One of the best parts of my job is getting to occasionally travel and cover events outside of Los Angeles. Outside of our SoCal esports bubble, you get to see the true potential of the Overwatch League. There was, of course, the epic Grand Finals in Brooklyn last year—it was truly surreal to see how many fans showed up to witness that historic moment. Then the Overwatch World Cup Group Stages introduced the world to the creativity and organization of South Korean fans, the orchestral strength of the Parisian crowd, the outpouring of warmth and passion in Bangkok.

Aside from the bright lights of large-scale productions, though, smaller local events like the California Cup’s NorCal leg were an early vision of how the league might look in 2020, when the teams finally get to make a home for themselves.

Later this season, we’ll have a couple more local previews in Dallas and Atlanta, plus another Grand Finals, wherever it’s held. And all over the world—Toronto, Florida, London, Guangzhou—watch parties and fan gatherings are already forming the backbone of the local base.

Picture it: the crowds in Seoul, Shanghai, Paris, Houston, New York City. They’re more than ready to welcome their players home, sweet home.

1. Week 5 turned us all into the math lady meme, as we entered the weekend with five playoff slots to fill and only a tenuous understanding of the probabilities involved. (I can only imagine how the San Francisco Shock players felt, watching from home as their fate was decided for them.) Even now, there’s some mystery surrounding the actual matchups, due to a couple of map-differential ties in the standings.

The first tie is between the Toronto Defiant and Philadelphia Fusion for third place. The two teams have mutually agreed to a coin flip instead of a match to determine their playoff placement.

The second tie is where things get interesting. The Shock and Seoul Dynasty are tied for sixth place, and both teams understandably want to avoid playing New York in the first round. To determine seeding, they will play a tiebreaker match tomorrow at Blizzard Arena. Here’s the format:

  • Standard four-map set, with the match ending as soon as a winner is confirmed.
  • First map will be Busan.
  • Loser of each map picks the next map from the Stage 1 pool.

The tiebreaker match will not be broadcast live, and the coin flip to determine third and fourth seeds will occur following the conclusion of the Shock vs. Dynasty match.

2. Seoul killed two birds with one stone on Saturday, defeating longtime rival London 3-0 to help secure their first-ever stage playoffs berth. As flex tank Min-Hyuk “Michelle” Choi told me, though, the Dynasty cared about one result a bit more than the other.

“Honestly, we didn’t really think about the playoffs coming into today’s match, but because we never beat London last season, our focus to was to beat them,” he said.

Michelle’s contributions are a big reason why Seoul has broken both of these unwanted streaks—especially his D.Va play, although he’s also shown a competent Sombra when needed. Not only does he deny a lot of opposing ults, he also uses his own ults to devastating effect, ranking in the top five in each category according to statistics producer Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman:

Player (team) Self-Destruct kills/10 mins Player (team) Ults negated/10 mins
Envy (Defiant) 2.60 Jjanu (Titans) 0.51
Meko (Excelsior) 2.50 Choihyobin (Shock) 0.48
Michelle (Dynasty) 2.07 Michelle (Dynasty) 0.48
Choihyobin (Shock) 2.06 Rck (Fuel) 0.39
Ria (Charge) 2.02 Fury (Spitfire) 0.37

The match against London featured two of the league’s best flex tanks in Michelle and Jun-Ho “Fury” Kim, and while both put in carry performances, the Dynasty simply played better around their D.Va, further illustrating the importance of team synergy in the triple-tank, triple-support meta. In particular, the coordination between Michelle, Chan-Hyung “Fissure” Baek’s Reinhardt, and Byung-Sun “Fleta” Kim’s Zarya resulted in plenty of highlight-reel moments like this:

That’s one of the Dynasty’s calling cards when things are going well, and it’s still a work in progress. “There’s nothing special we’re doing to build team chemistry,” Michelle said. “We’re just going by the book and focusing on the basics. For me, especially, Stage 1 was very important. We just wanted to do well, that’s it.”

3. Seoul isn’t a team that likes to color outside the lines when it comes to team compositions and strategies, but on Saturday they reminded us that they’re more than capable of doing so. “I don’t think we’re showing a lot of unpredictable picks,” Michelle told me. “But in some situations, we have ways to surprise other teams through picks or strategies.”

For instance, this little flourish on their Temple of Anubis attack. The comp itself—Mercy, Ana, Widowmaker, Sombra, Pharah, and Wrecking ball—isn’t especially innovative, but using Symmetra’s Teleport to get Je-Hong “Ryujehong” Ryu up to the sniper’s perch was a tiny stroke of genius, allowing one of the most famous Ana players of all time to let loose. London failed to adapt, and were overrun on Point A.

