If you went into Week 3 expecting a clearer Stage Playoffs picture to emerge, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Good news first: one team—the New York Excelsior—has clinched a berth, while another—the Los Angeles Valiant—has been mathematically eliminated. We’re inching towards clarity!

The bad news: there are still 13 teams all within the .400-.600 win percentage range, meaning the rest of the field is littered with question marks. Some teams look more convincing than others, of course, due to map differential and most recent results, but we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a couple of surprises at the end of Week 5.

But maybe this also counts as good news. Many teams see themselves still in the running, and making the Stage Playoffs can undoubtedly be seen as a measure of success, if not internally than certainly amongst the fanbase. The remaining two weeks should produce some meaningful, highly competitive Overwatch as everyone races to separate themselves from the pack.

1. The Atlanta Reign have not-so-quietly forced themselves into the frontrunner conversation on the back of a 3-1 start to the season. This is a team whose creativity works in their favor against traditional triple-triple teams, as they showed with a devastating sweep of the Paris Eternal on Saturday. Afterward, support Petja “Masaa” Kantanen told me the 4-0 scoreline was a bit of a surprise.

“I still keep Paris in a really high regard,” he insisted. “I think they had a bad day—they got really antsy after the first [map] loss, so they couldn’t bring their morale up. I think we just had stronger momentum.”

When you’re really feeling it, you can whip out plays like the “Grav from above” combo that Masaa and Daniel “Dafran” Francesca pulled off on Hollywood:

The left-field strats work in Atlanta’s favor because, in Masaa’s words, “If we don’t know what we’re doing, the enemies can’t know what we’re doing.” He punctuated this with a hearty laugh, but it’s a philosophy that has borne out over the first three weeks.

Rather than the meme plays though, the thing that impressed me the most in that Paris match was their execution on Temple of Anubis, using an Orisa-Widowmaker-Junkrat comp straight out of the 2018 season to hold Paris to just one tick on Point A. This, Masaa told me, came down to preparation: “We know what they’re going to run, so we focus on that. We’re really efficient with this.”

For those counting at home, that’s effective prep, roster flexibility, execution, and unpredictability. No wonder they’re turning heads.

2. The Reign’s lone match next week is against the LA Gladiators, and it’s one that Masaa will relish as he faces off against a support duo from his native Finland, Benjamin “BigGoose” Isohanni and Jonas “Shaz” Suovaara.

“When I started playing main support, I watched a lot of BigGoose VODs,” he told me. “When he left to join the Overwatch League, I got brought up to be his replacement [for Team Gigantti], so I watched a lot of his VODs to learn what he does. I generally look up to him and Shaz. They’re really good players and they come from the same country, so I hope we can win so we can have bragging rights.”

He laughed, before reiterating his admiration for BigGoose: “I look up to him so much.”

3. The most intense match of the week turned out to be the Shanghai vs. Dallas rollercoaster that closed out Saturday’s schedule. It had everything—dueling Sombras, huge momentum swings, a comeback win, and a C9 that basically broke the internet.

Afterward, Fuel support Benjamin “Unkoe” Chevasson said that even though his team had a feeling that Shanghai could “mental boom” after inexplicably abandoning their pushing payload on Dorado, they tried to focus on playing normally and finishing their comeback. The final score, 3-2, made it the closest match Dallas have played thus far, after a feast-or-famine start to the season.

It shouldn’t be lost in the shadow of the C9, but Dallas was able to match up well against the Dragons’ Sombra comp, and Unkoe’s Transcendence usage was a big part of it towards the end. Still, he said, there’s room to improve, especially against Jin-Hyeok “Dding” Yang’s Sombra.

“He is always in a good spot to be able to hack someone before fights,” he explained. “He’s really annoying. We really have to work on it, because sometimes he was too free. He was behind us and above us and we were not making him recall, so he had EMP way before I had Trance.”

