“I’ve got Graviton,” mentions Eli “Elkiea” Gallagher over his headset. He and his teammates, the McRightclicks, are scrimming with another professional Overwatch team, Elevate. Gallagher, playing as the Russian strongwoman Zarya, has been bombing Elevate with lobbed explosives from his particle cannon all game, and now he’s done enough damage to fully charge his ultimate. Graviton Surge is a superdense projectile that pulls everyone nearby into its orbit. Traditionally, it’s used to pull off spectacular combos, like bunching everyone together as fodder for a rain of rockets from the sky.
This match, Gallagher uses it differently.
Most of the enemy team is halfway across a bridge, carefully advancing from behind the cover of their tank’s shield, when he fires his ultimate—not into the center of their team, but onto the wall to the right of the bridge. The team, as a whole, are ripped off the bridge and stuck to the wall. For about three seconds, they helplessly hang there in space before the surge wears off, and one of the best Overwatch teams in North America is dropped unceremoniously into the void.
It’s a long way down.
When a group of nobodies dunk on a professional team, there are consequences.
This was a private match, organized between team managers, but the stakes were deceptively high. At the time, the McRightclicks had never even appeared in a tournament. When a group of nobodies dunk so incredibly hard on a professional team, even in a scrim, there are consequences. In this case, Elevate, who had already been in shaky form, were officially dropped by their sponsors. Not long after, the same sponsor made the McRightclicks an offer. They turned it down.
At the time, of course, Gallagher had no idea what kinds of consequences that ultimate would have. He just knew it would win them the match. “Was that the best Zarya ultimate you’ve ever seen, or was it?” he says, jubilant over the comms. At this point, he was still trying out for the team. “That was really the match where they went, okay, we want you as our off tank,” Gallagher tells me later. He’s sixteen, and this is his first step into the world of professional gaming.
Gallagher had a sense that he was an above average player, but it wasn’t until he looked himself up on Master Overwatch, a site that tracks player statistics, that his suspicions were confirmed. “I noticed I was the third best Genji in the world in score per minute, the seventh best Tracer, and in the top one hundred for most other things. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be playing Overwatch significantly more than I currently was, and at a higher level.”
If there’s a common thread that joins together esports players across their games of choice, it might be that none of them grew up dreaming that they’d do this for a living one day. Kids don’t yet see the faces of Faker or f0rest on cereal boxes or sneaker advertisements. Typically, pro players develop out of a deep passion for the game—Marcus “Dyrus” Hill, retired top-laner for TSM, has described staying awake for three days straight when he began playing League of Legends, and that was before he was playing for money.
Gallagher, though, seems to be a new model of esports prodigy. His affinity for Overwatch is new, but he’s always loved competitive games. “My first videogame was DOOM. I was three years old,” he says. “I’ve been in the top 1%, or top thousand, for League of Legends, Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Modern Warfare 3 and now Overwatch. [Competitive gaming] has always been one of my favorite things to do. My dream is to play Overwatch competitively, Counter-Strike competitively—some esport competitively.” While plenty of esports players hop between similar games—professional fighting games players, for example, tend to be comfortable in a variety of different titles—it’s rarer to find players who bounce between such a variety of competitive games. Imagine if Serena Williams, in her spare time, also played in the WNBA. Gallagher doesn’t seem to care very much about what he plays, as long as he’s winning.
Gallagher doesn’t seem to care very much about what he plays.
And win he has. “My team has yet to lose a scrim, and we’ve been playing against very good teams.” says Gallagher about his time with the team so far. They appeared in their first tournament only last weekend, at the COW (Competitive Overwatch) League Open. It was a minor tournament, with a meager prize pool; the McRightclicks were looking to test the waters. It turned into a steamrolling. Throughout the entire tournament, they lost exactly one round, even with one of their players using his phone as a Wifi Hotspot to connect.
Throughout the COW Open, Gallagher played with the same cunning and unorthodox thinking that condemned Elevate to the pit not long ago. He’d turn up on walkways, high above where off-tanks normally roam, to bombard the enemy team from their flank. In one memorable play he leapt on top of a building into the middle of six enemy players. Even the shoutcasters seemed confused by his positioning, until he used his ultimate to knock the enemy out of their fortifications and down into a hail of gunfire from his teammates.
The McRightclick’s success was the result of both talent and a lot of hard work. Monday through Friday, the team scrims from 4:00pm to 2:00am. Sundays, they play in the weekly Gosu tournament, and Saturdays are their day off. On top of this, Gallagher holds a much more common position among people his age: he’s a cashier at a local grocery store, a summer job. “This past week, I’ve been working eighteen hour days. That’s been a little stressful,” he says.
When he talks about salary, it makes me glad the other members of his team are older, with more experience in the realm of professional gaming. They recently turned down a contract offering each of them a monthly salary, which, to a sixteen year old, still sounds like an impossibly awesome way to make money. In scrims and tournaments, Gallagher plays on his father’s work computer, the only machine in his house that can keep up with his reflexes. His parents only learned about his team when he showed them the McRightclick’s jerseys.
But even in the domain of teenagers, Gallagher’s competitive side has always dominated his personality. “He’s the type of person that likes to be constantly stimulated. Eli will go from game to game to game. When he’s out, he’ll play that game Clash Royale, which he’s also in the top percentage of. Wherever he goes, he seeks out competitive engagement.” says Chester Elliott, a teacher at his school. Elliott recalled going to an education conference with Gallagher once. “He looked at the list of places to go, and the first thing he did was point to a panel and go, ‘I want to argue with these people!’ He’s always looking for competition.”
If all this makes Gallagher sound like an unpleasant, combative person, my experience with him couldn’t be farther than that. In conversation he’s polite, attentive and kind. He’s eager to explain current trends in the meta, but never in a didactic or condescending manner. If anything, he has a bit of a penchant for boasting, but if I were in the top one percent of anything on earth—sandwich-making, basket-weaving, paintball—I’d probably mention it as often as possible.
While Gallagher is hopeful about his future in Overwatch, he’s trying to stay pragmatic. “If we start falling behind and not doing so great, it’s not something where I’m going to say, this is what needs to happen, we’re going to continue doing this. I’m willing, but I’m also willing to back out.”
“I want to see how far we can go.”
Caution is probably the right approach in a game as young as Overwatch. As the competitive scene grows in size, the young talent will grow ever more talented. While the current meta has shifted on an almost weekly basis, that may slow down in the future as players improve and techniques refine. And this is all assuming the game continues to grow at all.
Even with his realistic answers, though, it’s hard for Gallagher to disguise his excitement. At this point in our interview, it’s less than two hours until the McRightclicks enter the COW Open, the tournament that will establish them as a team to watch. “I want to see how far we can go,” he tells me.
The answer, that night, is all the way to the top.