing. So I moved to online games, I started playing a lot of Modern Warfare 2, and casual FPS games on consoles and stuff, and I really liked video gaming in general.
When Overwatch was coming out, my dad got me an Alienware laptop for my birthday, which actually couldn’t run Overwatch (laughs). It was really really depressing, it was terrible, but he had a laptop for his work where he did CAD design, and that could run Overwatch at 60fps. So when he wasn’t working, I would play Overwatch, and I would have to beg him for time. After doing that for about 15 months, 15 months mind you, of playing unpaid on my parents' laptop when I was 16, I got signed to EG.
It was right around the time of my 17th birthday when I got signed to EG to play Overwatch, which was insane, and that was my first ever esport experience. They flew us out to their house in California, they did photo shoots with us, and we got to meet Peter Dager who was the CEO at the time. We also played in the Alienware Monthly Melee, which was kind of an off-brand tournament that got run every month. We beat Selfless 2-0 and we beat NRG Esports 2-0, then we almost beat Immortals and Rogue, so our performance was pretty good.
Elk began playing Overwatch competitively at the age of 17 - (Photo credit: Blizzard Estadium TW)
However, EG decided to stop continuing with Overwatch, because of them not wanting to join Overwatch League. They ended up dropping the team, and one of my ex-teammates got an offer from a Thai team named Mega Esports, to come play in Thailand for about four months, and he offered to bring me with him. His name is Graceful, I don’t know if he still plays competitively on a team, but he has been around EU Contenders for a bit.
So I went to Thailand, played in the Overwatch Pacific Championship Season 2, and did terribly in that. Lost almost every match, barely escaped relegation, got kicked from the team after that because they wanted to go all southeast Asian, so I came back to the states. I was friends with Mangachu, Zacharee, and Goliath, as well as a lot of other people who are in NA Contenders at the moment, and Mangachu brought me to Overwatch Heroes Rumble, which is just like a fun meme tournament. I only got to go because Pookz turned down the invite as main Support, Adam turned down the invite, and one other as well.
I was the fourth pick, which was still okay, because we ended up winning that tournament against FCTFCTN, aKm, Zappis, and some other pretty good players.
Then after I came back and started trying for academy teams, I’m not going to name the academy teams that turned me down since that seems like BM, but 3 academy teams said no to me in first stage of trials. One academy team brought me to stage 2, but it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to get it, the Fusion said “Hey if you want to come right now, we’ll sign you.” to which I said, “yes please,” and I played with Fusion University for 13 months, and won 3 championships which is insane.
Adam: So after the success of Fusion University this year, do you think any of those teams are kicking themselves for not signing you?
Elk: Honestly I have no idea, I’m not even sure that the people responsible for making those decisions are still with the orgs. I feel like a lot of the academy decisions have shifted a lot. I know at least three of the teams of people in charge of hiring for the academy teams have either changed orgs or changed positions.
Adam: What do you think makes Fusion University such a resilient team, despite going through a lot of roster updates?
Elk: It’s hard for me to say since im inside of it, my viewpoint will obviously be biased. The one thing I try to do on the team is to get everybody to give 100 percent. When it comes time to play a match, that’s when people need to be playing their best. That is definitely something that helps us in the map 5s and the longer best of 7 series’, like the one we played against Atlanta.
We lose Numbani, and no one’s upset, they may be angry with themselves, but nobody's going to let it affect their performance on the next map. Everyone is like “okay, we lost Numbani because we made stupid mistakes, if we stop making stupid mistakes, we’re going to win.”
We keep that hype up, keep ourselves ready to go. The other thing is, at least for me, I found a lot of success in Contenders figuring out how other teams play. So like against Atlanta, by map 5, we realized we were winning the GOAT mirrors, because their Zarya was playing too aggressive with cooldowns, and their Reinhart was playing really aggressive whenever he got bubbled. So we just played GOATS on Busan and we 2-0 them, we played GOATS on Hollywood, and we full held them, we played GOATS on Dorado, and we full held them.
Being able to figure that out over the course of a series is really important because every team preps for you when you’re the undefeated team. Nobody just accepts they are going to lose to Fusion Uni, no, every team watches your VODs and says “this is how we meticulously beat them.” So it’s important to be able to change gears and try to re-attack whatever they are doing.
Adam: So that ability to adapt mid-series, is that something you specifically focus on in your practices?
Elk: I think it comes from me being insanely nervous about losing (laughs). I’ll sit there as we have 40 seconds in spawn on Hanamura and go, “Okay if they do this we’re gonna play Dive, if they do that we’re playing GOATS, and if they do this we’re going pharah, if they go that we’re going Genji/Tracer Div, etc.” When you do that enough, when you start thinking about every possible comp the enemy team can play, and you’re playing into all of it, it starts giving you a much better understanding of when to make swaps.
