A new season of Contenders North America kicked off at the beginning of the month. Among the teams competing in the newly formed North America East division, Uprising Academy started strong, pulling off a 4-0 victory over Montreal Rebellion on March 4.
As one of Uprising Academy’s support players, Gabriel “Swimmer” Levy appeared in good spirits when he sat down for an interview the next day. “It was really meaningful, I think,” Swimmer said. “To start that strong, especially against arguably one of the strongest teams on our side of the bracket.” The win marks the team’s first 4-0 victory under the Uprising Academy name. For Swimmer, it’s a sign that he’s on the right track.
Out of the Water
Swimmer’s recent successes make up the latest chapter in a fairly new Overwatch journey. “As my name suggests, I was a highly competitive swimmer,” he explained. “I was a distance swimmer, which is like the group that you don’t want to be in as a swimmer. It’s the group who wakes up at 5:00 A.M. and goes and swims four hundred laps for fun. That’s literally something we did.” He first adopted the Swimmer moniker at the age of eleven, when he needed a username for Apple’s Game Center. He struggled with what to choose until his grandmother urged him to think about his future goals. “Being a young kid and a swimmer, I really wanted to make it to the Olympics,” Swimmer said. “So I named myself Swimmer2020, which signified for me that by the year 2020, I’d be an Olympic swimmer. That was my goal.”
Until 2017, he kept pushing towards that goal. Swimming every day – twice a day, most days – he found himself quickly improving. In late 2017, however, a water polo injury hindered his progress. “I found out I had a knee injury that basically made it so that my knee is in two pieces,” Swimmer recounted. “There’s a piece of, like, fifteen percent and then eighty-five percent bone in my left knee, meaning I couldn’t do water polo, and because of that I couldn’t do a lot of swimming, either.” Out of the water and looking for something to do, Swimmer turned his attention to a game he had recently picked up: Overwatch.
“It was the first real video game that I’d ever really played,” Swimmer said. “I was really enjoying it. So I started scrimming with my first team, Relapse: Spirit.” Enjoying both the game and time with his team, he felt the potential to turn it into something bigger. “The more and more I played Overwatch when I was out of the water, the more fun I had,” he recalled. “The more enjoyment I got out of Overwatch. And I started to realize, ‘hey, I could actually do something with this.’”
At the Crossroads
In February of 2018, he found his first opportunity forward. The Philadelphia Fusion hosted their Hometown Heroes event, a round robin tournament with the winner receiving a contract offer from Fusion University. “I thought that was the coolest chance ever,” Swimmer said. “But it was the same weekend as my swim team state championships. So it was quite literally a crossroads. And I didn’t know what to do.” It took weeks for him to make the decision – as much as he loved swimming, his knee injury made it harder and harder. He was still a fresh face in the Overwatch scene, considering he had joined Relapse: Spirit when they only had three games left in their first Open Division, but he had already come to love the game as well. Standing at this fork in the road, Swimmer finally made a choice that would define his path forward.
“I decided to go to one day of the swim meet, and then leave the swim meet early to go to the LAN event,” he said. “I went to the LAN, and I made it to the top 12, which is really big for me because it was my first ever real competitive scene event.” Confident in his potential, he kept working.
Dogmen and Skyfoxes
As season 3 of Open Division 2018 drew near, Swimmer prepared to continue on with his team, which had rebranded from Relapse: Spirit to Kyaaa Esports. Just weeks before the season began, however, the team abruptly disbanded. “It was the first time I was ever really teamless,” Swimmer recalled. “I was panicking.” Undeterred, Swimmer signed up for tryouts with Boston’s academy team (then called Toronto Esports), NRG Esports, and The Dogmen. “I made it onto The Dogmen – Beagle, originally,” he explained. “And I thought to myself, ‘you know what? That’s awesome. I made it onto a team. But I can do better.’” He approached Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman, asking for the chance to challenge up onto the A team, The Dogmen – Akita. Dogman gave him the opportunity. Swimmer succeeded.
He remembers his time with The Dogmen – Akita fondly. “We finished second in the regular season,” he said. “We didn’t make it to Contenders Trials in playoffs, which was unfortunate. But it was a really, really good experience for me.” By the end of the Open Division season, Swimmer found himself still moving forward in his other tryouts. He made it “decently far” into the NRG tryouts and “extremely far” into Boston’s before another opportunity knocked.
