It feels like we’ve been navigating shifting sands for the last three weeks, doesn’t it? But every stage has to come to an end, and we’re nearing that point, with six of eight stage playoff spots locked up, and two of twelve season playoff spots already spoken for. Within the larger picture, though, nothing seems particularly settled. What we know: the meta has changed, is changing, and will change. What we don’t know: how teams will change along with it.
The biggest story entering Week 4 was the rise of Sombra-Ana, the weapon wielded by the Houston Outlaws and Los Angeles Valiant in the revolution against the triple-tank, triple-support hegemony. The two previous stage champions—first San Francisco, then Vancouver—had been humbled by it. Both teams also had an immediate opportunity to respond to the challenge—and from them, we got two very different answers.
1. For the Titans, who had six days to prepare for their lone match of the week, the answer was to simply follow the trend. In came Chung-Hee “Stitch” Lee on Sombra, after spending the majority of the season on the bench, to help the Titans rebound in a big way with a 4-0 win over the LA Gladiators.
Stitch’s hero pool didn’t have a place in the 3-3 meta, but he also told me he had been nursing a bad wrist injury, so he was actually glad to have a chance to recuperate. As a result, he said, returning to the stage on Sunday didn’t feel too different: “I was actually just excited to play.”
The next obvious question was—how much, exactly, did he have to cram for this Sombra test?
“Honestly, I only practiced Sombra for three days,” Stitch admitted, letting out a self-deprecating laugh. Nevertheless, he gave himself a passing grade on Sombra. “Other than getting slept [by Ana] a lot, I’m pretty confident now,” he added.
Vancouver’s quick remodeling job didn’t stop at Sombra. On Horizon Lunar Colony, upon seeing the Gladiators’ defensive bunker setup, they immediately swapped over to a quad-DPS, zero-tank comp that quickly broke through. This, too, was a deliberate adjustment made by the coaching staff, rather than an on-the-spot bit of chicanery.
“If you have four DPS heroes, it’s really easy to break the shield instantly, so the plan was to do that and push them back,” Stitch explained. After all, paper might beat rock, but if you have enough rocks, the paper will crumble.
2. The Shock had a much different answer to the problem of Sombra-Ana, but it wasn’t a direct response so much as it was calling their opponents’ bluff. Their solution? More Baptiste. Where the rest of the league has adopted the newest support hero mostly in bunker comps—the LA Gladiators do it very well on maps like Paris—the Shock have simply incorporated Baptiste into their world-class 3-3 strategy.
On paper, it makes sense: swapping Brigitte out for Baptiste gives a 3-3 comp more long-range damage and healing, and Immortality Field is a strong lifesaving ability that can prevent crucial picks from going the opponent’s way. In execution, it’s a bit more tricky than traditional 3-3, but San Francisco have been innovators of this particular strategy thanks to Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim’s proficiency on the hero.
Against Chengdu on Thursday, this strategy had its successful moments but was far from perfect—the Hunters’ use of Pharah proved difficult for the Shock to handle, and they ended up losing 2-3, upset by a team running Sombra-Ana for the second time this stage. On Sunday against the London Spitfire, however, we saw a much more coordinated version of Baptiste 3-3, with much different results.
Shock are playing Baptiste in a crazy cool way...if you know your opponent has no https://t.co/1ITqUgA9vu, a Graviton ensures they can't find cover from all the amped-up damage coming through the "window of pain" (nice name hex). Rein Shield goes *poof*— Ben Trautman (@CaptainPlanetOW) June 30, 2019
Breaking this down further: San Francisco was more than happy to take extended skirmishes, allowing Rascal to quickly charge his ultimate, Amplification Matrix, which enhances both damage and healing. This gave the Shock their window of opportunity to roll over the Spitfire time and time again. Watch their Numbani defense for a textbook demonstration of this maneuver.
My hunch says San Francisco is likely the only team that can run this comp, due to their strong 3-3 backbone and Rascal’s unique affinity for Baptiste. Certainly no other team has even really tried: the Shock entered Sunday’s match with a 22.6% Baptiste usage rate, which was not only double that of the next team down (the Gladiators, primarily in bunker comps), but also dwarfed the league average of 3.4%. The gap likely increased after their win over London.
3. It’ll be interesting to see if the Shock stick with Baptiste 3-3 in the stage playoffs or if they use their off week to prepare some Sombra strats (just in case), because we’re likely going to see an incredibly diverse range of team comps in play.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume our current top eight remain there; New York has to win one of their two matches in Atlanta next week, while Shanghai has slightly more complicated math, but are favored in their matchups. There are strong 3-3 teams—San Francisco, Hangzhou, Vancouver—and strong Sombra-Ana teams like the NYXL and LA Valiant (Vancouver will likely get there once Stitch gets in more practice time). Shanghai has a ton of flexibility around DPS comps, while Seoul has the roster numbers to create any number of map-specific strategies.
