In esports, a month between competitive matches can seem like an eternity, and that certainly was the case for the Overwatch League. Entering Week 1, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt a tingle of anticipation for all the possibilities the new stage would bring. Maybe your favorite team acquired new players to shore up the roster, or maybe they’ve hinted at switching up their strategies. With only three teams looking like locks for the season playoffs at the midway point, there are a lot of opportunities for new frontrunners to emerge—but not a lot of time left to make a claim, and no room for slumps.
There’s a sense of urgency permeating the air at Blizzard Arena Los Angeles these days, as the heat starts to descend upon us. Welcome back, Overwatch League—you’ve been missed.
1. Whether simply experimenting with roster options or signaling more permanent roster changes, we had an impressive Overwatch League debut class in Week 1, comprising ten players across eight different teams. The Boston Uprising trotted out an entirely new support line on Friday, while the Toronto Defiant—previously a full-Korean roster—ran a new English-speaking tank line. Guangzhou Charge DPS Charlie “Nero” Zwarg was the youngest debutante, having celebrated his 18th birthday (with a cake to the face) during the break; then there were veterans like London support Ji-Hoon “Quatermain” Song and Toronto flex Daniel “Gods” Graeser, who have been competing professionally since 2016.
Amidst all the new faces, we were also treated to the return of some fan favorites, as teams looked to their DPS old guard to help forge new strategies. Lane “Surefour” Roberts from the LA Gladiators and Jiri “Linkzr” Masalin from the Houston Outlaws have seen playing time this season, albeit heavily reduced, but it was NYXL captain Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park’s reappearance that had people shook.
2. Ask anyone about the possibility of Saebyeolbe’s return to New York’s starting lineup in the current meta, and most would point to the team’s record (hardly struggling) as well as their DPS depth chart—and shake their heads sadly. Even Saebyeolbe himself has seemed resigned to it, the few times he’s spoken to media this year. But when he took the stage for the second map of Friday’s match against Houston, he wasn’t replacing another DPS player, but off-tank Tae-Hong “Meko” Kim. And he wasn’t playing Zarya, or Brigitte, or even his signature Tracer—he locked in Sombra on Horizon Lunar Colony, and again on each of the next three maps, as the NYXL fended off the Outlaws in a nervy 3-2 win.
It wasn’t pretty—either the match itself, or Saebyeolbe’s Sombra play in particular—but he admittedly hadn’t spent that much time practicing this new hero. Afterward, he was a bit cagey when I asked him for more specifics regarding the NYXL’s preparation around Sombra 3-3, referring to it as a “team secret,” but he did add, “We were practicing a lot to get ready for Stage 3 and trying every method.”
What compounded the struggle for New York against Houston was that the Outlaws were capable of running a Sombra counter, and they also brought out some troublesome DPS comps. Sunday’s match was a different story altogether: a 4-0 walk in the park over the London Spitfire, who seemed unprepared against Sombra 3-3 and reluctant to make in-game adjustments to counter it.
Saebyeolbe’s Sombra might have been an adventure against Houston, but the old dog got a handle on his new trick after another day of practice. The improvements can be seen in the numbers, thanks to stats producer Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman:
3. After Friday’s match, Saebyeolbe expressed the feeling of being back where he belonged: onstage.
“As a professional player, I feel like I need to play onstage to feel motivated,” he explained to me later. “It was really hard for me because I couldn’t play for a really long time. I thought about quitting at one point, so getting back onstage and playing made those feelings go away.”
Surefour had a similar sentiment after his long-awaited return to the Gladiators roster, telling the audience: “I’ve been playing this game a long time, and all I want to do is play onstage, so of course it feels good.”
For players who are used to being everyday starters, being benched due meta incompatibility must be frustrating, so it was encouraging to see some of them looking reinvigorated in Week 1.
4. No one had more fun than Surefour and the LA Gladiators did on Paris, which they played—and won—in both of their matches.
Yeah, Paris is our map now.— Los Angeles Gladiators (@LAGladiators) June 10, 2019
The San Francisco Shock and Shanghai Dragons might have something like eight of the top 10 attack times on the map, but in Week 1 the Gladiators brought to the table an element of maniacal innovation. Not only did they run Bastion bunker comps on both defense and offense, they also added in some Soldier:76, Roadhog, Mei, and Pharmercy. Oh, and they had two different sets of players manning the Bastion-Orisa combo depending on map situation.
The Dallas Fuel, who lost 4-0 to LA on Friday, tried to counter it with triple-DPS, including a Hanzo. Against the same setup, the Vancouver Titans enlisted Symmetra on Sunday, the only time they deviated from 3-3 in an eventual 3-1 win over the Gladiators.
Nutty. Entertaining. Peak Overwatch.
5. So Vancouver remains undefeated in regular-season play. After taking down the Atlanta Reign 3-1 on Saturday, main tank Sang-Beom “Bumper” Park told the audience, “Us losing creates a great storyline for the Overwatch League.”
