We’re approaching the quarter-mark of the season, and while we now have three teams—New York Excelsior, Vancouver Titans, and Toronto Defiant—confirmed for the Stage 1 Playoffs, the landscape past that has somehow gotten murkier. There’s no easy way to break it down, but here’s what we know.

First, the Philadelphia Fusion and Dallas Fuel both control their own fates—five wins should theoretically guarantee stage playoffs qualification all season long. Philly plays a slumping Paris Eternal team, while Dallas will face the Boston Uprising, who put themselves back in the mix with a 4-0 sweep of the Florida Mayhem. The Atlanta Reign, who have two matches remaining, also hold their own fate, but their path is slightly more dangerous, with the Chengdu Hunters and Houston Outlaws standing in the way.

We also know that the San Francisco Shock are done in Stage 1—their 4-3 record and +5 map differential isn’t exactly secure, and they’ll have certain rooting interests next weekend as they watch from home. That leaves the five 3-3 teams: Guangzhou Charge (+3), Boston (+2), Seoul Dynasty (+2), Houston (-1), and London Spitfire (-1). The mentality is “win or go home” for basically all of the teams here.

It’s a crowded field, and nearly impossible to predict. Will we see Chaotic Good Atlanta or Chaotic Evil Atlanta? Can the Charge emulate their fellow Chinese team and push Vancouver to the edge with offbeat strategies? Which teams will prevail under pressure and which will crumble?

1. A few words about our two frontrunners.

The NYXL completed a 7-0 stage on Friday with a 4-0 win over the Shock. Strange to think that they never actually managed an undefeated stage last year despite their regular-season dominance, so for support Tae-Sung “Anamo” Jung, it’s still a “very impressive” feat despite there being fewer matches in a stage.

And despite the scoreline, Anamo told me San Francisco was definitely the hardest team they’d faced thus far.

“The Shock’s playstyle was kind of difficult for us to go up against, so we had to adapt a lot during the game,” he said. “We did predict their playstyle, but we haven’t faced any teams that play a similar style recently, so even though we knew about it, when the match started we struggled a little bit.”

The main takeaway from that Shock match, he said, was the importance of pressing each and every advantage, especially in mirror triple-tank, triple-support compositions. “All six players need to be on the same page in terms of shotcalling,” he explained. “Everybody needs to think about how they can get an advantage over their opponent, whether it’s Rein against Rein, Zarya against Zarya, or D.Va against D.Va, and communicate with each other.”

2. From my perspective, I’m not sure any team can match the NYXL right now in terms of in-game decision-making, as they simply do not suffer unnecessary damage or deaths. Vancouver is the only other team that has a chance to go 7-0, and they’ve earned their record by playing a much more straightforward style, with main tank Sang-Beom “Bumper” Park serving as the battering ram—or goat, rather.

A potential Stage 1 Playoffs clash between these two teams would be mouthwatering, and even the players are excited. “Everyone sees that [Vancouver’s] 3-3 is really good, so I want to face them to see who’s the best 3-3 team,” Anamo said.

Behind me, Dong-Gyu “Mano” Kim, New York’s main tank held his hands up in a “4-0” gesture to indicate his predicted result. Did Anamo agree?

“I want a back-and-forth match, so I’ll say 4-2,” he conceded.

3. Anamo had one thing to say when I asked whether Vancouver had any big weaknesses: “Sometimes they’re too aggressive.”

I wasn’t able to get Vancouver’s perspective, but I did talk to Joo-Sung “Roky” Park from the Toronto Defiant, who said on air that he wanted a rematch with the NYXL in the playoffs.

“New York doesn’t have any big weaknesses, but I think they do try to be perfectionists in terms of strategy and gameplay,” he told me after a long, thoughtful pause. “If they encounter different strategies or cheese strategies, they might fall apart because they’ll try to be too perfect.”

Interesting answer. Thus far in 2019, no teams have really tried to take New York by surprise yet, but we’ll see what happens in two weeks.

4. Vancouver can’t relate, as they’ve encountered two of the more innovative teams in the league already in Guangzhou and Chengdu, and emerged victorious—though not unscathed—both times. Back in Week 2, the Charge caught the Titans by surprise with their triple-hitscan compositions, and yesterday we saw the Hunters take it even further, bringing out old-school Pharah comps, double sniper, and even a healthy dose of Tracer.

Vancouver were outwitted on Hollywood, where they had no answer for Tzu-Heng “Baconjack” Lo’s Ashe, Widowmaker, and Tracer, or Hu “Jinmu” Yi’s Pharah. Maybe the most impressive thing about the Hunters, however, was their vast improvement on the traditional Reinhardt 3-3 formation, which they used on Temple of Anubis. Chengdu holding their own against Vancouver in the standard meta comp should absolutely have other teams worried. (Watch out, Atlanta?)

Unwittingly, Chengdu and Guangzhou may have given the rest of the league a roadmap for beating the Titans with things like triple-hitscan and Pharmercy. After all, Min-Soo “Seominsoo” Seo is one of the league’s best Zarya players, but Chengdu was able to force him to flex onto less impactful DPS heroes to counter their Pharah, which threw off Vancouver’s game plan.

Psst, you know which team has an excellent Pharah player?

The NYXL.

5. Sunday was truly a divine occasion, as it gave us not one, but two exhilarating matches. While Vancouver vs. Chengdu forced us to recalibrate everything we thought we knew about the game of Overwatch, Shanghai’s 3-2 win over London earlier that day started out as more of a straightforward rollercoaster, only to add a crazy loop at the end.

Entering the match, Shanghai had suffered two consecutive losses to Dallas and were out of the playoff picture, while London seemed to be on a roll, but those narratives went out the window in this match. There were two defensive full holds—Shanghai accomplished it on King’s Row, before London returned the favor on Temple of Anubis—as the two teams traded momentum like it was a hot potato.

