On Monday, the 12 teams that qualified for the postseason all went through a process affectionately referred to as the car wash: a content-gathering session for use on broadcast, social media, and editorial channels. Over the course of a long season, it’s easy to lose track of teams’ storylines—their struggles, their growth—but when you get them in a room, one by one, to talk about their playoff hopes and preparations, you remember that each of them are in a unique place, facing their own challenges and trying to come up with their own solutions.
Some are finding their identity and peaking at just the right time, much like the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion did last year en route to the Grand Finals. Others may be slowing down, winded from the marathon or finding that the finish line is further away than they’d thought.
As the play-ins commence later today, here’s what the players had to say about their motivations, mindsets, the state of their teams, and more:
1. Needless to say, the Chengdu Hunters were tuned into last weekend’s matches—their playoff qualification rested on the LA Valiant’s failure, and the players’ reactions, once the result was confirmed, ranged from happy to calm. Just making the postseason is an accomplishment for a team that has consistently looked inward for answers to the meta rather than conforming to the zeitgeist, but now they’ve only got one chance to surprise the world.
“We’ve prepared some strategies in the new meta—you’ll see in the matches,” damage Hu “Jinmu” Yi said confidently. “Other teams won’t know what’s coming.”
As the lowest possible seed, Chengdu by definition has the toughest road ahead of them. “Our team needs urgency,” main tank Menghan “Ameng” Ding acknowledged. “We need an opportunity for my teammates and I to all be thinking on the same level, all six players being in agreement—then maybe we can win the championship.”
2. At the other end of the spectrum, the San Francisco Shock are consensus favorites to make it to Philadelphia. The players have a complicated relationship with this, acknowledging that they’re (likely) the final boss for the other 11 teams, while rejecting the notion that their status as frontrunners grant them any significant advantages.
“Listen, everybody’s gotta play the same amount of games to get there, right?” main tank Matthew “Super” DeLisi pointed out. “it’s not like we’re going to get gifted a spot in the finals. We’re still going to try to prepare as much as we can, but I’d say we’re definitely as confident as we’ve ever been going into the playoffs.”
A lot of credit for the Shock’s success goes to the coaching staff, who have been on top of meta changes all season, but Super added that the players gleaned a lot of motivation from the failures of 2018.
“The biggest factor is that everyone felt what it was like to be kind of a joke last season,” he said. “We lost a lot and we all learned from that. It was really humbling for all of us, and we know that now it’s serious and you have to put in a lot of work to get to the top.”
3. The defending champion London Spitfire had a solid grip on a top-six seed entering their final stretch of games, but a sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Reign in Week 4 essentially tanked them into the play-in tournament.
“Our defeats weren’t the kind of defeats where our opponent was so good that there was nothing we could have done, but instead, we made a lot of mistakes, our plays didn’t work out, and those piled up,” flex tank Jun-Ho “Fury” Kim said. “We hadn’t fixed all the issues that we’d become complacent about, so that’s why I think we didn’t make top six.”
Despite the late-season stumble, Fury says the team’s morale is still better this year compared to last year. “Last season, there were definitely times when we were down, but this season, heading into play-ins, our atmosphere is still OK, everyone’s gaming and having fun,” he said. “There’s not a lot of time left, and everyone’s getting hyped up to do well in our remaining matches.”
4. There’s a world where we could see a Grand Finals rematch between London and Philadelphia to determine a playoff spot on Saturday. That’s wild, but it also speaks to how much talent abounds in the league this season.
“This year there are a lot of strong teams, so we don’t have time to feel pressure,” Fusion damage Josue “Eqo” Corona insisted. “There’s a lot of competition out there that is working very hard to make it to the Grand Finals, so if someone feel pressured or stressed out, that’s just going to hold them back. I don’t think any of us has that mindset.”
Much like Ameng, Eqo expressed the sentiment that teams have to be on the same wavelength in order to go far in the playoffs. “In Overwatch, the beauty is that the best team has six players in the same zone,” he explained. “They see the same things, they hear the same things, and that was something we reached [last year]. No matter what happened in the game, six people always knew what was going on, and we thought about the same things. That was the state we got into. It’s not a very easy thing to do, especially in a game like Overwatch where there’s a lot of things going on.”
5. The urgency of the playoffs can produce results that are either beautiful or disastrous. Last season, two teams that ultimately crumbled under pressure were the New York Excelsior—a team that was favored by many to reach the Grand Finals—and the Seoul Dynasty, although their failure felt more like a slow-moving poison.
Dynasty captain Je-Hong “Ryujehong” Ryu reflected on the unfulfilled potential of last season. “When I went to the [Grand Finals] as an ambassador, even though the entire atmosphere was so hype, I was feeling quite sad,” he said. “I left the arena without watching the whole match. That’s how sad and regretful I was to have not made it there, and how much I want to go—and I feel like everyone on the team will feel the same. I’m going to be filled with regret if we don’t make it this time.”
The NYXL, on the other hand, seem to be freed from the burden of last season’s expectations, despite a string of puzzling losses to end the regular season, because they are no longer seen as shoo-ins for the Grand Final.
“Personally, I think I felt more pressure last year, because right now we’re preparing with the mindset that we’re starting from a clean slate,” main tank Dong-Gyu “Mano” Kim said. “Last year, it was said that of course we were going to be the champions, but this time no one’s saying anything like that. Rather, the pressure is lessened and since we dropped out last year it feels like it became something that helped us.”
6. Quote of the day went to NYXL captain Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park:
“Thinking about what it would be like to be in Philadelphia and win the Grand Finals...well, I would have to poop blood.”