He was referring to Vancouver’s Stage 2 Finals loss to the Shock, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a separate competition within the league right now—to see who can be the first team to put a “1” in the Titans’ loss column. In baseball, if a pitcher retires 27 consecutive batters, that’s a perfect game. Vancouver is trying to achieve the Overwatch League equivalent right now, and the other 19 teams are all trying to break up their perfect game.
Well, we’re two down in Stage 3, and on deck are the Hangzhou Spark, Dallas Fuel, Chengdu Hunters (one of two teams to even push Vancouver to a fifth map, back in Stage 1), and LA Valiant, before the Gladiators have another crack at it in Week 4.
6. If you ask Hangzhou support Ho-Jin “IDK” Park, his team will be the one to end Vancouver’s streak. “The question is by what margin,” he told me. IDK just wants the “W,” while Spark head coach Mu-Ho “Mask” Lee has apparently set a 4-0 sweep as a goal.
Even more unexpected than Mask’s goal for the Vancouver match, however, is his goal for the entire stage. “What he wanted was a perfect stage, just like San Francisco Shock in Stage 2,” IDK said, before sighing in playful resignation. “So now my goal has changed to getting a perfect stage.”
As improbable as that might seem to anyone not drinking the pink Kool-Aid, Hangzhou’s confidence is sky-high right now, and it should be—since the start of Stage 2, the team has not lost to a single team outside of the Titans (once) and the Shock (twice). And whatever does happen in Week 2 and beyond, the Spark are unafraid to lean into their newfound confidence.
In the Korean fan community, the sentiment around Hangzhou all season has been that they’re the gatekeepers standing between the really good teams and everyone else; now, IDK says, they’re ready to take their place in that upper echelon: “Stage 2, we thought we were competitive with everyone except Shock and Vancouver, but this stage, we feel like we can beat everyone.”
7.One of Hangzhou’s most impressive victories thus far came at the expense of the Seoul Dynasty in Week 5, a result that propelled them to the stage playoffs while kicking the Dynasty out of contention. It was a small step back for a team that’s made plenty of strides forward this year, but to Seoul’s credit, they’ve hit the ground running in Stage 3, quietly rebuilding their roster into something flexible that can handle multiple playstyles.
In their two Week 1 matches—4-0 wins over the Florida Mayhem and Guangzhou Charge—the Dynasty utilized all 12 of their roster players, with very little overlap. DPS Sang-Beom “Munchkin” Byun, who played the entire match against Guangzhou on Zarya after spending all of Stage 2 on Brigitte duty, described the current team atmosphere as a “positive internal competition.”
“It’s not like the coaching staff decided on two teams based on different characteristics,” he told me. “Our two teams practiced so hard, and the day before each match, the coaches decided which one was going to start.”
The 12-man roster has been done before, with teams chasing the lure of internal scrims and keeping a tight lid on strategies. While player dissatisfaction can certainly emerge in a highly competitive environment, the Dynasty have so far managed to give everyone playing time That includes the two new additions, support Sung-Hyuk “Highly” Lee and DPS Je-Min “Illicit” Park, both of whom had impressive Week 1 debuts.
The presence of new talent has motivated the veteran players, Munchkin said, by pushing everyone to improve. But they’ve also helped in another way: “Before, with the other 10 players, we had a rather serious atmosphere at times, but because the new kids are cute, we like to tease them and they help relax the atmosphere a lot.”
8. Seoul’s 2-0 start has them in the company of Vancouver, New York, and a Paris Eternal team that looks reinvigorated after the long break. Hangzhou and Shanghai both won their lone match of the week in strong fashion, and San Francisco fought off a feisty challenge from the Reign as well.
Atlanta has to feel super unlucky, running up against both of the previous stage champions to open their campaign, but they did not get shut out by either team, coming away with three map wins and results they can grow from. It gets easier, but not by much—they have Shanghai and Seoul next.
A couple more things to keep track of as Stage 3 continues: how does the arrival—finally—of main tank Yansong “Jiqiren” Wei change Chengdu’s team color? Already we’ve seen the Hunters try on a more traditional style of 3-3, but will it remove the Hunters’ weaponized unconventionality, or will head coach Xingrui “Rui” Wang manage to find a balance?
Finally, Dallas, London, and Guangzhou swung wildly between success and failure in Week 1. The Charge have understandable growing pains with Nero now eligible, but it feels like Dallas and London have been flirting (quite badly) with consistency all season long. With teams like Hangzhou, Seoul, and Shanghai nipping on their heels in the standings, this is the time for anyone with title aspirations to start stringing together some victories and gaining some separation from the rest of the pack.
Stage 3 continues on Thursday, June 13, at 4 p.m. PDT, when the Outlaws (3-12) take on the Shock (12-3). Watch all 2019 season matches live and on demand on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, our Twitch channel, MLG.com, and the MLG app.