“One of the Skyfoxes coaches had been coaching Dogmen – Akita during its Open season, took notice of me as a player, and asked if I wanted to try out for Skyfoxes,” Swimmer recalled. “Having no team, wanting to make it to Contenders, I took the opportunity. I tried out for Skyfoxes, and I made it. I was originally going to be a core member.” Originally, he would have joined a roster with Jeromy “Moopey” Lensky, Mike “Midnight” Ryan, Gyeong-ho “Luna” Jang, Gun-ho “claris” Lee, and Rene “k1ng” Rangel.
The Uprising Begins
Boston, however, had other plans. “Three days after I had joined Skyfoxes, about a week and a half outside of the first game of Contenders Trials, I got a message saying I was accepted onto Uprising Academy, and I could start playing for them,” Swimmer said. “That changed everything. [In two and half months,] I had gone from being absolutely teamless in Open Division without any chance, or any team, or any connections, to being on an academy team. That was just insane for me.”
As one of the newer players on the roster, Swimmer couldn’t help but feel a little lost. His work ethic powered on, though, and he joined Toronto Esports in their victory at the fifth BEAT Invitational tournament. When the team rebranded as Uprising Academy for Contenders Season 3, he didn’t miss a beat. “I think I’m doing a lot better than I was in Open Division, just a few months ago…which is kind of insane to think about,” Swimmer remarked. “Last September, I was still in Open Division.”
The Season Ahead
“I think last night was really memorable,” Swimmer said, looking back at the previous night’s sweep against the Montreal Rebellion. “Going from last season, never getting a 4-0, to this season, where our first game is a 4-0 against probably one of the strongest teams? It’s insane.” Last season, Uprising Academy finished the regular season with a 2-3 record, a fact that Swimmer doesn’t dwell on. “There’s no excuses for last season,” he insisted. “We didn’t do well. It happens. We just have to do better.”
He’s optimistic that the team will, indeed, do better this time around. “I think the teams that are going to beat FUNI this year are going to be either Mayhem Academy, Uprising Academy, or Montreal Rebellion,” he predicted. In three seasons of Contenders, Fusion University have yet to lose a game, planting a major target on their back for the season ahead. “I think all three of those teams have the potential to do it,” Swimmer added. “But we’re gonna be the first. It’s gonna be Uprising Academy.” Uprising Academy has the chance to pull it off fairly soon – they face Fusion University on March 18.
Beating Fusion University carries some extra significance for Uprising Academy. “We have one of their former players – or we had one of their former players, rather,” Swimmer said. He references Hasan “crakinlakin” Alfardi, who played with Uprising Academy until the end of February. Swimmer’s team has also pushed Fusion University to a fifth map nearly every time they’ve squared off, falling just short each time. This season, he believes things will be different. “I think it would be such a comeback story to be able to 4-0 them this season,” he remarked. “I think we can do it. I think this is the season to do it.”
Keeping an Eye Out
As a general rule, he notes that NA Contenders seems far less one-sided than it has in previous seasons. “I think every team this year, except for maybe one or two – that I’m not going to name – are extremely close in skill,” he said. In his eyes, the chances of Fusion University finally losing a game have less to do with their skill and more to do with everyone else’s improvement. “I don’t think any of their players are worse than they were last season, and I think CarCar is a really good player as well. I don’t think he’s a downgrade from Elk,” Swimmer explained. “But I think a lot of players and a lot of teams have improved. I think they’re at the level Fusion University’s at, and I don’t think Fusion University’s untouchable.”
When asked which North American teams to keep an eye on this season, Swimmer reiterated his faith in Mayhem Academy and Montreal Rebellion, before elaborating on a few more teams. “I haven’t really seen XL2 at all,” he mused. “I’ve heard various things. I hope they do well. I want to see what’s going to happen with them, because we all know what happened before.” XL2 Academy made waves in the off-season by releasing most of their roster, citing a desire to bring in New York local talent. Playing in the North America West division, they started off strong, taking a 3-1 victory over Phase 2.
Swimmer appears equally curious about Team Envy. “XL2 and Envy are kind of mystery teams to me,” he remarked. “I haven’t heard a lot with Envy yet, I just know Trill is in Australia right now.” Envy also started their season with a bang, claiming a 4-0 victory over Square One. Rounding out North America West, Swimmer believes Skyfoxes will have a much better season – after beating ATL Academy 3-1, they’re on the right track.
As for teams he’s looking forward to facing off against? Swimmer enjoys opportunities to square off against his friends. “The other team I’m looking forward to, besides Fusion University, is Mayhem Academy. Just because I’m friends with Wub, I’m friends with Mangachu. We have some scrim history – if they’re reading this, they’ll know what it is,” he adds with a laugh.