Questionable mental image aside, this is a phrase that speaks to the hard work and toil he’s prepared to put in, and a lot of teams are carrying a similar desperation into the play-offs.
“Right now, I think there’s no other way to make [our goals] come true other than through hard work,” Hangzhou Spark support Ho-Jin “IDK” Park said. “Every day, I imagine what it would be like—imagining throwing off my headset and hugging my teammates as soon as we win, or imagining myself crying. But in the end, that’s not reality, so like I mentioned before, I think there’s nothing other than hard work.”
“Our team thinks of it as a matter of life or death,” Guangzhou Charge support Jin-Seo “Shu” Kim added. “We’re running ahead, trusting only in hard work. It’s true that in a competition like this luck plays a part, but—how should I say it—hard work doesn’t betray you. I think that we’ll achieve as much as we put in, so I think hard work is enough to make it happen.”
7. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Los Angeles Gladiators, who were among the most relaxed teams at the car wash. This is a team that has been successful—they’ve made the playoffs both seasons—but is never considered a frontrunner. According to support Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni, that underestimation is somewhat justified.
“It’s kind of boring, but it’s because we really haven’t had any results to base it off of,” he said with a shrug. “The only notable result we’ve had was season one, Stage 4, I think.”
The Gladiators’ first opponents, the Hangzhou Spark, have also been similarly overlooked when it comes to the league’s powerhouse teams, despite being seeded just behind the big three of San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York. Hangzhou’s muddled valuation has partly been a consequence of not having a true statistical monster on the roster, but IDK thinks that’s also been his team’s strength.
“We only trusted in each other without listening to what the critics were saying—we got here just by trusting in each other,” he said. “There are some teams with a lot of star players that get poor results, or teams with a lot of star players that get good results. But if you look at us, we didn’t have a consistent star player and I think the fact that we made it this far that way is really meaningful.”
8. The sum of a team’s parts is the biggest contributing factor to establishing that identity, whether it’s rooted in a certain playstyle or in the face that a team presents to the public. For the Atlanta Reign, their identity is a little bit of both, and like the Spark, it just took a bit of time to find themselves.
“Meshing and getting team synergy is just a time thing,” damage Andrej “Babybay” Francisty said. “There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s gonna suck, and going through it—going 2-5, not making stage playoffs Stage 2 or 3—you grow from that as a team. When you’re done going through these growing pains, you have something amazing, and we’re going to reach a height that people have never seen before.”
Atlanta’s confidence is sky-high after steamrolling their way to a nine-match win streak, to the point where even the Shock were paying lip service to the Reign ahead of their matchup next week. Babybay admits, though, that the emotion that they wear on the surface can be a double-edged sword. “If we’re feeling up, we will beat any team in the league, but if we get ourselves down in a rut, then we can get beat by any team in the league,” he said.
9. How does the heightened stakes of a playoff match affect a player’s mindset?
There are two directions it can go, Shu explains. “Depending on the situation, that pressure might become a burden and you might not be able to show your best, but in other situations you might think that this might be the last chance you have and you’ll try and show everything you’ve got, so I think it depends on your condition for that day.” (The Charge, he insists, definitely fall in to the latter category.)
The Shanghai Dragons are starting off on the back foot after a 1-6 Stage 4, as damage Min-Sung “Diem” Bae acknowledges. “Now that we’re in the playoffs, we’re in a situation where only one mistake could mean that we’ll go back to Korea,” he said. “It might be tough, but with more fighting spirit we’ll be able to regain control of our mentality to get the wins.”
The only way to be satisfied, according to Ryujehong, is to leave it all out on the table. “We’re planning to play without regrets, so even if we tried everything and lost, then at least we know that we won’t have anything to regret.”
10. What would winning Grand Finals mean to the players? It’s a question that sparked a surprising range of answers. Some mentioned the financial reward, while others focused on professional fulfillment. For veterans, the Overwatch League championship represents a new peak of accomplishment.
“I was able to win in the Overwatch World Cup already, but since the league is where all the best players from around the world are, I think it would be much more meaningful, and also that much harder to achieve,” Saebyeolbe said. “There would definitely be a greater sense of accomplishment. It would become an unforgettable memory.”
“I’ll be 30 next year [in Korean age], and to have another win could mean that I could extend my gaming career, and it’ll give me the confidence to keep going,” Ryujehong mused.
“First of all, I would cry,” Babybay said. “To win the Grand Finals would mean everything to me. Having something this big where it’s an international league and this is really the top of the top, it would just make my whole esports career feel like I finally did it, I finally made it.”
Some newer players found it more difficult to put words to an accomplishment this vast. “I don’t know how I’d feel, winning the Grand Final,” Charge damage Charlie “Nero” Zwerg said. “It would just be… a lot, a lot of feelings—happy and excited.”
At the heart of it, the championship is the ultimate reward for the hours and hours of work that each player has put in—a tribute to the leap of faith each of them took when they became a pro.
“I’ve invested a lot of my life into video games,” Eqo said. “I always imagined and dreamed how nice it would be, having a team you love and being in front of such a big crowd, a big tournament, and taking it all. That’s something I still haven’t ever felt ever since I became a pro, and I’m still seeking that fulfillment. Hopefully this year we’ll get it.”
“Rather than what kind of meaning it would have, I think that if you’re a pro gamer, trying to win something is a goal that you should have—an achievable goal,” Shu said. “I’m 20 years old, and I don’t think that’s something I would be able to fully understand, if I won the whole thing. I would probably have goosebumps all over my body.”
The play-in tournament kicks off tonight when the Charge take on the Hunters at 6 p.m. PT. Watch the 2019 Overwatch League playoffs live on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, our Twitch channel, and on Disney XD and the ESPN app.