We’re still two weeks out, but this is already the most exciting field we’ve ever seen in a stage playoffs.
4. The race to master Sombra-Ana has been most concentrated at the top of the standings, as teams start to optimize their game plans for the stage playoffs. The Toronto Defiant had a slightly more modest concern going into Week 4—getting back on track. While they still finished 0-2, the arrival of two new DPS players gave fans cause for hope, not least because of who they are: longtime Contenders stalwart and jack-of-all-trades Liam “Mangachu” Campbell and former Mayhem star Andreas “Logix” Berghmans.
The latter was reintroduced to fans for the first time in 2019 on Sunday, helping Toronto take a map off Houston in an eventual 1-3 loss with some highlight-reel plays on his signature Widowmaker.
Naturally, he played some Sombra too. And like Stitch, Logix hasn’t had a whole lot of time to shore up his hack game. “Two, three days—not that much,” he told me. “I mean, I think it showed. Obviously, we’re a brand new team—I just [got] to LA today, so there’s a lot of time to work on it.”
With Logix and other English-speaking players now being integrated into the Defiant roster, the biggest challenge is to build team chemistry on the fly, both in-game and out.
“I wouldn’t say there are necessarily groups, but there are definitely moments where there’s a lot of Korean being said or a lot of English being said,” Logix told me. “It’s about trying to get them to merge, take some team activities together, getting to know each other better. We’re kind of getting brute-forced into a team, so that’s a little less natural than how some teams get built, but that’s something you can work on.”
5. One big side effect of the Stage 3 meta has been seeing DPS players return from the quarantine, one by one. Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park. Lane “Surefour” Roberts. Stitch, just this week. One who made a near-seismic impact was Dallas Fuel DPS Timo “Taimou” Kettunen—who hadn’t played a single minute in the 2019 season until taking the stage against the NYXL on Saturday.
For two maps, it was a glorious return to form. Taimou dazzled on Widowmaker and Roadhog, but he also provided strong Sombra play and the kind of in-game leadership that the team had been missing all stage. The Fuel took Oasis, then Paris; New York looked shell-shocked.
But this is the NYXL we’re talking about—they’ve basically mastered the fine art of bending but not breaking. The team had withstood London’s furious challenge in Week 3 in one of the finest displays of in-game adaptation we’ve seen all year, so they weren’t surprised, exactly.
“Our starting lineup doesn’t have a D.Va player, so we kind of expect our opponents to take advantage of that fact,” Yeon-Gwan “Nenne” Jeong explained to me after the NYXL recovered to win 3-2. “We guessed that they might do that and prepared a strategy to counter them. It didn’t go too well [in the first half], so we just have to keep working on it.”
Whatever the first-half strategy was, the second half went much smoother—the NYXL weren’t fazed by a surprise Hanzo-Junkrat comp on Watchpoint Gibraltar, nor the Hanzo-McCree on Nepal Sanctum in the tiebreaker. They even bought out the niche Mei pick for Nepal Village to close things out in style. With two very winnable matches against Florida and Toronto next week in Atlanta, the odds are good that they could finish the stage undefeated again. What’s even more impressive—they’ve still only lost to one team in regular-season play. Only Vancouver can say the same.
6. In London’s loss to San Francisco on Sunday, Hee-Dong “Guard” Lee was in the starting lineup in place of Jun-Young “Profit” Park, marking just the 10th map—total!—that Profit has ever missed for London, according to the broadcast.
That’s an incredible stat for a DPS player in the Overwatch League, as they’re more likely to be subbed out than other positions, and it likely becomes even more impressive if you take into account Profit’s appearances with GC Busan in APEX Season 4. There are not many active players I could name with a similar record of consistent excellence, unaffected by meta or injury or anything else.
7. I ended up talking to a lot of DPS players this week partly because so many of them went through a crash course on Sombra due to the rise of Sombra-Ana. Three days for Stitch and Logix, and Seoul Dynasty DPS Dong-Eon “Fits” Kim had a similar timeline. “Practicing and playing in a match is much different, so I think I need to continue practicing in order to play Sombra comfortably onstage,” he told me.
In comparison, the Ana players—the other important part of the equation—have had a much easier task: they’re already gods at this, and now they get to show off.
You know how we’ve been doing those 1v1 battles before matchdays recently? I would donate a small portion of my paycheck to watch Ju-Seok “Twilight” Lee and Young-Seo “Kariv” Park in an Ana showdown at some point. Just putting that energy out there.
Stage 3 continues on Saturday, July 6, at 8:30 a.m. PDT, when the Mayhem (2-17) take on the Excelsior (17-2) in the opening match of the Atlanta Homestand Weekend. 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.