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The cyborg ninja character Genji from Overwatch hits back against a massive, super-powered fist attacking him from the sky Illustration: Isip Xin for Polygon

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Overwatch 2 coach says gameplay isn’t the key — it’s ‘how you are as a person’

To understand Overwatch, you must first understand yourself

Spilo, a sturdy dude with wild hair and a hoodie, looks gently concerned as he speaks via webcam. “You’re being gatekept from the things you really enjoy because of your fear of letting yourself or letting other people down, and that is honestly probably quite disappointing considering that’s really truly where you’d find the most enjoyment but you can’t get there.” He’s streaming live on Twitch, looking at an Overwatch 2 match via a Discord call with a high-ranked Winston player who has struggled with playing ranked mode. It may sound like therapy, but it is a part of Spilo’s Overwatch coaching process.

At 28 years old, Jacob “Spilo” Clifton has made a career of teaching, well before Overwatch ever entered the picture. He taught gymnastics in high school, became a head instructor at an all-ages MMA school, and has even tutored advanced mathematics. It should be no surprise that his career with Overwatch took him all the way to Overwatch League, and he’s now a sought-after expert to evaluate players at all levels.

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Spilo’s life and career with the game have given him a specific perspective on improvement. Like many who were drawn to Overwatch, Spilo had little first-person shooter experience; he spent his time doing extensive world PVP in Lord of the Rings Online, as “the world’s best Warg.” After being pressured to try the popular Blizzard game in 2017 by his brother-in-law, Spilo immediately got hooked. The game felt both fast-paced and tactically dense; in an interview with Polygon, he described how it felt like Overwatch offered the “perfect combination” of those elements while still not requiring proficiency at first-person shooter mechanics.

Spilo’s journey into competitive Overwatch started small. “I was, you know, the typical Bronze player,” he said. “I actually had a lot of competitive anxiety. I didn’t like playing ranked. I just liked playing Quick Play.” Spilo’s own journey of learning to get better at Overwatch, combined with his love of teaching, first led him back to making YouTube videos, similar to when he’d post montages from his Lord of the Rings Online days. While initially he made more light-hearted content, his videos still focused on what had helped him improve as he climbed in competitive ranks.

Creating Overwatch content on YouTube is an “oversaturated market,” as Spilo put it to Polygon; he decided to start coaching instead, as well as start a community to share knowledge. What happened next was the “evolution” of his growing love for the game. “Basically, over time, as I got better at coaching, as I got better at the game, I started doing more and more of the coaching sessions, and I ended up doing all of them [for my community]. That’s essentially where the transition started,” he explained. At that time, he told himself: “I like doing this, maybe I’d be like an educational streamer. Maybe this is something I could do long-term. I’d started to watch [season 1 of] Overwatch League, so at the same time, maybe I could do that at some point.”

The London Spitfire Overwatch League team celebrates onstage after winning the Overwatch League Grand Finals at the Barclays Center on July 28, 2018 in New York City Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment

Spilo did eventually build a Twitch following, as well as work as a professional coach in both Overwatch Contenders as well as Overwatch League. He credits his “ability to communicate” as what carried him through learning how to coach at that level. According to Spilo, some of the “most rewarding times as a team coach” came from working with shy players over a few months and seeing their personal development. He recounted an experience coaching an Overwatch League player who had then circled back to him in the postseason. The player told Spilo that he had a lot to think about and that he wouldn’t have been able to finish the season without Spilo’s help and his support, and that it really changed him as a person. “That made my week,” said Spilo. “That was just everything to me, knowing that – you feel like you have a permanent impact, you know?”

On top of esports demanding long hours and location changes, Spilo’s interest in having a personal impact on players led him away from formal esports coaching and back to streaming and engaging one-on-one with players seeking feedback. “Sometimes I just wanted to talk with people,” he said. “You know, sometimes the best parts of my coaching are when I just get to have frank and honest, relaxed conversations, or when I feel like I have a significant impact on somebody personally, or even just the stupid stuff when I’m chatting with folks in Twitch chat about patch notes.”