Jin-Hyeok “Dding” Yang’s Sombra, which had been fully stymied against Dallas, came alive again, and his impact was felt not only through massive EMPs and hacks, but also one of the longest backcaps we’ve seen all season on Route 66.

The first four maps were all fairly one-sided, to be honest, but the tiebreaker on Ilios was so hype I thought I was going to pass out. One of the main criticisms of the current meta is that star DPS players don’t get to shine on their trademark heroes. On Ilios, we got Dding on Pharah, Min-Sung “Diem” Bae on Widowmaker, and Jun-Young “Profit” Park on Hanzo and Tracer—it was a good old-fashioned dive battle for two of the three rounds, and so much fun to watch.

Play-by-play caster Wolf Schröder had a great tweet about the tactical gamble (he’s a great follow for insights on the players coming out of the Contenders Korea scene, by the way):

In the end, it paid off, and the win was a much-needed confidence booster for Shanghai as they took down the reigning champions in their final match of Stage 1.

6. Despite having clear counters to EMP, teams are still struggling against Sombra, as we saw in Shanghai vs. London as well as in the Houston Outlaws’ 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Valiant, where Dante “Danteh” Cruz stood out on the hero. Afterward, I asked Daniel “Boink” Pence, one of Houston’s main shotcallers, about how team comms change when playing around a hero whose abilities often dictate a team’s tempo.

“It’s mostly about who is being vocal at the time,” he explained. “We give a lot of leeway to Danteh when he’s playing Sombra because Sombra’s abilities are the most important when you’re playing that comp. You really let Danteh decide what’s going to happen based on ults. You just feed him information and then he’ll make a decision off of that.”

The Valiant made Houston work for each map win, with strong defensive positioning that allowed them to avoid some of Danteh’s EMP effect. The match really came down to the Outlaws’ patience. As Boink put it, “A few fights looked very poor, but we managed to pull them out and clutch them anyway.”

Houston’s steady improvement after an 0-2 start has them in the mix for the Stage 1 Playoffs, but they’re one team that needs some help to get there.

“Because of how our first week started—we lost two really close matches right away—I think even being close is good,” Boink said. “Obviously stage playoffs are the goal in the near future and regular playoffs for later, so we’ll be disappointed [if we don’t make it]. But you can’t complain too much when we started off pretty poorly, so just being able to bring it back and be in the discussion for stage playoffs is a big improvement.”

7. The Valiant vs. Outlaws match produced one of the sweetest social media moments of the year so far. Moms forever.

8. On the back of the LA Gladiators’ first 2-0 week, I followed up with statistics producer Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman on some of the team’s first-death rates, which he covered extensively in his column last week.

Striking First

Striking First

Learn more about the impact of landing the first blow—and not dying first—in teamfights.

There were small improvements made by the two players with high first-death rates: Chang-Hoon “Roar” Gye went from 18.6% to 17.1% on Reinhardt, while Joao Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles went from 13.9% to 12.1% on Brigitte.

Furthermore, the Gladiators’ somewhat surprising 4-0 sweep of Atlanta on Thursday can be summed up by one number: 66%, their teamfight win rate, compared to 46.5% in Weeks 1-3. Not sure what the number was in their 3-1 win over Guangzhou on Saturday, but from their more recent performances it’s clear that the Gladiators are rounding into shape.

“We’ve just been playing more like we do in practice—bringing that to the stage,” Jonas “Shaz” Suovaara” told me when I asked him what the team’s biggest improvement was. The language barrier was definitely part of [the problem].”

The Gladiators finished Stage 1 with a 3-4 record, and now they’ll have three additional weeks to get players like Roar and Gui-Un “Decay” Jang even more acclimated to the lineup, which should be a scary prospect for the team’s Stage 2 opponents.

9. If anyone had Toronto potentially finishing third in the Stage 1 standings before the start of the season, let’s talk. The potential was certainly there, between the caliber of incoming players and the strength of Overwatch League veterans, but synergy was the big question mark. And from the way the team exuberantly celebrated their playoff qualification on Saturday, it was obvious how much making Stage Playoffs meant to this team—especially the rookies.

“As a pro, it’s a dream to go to the playoffs and win a tournament, right?” Roky said. “Just by getting into the first stage playoffs, we were all really happy, and the emotions really hit me at that time.”

It was also a bittersweet moment for Roky, because Toronto’s win came at the expense of three of his former X6-Gaming teammates on Hangzhou, with whom he won a Contenders Korea championship last year. “Because I had been really close with my former teammates, seeing them so downcast made me feel bad,” he said.

Roky admitted that it wasn’t until their win over Boston in Week 3 that he truly believed Toronto could be considered one of the stronger teams in the league, but he feels he’s grown by leaps and bounds since making his Overwatch League debut a month ago.

“At the time, I was more of a mechanical player, but now I think about the game a lot more, and I’m trying my best to improve in terms of not only my mechanical play, but also my strategic knowledge and the mental side,” he said. And after a strong Stage 1 performance, he added, “I’m proud of myself and of my team.”

10. Last week we had several teams set speed records. This week, my favorite number was eight—the highest total combined ult denials by D.Va players in a single match so far this season, set by Vancouver and Paris on Friday (via CaptainPlanet). Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi had five of the eight, which is just incredible. In a team full of stars, this guy still somehow manages to stand out.

11. Lastly, if you missed Mica Burton’s interview with Anjali Bhimani—the voice of Symmetra—on Friday as part of our International Women’s Day celebration, it was powerfully inspiring from start to finish. Watch it here:

The 2019 Overwatch League returns to the big stage on Saturday, March 16, at noon PST, when the Washington Justice (0-5) take on the Paris Eternal (2-3). 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.