If there was noticeable urgency in Unkoe’s words, that’s because Dallas and Shanghai are scheduled for an immediate rematch next week. More than a scheduling quirk, this also serves as an early simulation of the Homestand Weekend schedule, as well as an approximation of home-and-homes in traditional sports. It also heightens the storylines—can Shanghai recover from the tilting end to Saturday’s match? Will Dallas refine their Sombra counterplay? Will the Dragons double-down on their trust in Dding or switch things up?

“It’s going to be real, because the maps are going to change,” Unkoe said. “I don’t know if they’re going to play something else. It’s a bit weird, but we’ll see if they’ll surprise us with some new comps.”

4. While the standings remain largely jumbled, Week 3 did bring us some character development. Teams are learning how to play against—or at least around—Sombra, by either hiding their Zenyatta player and countering EMP with Transcendence or simply interrupting EMP with extremely big-brain Brigitte stuns. (Don’t try that last one in ranked, though.)

Two teams finally put together 2-0 weeks: the San Francisco Shock and the Guangzhou Charge, who are incidentally the league’s two youngest rosters. More on San Francisco in a bit, but I was impressed by Guangzhou’s improved coordination on triple-tank, triple-support comps, which they almost exclusively ran in their win over the Valiant on Sunday. Part of it was due to the map pool, but they showed restrained, measured teamwork, unlike some of their earlier performances.

The Charge keep improving from week to week, and I can’t help but wonder how strong they’ll look in Week 5 when they play Vancouver again. They seemed to catch the Titans off-guard with their triple-hitscan comps in their first meeting, forcing a tiebreaker map, and although the surprise factor won’t be there for the rematch, Guangzhou will also be a lot more polished than they were in Week 2.

5. Back to San Francisco. They authored one of three map completion records set this past week, as we temporarily entered speedrun mode.

Team Opponent Map Time
Shock Justice Numbani 3:08
Hunters Dragons Volskaya 1:26
Titans Valiant Rialto 4:30

Chengdu shaved 21 seconds off the previous Volskaya record—impressive given the snowball-y nature of assault maps in general, as well as the off-meta comp they did it with. Meanwhile, Vancouver smashed the previous Rialto time by 2:34(!), maybe not a huge surprise given the map’s newness, but still quite an accomplishment. The Shock also logged the third-best Route 66 clear time with 4:50 in that same match against the Justice. I’d also like to point out that in Week 2, the NYXL set a record on Hollywood, finishing it in 4:40 vs. Houston and beating the previous time by 44 seconds.

What’s the impetus behind these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it attack rounds, especially on escort-type maps?

The meta, which is heavily reliant on ult management and momentum, might have something to do with it. Some teams are starting to get more and more comfortable with triple-triple, also, and it’s no surprise that three of the four records were set by teams that know how to turn on the jets and take a mile when given an inch.

6. After an 0-2 start to the season, the London Spitfire have rattled off three consecutive wins, restoring some balance to the universe. I don’t know, it just feels wrong somehow for the defending champions to be in the bottom half of the table. Their performances haven’t been flawless—they still have that old propensity for slow starts, for one—but they seem to always find their stride by playing around their tank line.

Talking to Jun-Ho “Fury” Kim after their 2-1 win over the Gladiators, Week 1 seems like a distant memory. Rather than feeling worried or panicked, he told me, he was mostly just disappointed that they didn’t play better. “A lot of us may not have expressed it as much, but we were definitely reflecting on those performances a lot, and that became the fuel that allowed us to work hard and get to this point,” he added.

So what changed, exactly?

“We worked a lot on communication, specifically around how to work as a unit instead of individual plays,” he said. “The review sessions we had around that have been effective and the guys absorbed the information. Communication has been better, and because of that the things that we’ve practiced have been working out a lot more onstage, and I think we all feel a little more comfortable in this meta.”

Some teams, like the Fuel, have made it an explicit goal to make all three Stage Playoffs, as Unkoe told me. Not so much for the London Spitfire, as new head coach Kwang-Bok “Coach815” Kim has prioritized the big picture. Nevertheless, Fury thinks competing in the Stage Playoffs would have a motivating effect on the team.