His friendships with Nikolai “Naga” Dereli, Shayne “Chayne” La Rocque, and Brian “Blizzard” Childers also motivated him in the match against Montreal. “I actually got a message from Blizzard before the match saying ‘hey, good luck tonight.’ I messaged him ‘good luck’ as well,” Swimmer recounted. “He was like, ‘you know, we haven’t lost to you yet. Don’t plan on it tonight.’ I said, ‘there’s a first for everything, just don’t get too comfortable.’ And, well…we saw.”
Eyes on the Prize
Looking beyond the season ahead, Swimmer has his eyes on the same goal as many of his peers – a spot in the Overwatch League. “I’m gonna keep working until I get tryouts, until I get offers. That’s the goal,” he said. “I just…I want to make it. If not mid-season, then next season.” He recalls watching and admiring the Houston Outlaws and Los Angeles Valiant during his Open Division days. A Philadelphia native, he also cites the Fusion as a team he could see himself on, as well as the Boston Uprising. “At this point, I don’t think it’s like, ‘oh I want to join this team,’” he added. “It’s that I want to make it to the league. Then I can figure out all the ins and outs of what teams I actually want to join.”
Swimmer’s ambitions move beyond the league itself, however. Echoing the sentiments of many Overwatch League veterans, he plans to keep working until people count him among the best in the business. “I will not stop until I’m in the Overwatch League, and I will not stop after that. I want to be the best player,” he said confidently. “I want it so that when people think of Lúcio or Mercy, they think of me. They think of Swimmer. That’s my goal.”
The drive to keep improving has been at the heart of Swimmer’s journey even before Overwatch. “I’ve always had this feeling and this mindset that I want to be the absolute best I can be,” he remarked. “It was in swimming, it was in water polo, and [now] it’s in Overwatch. I want to be the best I can be and show others that I’m the best I can be.” He cites his mother and grandmother as his biggest influences in developing that mindset. Throughout his swimming career, they urged him to try again when things got difficult. “If you stop to dwell on the negatives, or you don’t focus on what the end goal is…if you get pushed away from the idea that ‘I’m gonna make it,’ then you’re not gonna make it,” he said. “And if you can’t make it one way, find the next possible you can.”
That same determination helped define Swimmer’s perspective of the scene. He recalls trying out for Contenders with players like crakinlakin and Zachary “ZachaREEE” Lombardo – players he used to watch during his Open Division days. “I was so afraid of upsetting one of them, or doing something wrong and messing up,” he recalled. “But I realized – hey, they’re here for the same reason I am. They’re trying out.”
Aware that everybody was putting in the work and chasing similar goals, Swimmer grew more comfortable pursuing his spot in Contenders. Preferring to let the results of his hard work speak for themselves, he avoids trash talk. “I’m never gonna be the one to go out and attack someone or be like, ‘hey, I’m better than you.’ I’ll just let my play speak for me,” he explained. “Whatever happens, I’m gonna do my best. That’s all I can ask for.”
Everyone’s Biggest Fan
Beyond his work ethic, Swimmer has developed a reputation for his positivity. He frequently takes to Twitter with a friendly message in the morning, and just as frequently signs off with the words ‘big fan,’ which have since become a catchphrase of his. When asked, he cited a former teammate, Lyar, as the source of the phrase, before explaining the moment he decided to claim it – a Quick Play game where a player recognized him.
“I think they were in silver or gold, and they thought it was the coolest thing to be playing with a Top 500 player,” Swimmer recalled. “They were like, ‘dude, that’s so cool. I wanna make it one day, but I don’t think I’ll ever make it. I think I’m just stuck.’ He said, ‘I think I’m just stuck,’ and it hit me.” Having climbed to Top 500 after placing 1500 his first season, and after being told again and again that he wouldn’t succeed, Swimmer decided that he could break that cycle. “I told him, ‘hey, look, I’m a big fan of you, dude. You can make it. I’m gonna cheer you on the entire way.’ And I added him, and I played with him. And he kept going. I think that moment kind of solidified ‘big fan.’”
The notion of using his success to inspire others appeared several times throughout the conversation. “I want to show others that no matter what happens, you can do it, and you can make it, right? I had never played a video game before this,” he pointed out. As a swimmer, he saw that he only improved quickly once he committed the effort, and he carried that mentality with him into esports. Looking back on the Quick Play game that established ‘big fan’ for him, he hopes that he can keep helping people realize that somebody is cheering for them. “That’s my big mindset – no matter what you’re doing, someone out there cares that you’re doing it,” he said. “So, keep going! Keep moving forward.”
Follow Darby on Twitter @soundchecck! She is happy to talk about anything she’s written! You can also get in touch with her on Discord (soundchecck#7242).
Featured image courtesy of Uprising Academy.
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