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Incheon, South Korea—Here’s an example of the kind of thing that can happen when there’s a friendly commingling of players, fans, and staff in close quarters: on the final day of the Overwatch World Cup Incheon Group Stage, a Blizzard employee was passing time backstage at Studio Paradise, waiting for the broadcast to start by playing Overwatch on his laptop. Team Finland, waiting to play Japan, gathered behind him like moths to a light. Immediately, the advice poured out.

“Use your tire!” 

“No, don’t use it!” 

“No, hit Q! Get the Widowmaker!” 

“This is expensive coaching, by the way.”

“I’m actually sweating from my forehead right now,” the employee said, embarrassed at the attention, but laughing.

“Now you know how the OWL players feel!” said Overwatch League photographer Robert Paul, crouching in front of him to take a picture.

FINNISHING STRONG

Having already faced their strongest competitors, South Korea and Russia, Finland had two win conditions for the final day of the Group Stage: handily win their remaining matches against Japan and Chinese Taipei, and hope that Russia didn’t fare as well against South Korea as they did. 

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The first condition got off to a good start as Finland swept Japan 4-0. Even with the return of main tank Kazuki “SamauriD” Nouno, the Japanese were no match for the Finns, who collectively were in some of the best form they’d been in all year. 

Next, they sweated Russia’s crucial match against South Korea. The Russians went in with no fear, playing hyper-aggressively against Incheon’s final boss. For a roster featuring only two Overwatch League players, filled out with Contenders Europe team Winstrike, Team Russia put up an admirable fight. But South Korea flexed their comp-swapping muscles and did not allow their opponents any room to breathe. 

When Korea took a 2-0 lead heading into halftime, no one applauded louder than Team Finland, watching backstage. After the home team’s dominant 4-0 victory, the Finns only needed to take one map from Chinese Taipei to claim the second spot up for grabs at BlizzCon, which they did comfortably.

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“Feels good, man,” flex tank Joonas “Zappis” Alakurtti said after the match. “Feels good,” agreed support Jonas "Shaz” Suovaara. 

The lead-up to Incheon has been a bit of a whirlwind, what with the Overwatch League postseason ending just a few weeks ago, so the team plans to take a well-deserved break before getting back to the grind. “After that, we’ll go hard,” Shaz said.

“We will have plenty of time for practice,” Zappis added. “It’s good for us because we can watch all of the other qualifiers and really think about what we want to do. With our players, we can play anything.”

FROM INCHEON TO BLIZZCON

Team South Korea arrived as pre-tournament favorites to emerge from the Incheon Group Stage, they played as overwhelming crowd favorites over three days, and now they’re bound for BlizzCon—and no one can deny that they’re stillthe favorites, maybe even more so after the dominance they showed over these five matches.

The Koreans’ lone hiccup was being taken to a tiebreaker fifth map by Finland on day one—the only two maps they dropped all weekend. But after that it was smooth sailing, powered by their New York core and enhanced by the firepower of Jae-Hyeok “Carpe” Lee and tank prowess of Pan-Seung “Fate” Koo.

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“Because there are a few players from the NYXL who already have good team chemistry, we built our team around that,” support Yeon-Jun “Ark” Hong explained. “As the tournament progressed, we could see our coordination with Carpe and Fate improving as well. The first day it wasn’t the best, but we got better.”

“Better” is one word for it. Korea’s lone match of day three was against a desperate Russian team who needed to wrestle away a win in order to keep their BlizzCon dreams alive, but there was not even the faintest whiff of mercy from the hometown heroes.

Watch Full Match | South Korea vs. Russia | August 18

Ilios was a masterclass by Carpe on Widowmaker and Seong-Hyun “Jjonak” Bang on his signature Zenyatta. King’s Row featured Russia’s best push, which was stopped just shy of completion by Fate’s Wrecking Ball and Hae-Seong “Libero” Kim’s Junkrat, and on offense Korea unlocked a map win with huge D.Va ultimates from Tae-Hong “Meko” Kim.

Russia’s hopes were pinned on the second half, but any hope was quickly extinguished when they were full-held on Volskaya. The final map was simply a victory lap, punctuated with the plinks of Carpe’s headshots ringing loud and clear against the Dorado night sky as Korea managed another full hold.

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For this roster, finishing top of the group feels good, but doing it in front of their home-country fans makes the accomplishment feel that much more special. While the venue in Incheon seats slightly more than Blizzard Arena Los Angeles, where all of the players compete in the Overwatch League, the fan culture is simply different here in the cradle of esports, where audience participation is full-throated, well-organized, and basically mandatory.

“In the Overwatch League, we don’t have the ‘fighting’ cheer before each match, but hearing that from the crowd here really helps,” Libero said.

“The Korean fans were really worried about us,” Ark added. “They showed a lot of support and interest in us, so we’re happy we can repay them with good results.”

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Team Korea’s plans in the long layoff before BlizzCon on Nov. 2 and 3 aren’t yet established, but they’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the other three Group Stages, the next of which, Los Angeles, takes place at Blizzard Arena Sept. 7–9. Finland gave them the biggest test so far, but there’s another team to be wary of.

“Team USA is a little bit threatening,” Fate admitted. “We can deal with their DPS, but they have a really good tank line.” (Fate would know—one of them is his teammate on the Los Angeles Valiant, Indy “Space” Halpern.)

Still, the Koreans feel they’re the frontrunners, and after their dominant 5-0 run through the Incheon Group Stage, it’s hard to argue. “Day by day, we can feel ourselves getting better, and we’re confident that we can continue to improve, so we’ll try our best to win,” Libero said.

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