“It’ll give us momentum and improve the team atmosphere, and everyone will practice very seriously in order to win,” he said. “I think it would be good for us.”

7. Fury has a lot of admirers amongst his Overwatch League peers, and he’s widely regarded as one of the best D.Va players when it comes to positioning and game sense. I asked him how he practices eating Gravs, which relies a lot on both of those things.

“There’s nothing too special about it,” he said. “It’s more about trying to read your opponents or knowing their habits, which is something I develop in scrims and in Competitive Play. However, Zarya players these days are getting better and better at placing Gravs, so it’s getting more difficult to block them.”

This may be true, but denying ultimates is definitely a power move by D.Va players, and there have been some real standouts in the league this season. From Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman:

Player (team) Ultimates negated/10 minutes Minutes played
Choihyobin (Shock) 0.51 117:20
Jjanu (Titans) 0.49 202:02
Nevix (Shock) 0.46 87:51
Michelle (Dynasty) 0.44 203:28
Finnsi (Eternal) 0.42 144:29

Min. 60 minutes played.

San Francisco’s duo seems to have this thing figured out, eh?

8. If you haven’t read CaptainPlanet’s column from last week, introducing the league’s new teamfight model, I highly recommend it. Teamfight statistics will inform a lot of the analysis you see on broadcast this season, and it’ll also allow us to see how specific players affect team performance. Here’s an example featuring the Hangzhou Spark and their two main tanks, Da-Un “Nosmite” Jeong and Qiulin “Guxue” Xu.

Hangzhou teamfight win rate in Week 1:

  • With Nosmite: 54%
  • With Guxue: 41%

Hangzhou teamfight win rate in Weeks 2-3:

  • With Nosmite: 43%
  • With Guxue: 51%

Remember that the Spark went 2-0 in Week 1, 0-2 in Week 2, and split their Week 3 matches. While the sample size is still relatively small, the trend certainly favors starting Guxue ahead of Nosmite. Against the Gladiators, with Guxue playing the full match, we saw a much more decisive Spark squad, despite the presumed language barrier. With just one match remaining in Stage 1—Saturday, against a Toronto Defiant team that’s living up to their name—it’ll be interesting to see how Hangzhou’s coaching staff decides to handle their main-tank carousel.

9. After Vancouver’s 3-1 win over the Valiant, support Seong-Jun “Slime” Kim said, “We’re having a lot of fun in this meta and this composition.”

This is the understatement of the stage. Seriously, we’re going to need a top 5 highlight reel just for Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi’s Self-Destruct plays. Vancouver elevates these combos into an artform.

10. The NYXL held Seoul to just one map point in their 3-1 win on Sunday, and that single point was a technicality since the Dynasty didn’t actually fully cap Point A on Numbani. (Side note: maybe the most intense map I’ve ever seen where neither team actually reached the streets phase.) They’re obviously able to outplay a lot of teams through both sheer skill and superior team coordination, but they also constantly outsmart their opponents. I honestly can’t stop thinking about that positioning feint on Dorado attack, a beautifully sneaky play that not only pulled Seoul out of position but crucially removed Speed Boost from their toolbox.

So if you’re saying an early prayer for New York and Vancouver to clash in the Stage 1 Playoffs, you’ve got company. The hype for that particular matchup would be unreal.

11. There are seven teams that aren’t scheduled to play at all in a truncated Week 5: New York and Toronto from the Atlantic Division; and Hangzhou, LA Valiant, LA Gladiators, San Francisco, and Shanghai from the Pacific Division. NYXL aside, a few of these teams are in the thick of the current standings shuffle that will determine who goes to the Stage Playoffs. Welcome to scoreboard watching, Overwatch League fans.

The 2019 Overwatch League returns to the big stage on Thursday, March 7, at 5:30 p.m. PST, when the Atlanta Reign (3-1) take on the Los Angeles Gladiators (1-4). 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.