Overwatch, and now Overwatch 2, can be a deceptive game; while it’s visually cartoony, there’s a tactical complexity underneath the surface that makes it feel closer to chess than Call of Duty. And yet that complexity can be easy to overlook or misunderstand, as the game offers little insight into its mechanics. For many people, getting “good” at Overwatch 2 may sound like an unnecessary time sink that reduces the game’s fun factor. But for others, getting “good” is the main draw – even though it’s made more difficult by the game’s stressful competitive environment and its often-toxic community.

Spilo is well aware of the toxicity that can arise in competitive gaming spaces, especially male-dominated ones. “It’s like the toxic masculinity where it’s – if you’re not a winner, you’re a failure,” he explained. “So then you’re either doing one of two things: you’re winning at all costs, which becomes toxic in and of itself, or you’re being disingenuous and pretending that everything that you do is winning, when there’s just nothing wrong with losing sometimes.”

Back in 2019, Overwatch launched a robust “replay” feature that gave players the ability to watch an updated list of their 10 previously played matches, as well as share them with others via a unique code. A staple of coaching in competitive gaming is the “VOD review,” where post-match footage is critiqued for areas of improvement. Spilo told Polygon that the replay feature made VOD reviewing easier, by being able to see what everyone was doing in a game. “But I think [a positive of the replay feature] that was underrated, is the ability to go [to a player], ‘Hey, do you know what’s happening behind you?’” Spilo described how he can show someone a play in motion, from a bird’s eye view. “All of a sudden, everything opens up and it clicks. And they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know.’ It just gives the opportunity to like, zoom out […] it just gives context, better context.”

Spilo does these VOD reviews as a service now, and he conducts a handful of them live on his Twitch stream. In order to get a coaching session, a prospective client fills out a long questionnaire that Spilo uses to get an idea about a person’s goals and lifestyle, which then they talk about, often for a significant chunk of the session. Much like the anxious Winston player from the beginning of this story, many people open up when Spilo talks to them. Despite his prolific experience with teaching and coaching, he still sounds surprised by this. “Most of the time, people are really frankly honest with me. I don’t know if it’s just because the people that end up getting the coaching sessions are more comfortable with that. That’s something I always definitely try and pursue, is that level of blunt honesty.”

Spilo encourages a level of emotional vulnerability that might feel unusual for a critique if it weren’t also driven by care; his manner feels less like someone picking apart a Diamond-ranked Overwatch match and more like that of a keen diagnostician, probing under the surface for more serious underlying issues as indicated by the presenting symptoms. He has a deep understanding of the game’s tactical mechanics, but moreover, he just wants to help people with what is holding them back from success.

D.Va looks focused as she clutches the control stick inside her mech in Overwatch Image: Blizzard Entertainment

“There’s like three levels, I guess, of things that we’re attacking. One is the gameplay. That’s the least important. The second is how you approach the game: your training, your mindset, your mental [attitude], your training habits, things like that. Those are much more impactful, much more important. The third one, which is the most important, is just how you are as a person. I think that one’s a lot harder to dig out.” He continues: “ But it’s something like, can we make you more patient? Can we change how you view improving? Can we change how you view confidence?”

For Spilo, being able to bring out the best in someone, whether they are a shy Contenders player, or a Mercy main who just wants to get out of Bronze rank, is what sets him apart from people who just know how to get better at the game.

“I try to do whatever I can in that one-hour call, try to bring whatever value I can to developing players,” Spilo said. “Because some players are great, and they’re well-developed, and they just need a couple tips and how to position. Some players have a lot of issues with who they are as human beings, right? And they need help with that, too. I guess that my job in that short hour is […] to try and find out what’s going to have the most impact on them. Because like I said, even if they walk away from the session, and they don’t rank up at all, but I’ve made them think about who they are as a person, I just find that so much more satisfying than anything else, to be honest with you.”

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