Adam: How did management first approach you about becoming a two-way player, and what were your feelings on the subject?
Elk: Obviously there’s some concerns when it comes to being a two-way player. One of them being, when you’re on such a successful academy roster, it’s almost guaranteed you could start in the Overwatch League.
The advantages of being a two-way player though is that you have a safety net. The worst case scenario for a player is going into the Overwatch League too early, you’re not good enough, which can reasonably happen to people, then you’re stuck not playing for a year. That not only will destroy your confidence, but it destroys your reputation with other teams. So the two-way player thing to me, is that if I perform terribly in Overwatch League, like my first two stages I’m a terrible player and make bad calls, I just go play in Contenders.
Now Fusion is going to choose whatever’s best for them as a team and that’s fine, if they want me to play with the academy roster or the OWL roster that’s not really my decision and I’m not going to be a part it. However, it does mean I’m not going to be sitting on the bench for an entire OWL season and can’t do anything.
If you are underperforming, there’s a place for you to perform better. I don’t necessarily think it’s like that for every player, I don’t think it’s like that for Snillo. Snillo is an amazing player, but his hero pool needed to be expanded this season, and that’s one of the things he can do in Contenders. He might not be the strongest Brig immediately, or the strongest Ashe immediately, or Mei, but he can learn those heroes in a less stressful and more forgiving environment. There’s a lot more wiggle room to make the mistakes and not cost your team a series, then after you learn the heroes, you can hone them in the more high-pressure environment of OWL and continue improving.
When the team approached me though, they basically just said: “being a two-way player is no different from a one-way player if you’re performing well.” If you perform you keep playing, if you don’t, you don’t, that’s just how competitive things work you know? They also told me “if you go two-way you can play with Alarm and help secure the threepeat,” which is POG Champ (laughs).
It was nice being back and forth because I’m still very invested in Alarm, I think he’s one of the best flex Supports I’ve ever played with so I would like to see him join Fusion, but i’m not sure where that will go.
Adam: Since Contenders is still a soft-region locked system, what are your thoughts on the “big fish, small pond” syndrome that can take root in those environments, is that a concern when it comes to developing talent?
Elk: The way I brought it up on my stream, is that Fusion University is not trying to win, the primary goal of the team is to have a group of players who are all ready to step into OWL at all times, and to make sure they can continuously improve. A good example of this was in OWL season 1, OWL teams would ask us to be their warmup. First, because we weren’t in the league, and they aren’t going to play us, so they don’t have to worry about showing strats, but also because we were good enough that we could take maps off London or NYXL and we could actually be a threat to them.
So Fusion Uni is primarily trying to develop talent for OWL, the byproduct of that is we end up winning because we have those OWL level players. Even if we weren’t winning, our players wouldn’t care about what’s next on the schedule, their primary focus is always on improving themselves, not winning next week.
Adam: Do you think it would be beneficial for Contenders to move more toward that talent development mindset versus a competition focused mindset?
Elk: Yeah, probably. I think that’s also going to be the most healthy for the entire competitive scene, because there are definitely some players who got dropped recently, like the XL2 guys, who all could have reasonably been starters or subs in OWL this season. If all the energy had been put on developing those guys into the best players they could be could be by season 2s start, it would have been a huge service to them, and their teams.
Adam: What was the transition like, joining the main roster of Fusion?
Elk: Well, obviously slow. I’m the only new player coming in this season, so the number one thing I want to do is make sure I don’t step on anybody's toes, or overdo what i’m supposed to be doing, and just follow the directions from the coaches and other players. It’s very different from my role on Uni where I’m the leader. As the only one that’s been on Uni for all 3 seasons, I’m the one making the decisions. It’s kind of cool though, being in an environment now where I’m the least knowledgeable person. There’s a lot that more you can learn that way, than when you're the senior player.
There’s also a lot more set structure with the OWL team, for the academy team in season 2 we were just kind of winging it. We were in Philly for 5 of our games, and it was just us, the players. We had no staff with us and it was just us for a summer camp that Fusion was putting on. They paid for our food and everything, but like, I was there ordering Ubers for 6 people, and making sure everyone was fed, and all the logistical stuff like that.
That was a cool experience because it not only put me in a position of responsibility for all my teammates, but we also performed way better in season 2 because of those conditions. We only dropped 4 maps in the entire season, which is crazy compared to the first season where we dropped 14, so that improvement was nice to see.
The transition to OWL has been slow, but I don’t mind that, because my goal isn’t to be number one OWL player in season 2. My goal is to build up myself as a player, and be consistent in the OWL seasons to come.