4. The only first-round matchup that’s set in stone as of Monday morning is first-seed Vancouver vs. eighth-seed Boston. The Uprising were a bit of a long shot entering Week 5, but I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Boston managed to defy the odds with a 3-2 reverse sweep over the Dallas Fuel.

This may be an odd way to describe a match with so many hype plays and momentum shifts, but I found it to be one of the more instructive matches of Stage 1—as in, it was easy to figure out why and how things were happening.

In the first half, the Fuel ran circles around Boston with their Sombra comp, especially on King’s Row. Boston’s struggles with Sombra were well-documented at the start of Stage 1, and it was a smart way to soften up Cameron “Fusions” Bosworth, giving Dallas an edge in the tank battle. However, the Uprising did a good job adapting to Sombra as the match progressed, and the Fuel’s overreliance on Sombra, especially given the suboptimal maps in the second half, left them looking predictable, and in a straight-on 3-3 battle, Dallas couldn’t break down Boston’s coordination.

5. Speaking of Fusions, this kid radiates pure energy onstage—sometimes to the detriment of his own teammates. What a great moment:

In the clip, he thanked Vancouver for helping Boston get into the playoffs. Now he gets to face off against one of the league’s most monstrous main tanks, Sang-Beom “Bumper” Park. The rookies are alright.

6. The Boston-Dallas thriller was followed by another, this time courtesy of the Atlanta Reign and Chengdu Hunters. Chengdu’s eventual 3-2 win proved that last week’s surprising showing against Vancouver wasn’t a fluke—the team’s 3-3 has really improved by leaps and bounds.

Proficiency in the strongest meta comp doesn’t mean the Hunters will abandon their offbeat team comps, however, especially when they’re able to keep opponents on their toes with picks like Wrecking Ball and Pharah and—oh my god, that Torbjörn-Pharah-Widowmaker defense on Horizon Lunar Colony.

That full hold was the most entertaining 4+ minutes of Stage 1. Prove me wrong—you can’t:

Here’s the thing, though. The Hunters don’t do these kinds of things just for the memes, so afterward I asked team captain Chunting “Kyo” Kong to tell me a little more about the strategy behind that particular defensive setup.

“We felt like this comp could do well against the opponent’s Genji-Sombra dive,” he said. “We set up in a triangle, so we could naturally defend against them. Since they were trying to attack multiple points, their formation would break, and if they tried to dive just one area, we could close in on them.”

Atlanta actually runs a similar defensive setup—as we saw on Sunday against Houston—only with a Bastion instead of Torb in a more straightforward bunker comp. Chengdu just put their own twist on it, and Kyo promised me there’s more where that came from.

“We have many comps like the Torb-Orisa you saw today—many, many more,” he said. “Maybe you’ll see them in future games.”

7. Long eliminated from stage playoff contention, the Florida Mayhem and Washington Justice faced off on Sunday with pride on the line. In the arena, there was an understandable urge in the crowd to see Justice DPS Gi-Hyeon “Ado” Chon finally get his first victory in the Overwatch League after a long drought with Washington and Shanghai, and there were robust chants of “A-do! A-do!” every time he did anything on Brigitte.

Washington’s 3-2 win—narrowly escaping being reverse-swept for a second time—was the first for not only Ado, but four of the other Justice players. As support Riley “Fahzix” Taylor said, “Well, going 0-7 is definitely something we wanted to avoid. Confidence boost—maybe a little bit. You definitely don’t want to end and have a break on a loss.”

Week 5 was a breakout week for flex tank Hyang-Gi “Sansam” Kim in particular, who is starting to live up to his potential on D.Va, but as a squad, the Justice had a fine week, taking Paris to the brink before securing their first win.

“I believe the team has grown a lot, pretty positively as well,” Fahzix said. “Looking back, our schedule was pretty rough, so we were just using it to build up communication and stop all the basic mistakes.”

With how stacked the Atlantic Division is, Washington doesn’t get that much of a reprieve in Stage 2, but they’ll have some help, at least:

The arrival of Yeon-Jun “Ark” Hong not only reunites him with former NYXL teammate Jun-Hwa “Janus” Song and coach Hyeong-Seok “WizardHyeong” Kim, it also brings the team a ton of shotcalling experience. We’ll see if he can make an immediate difference on a team that’s hungry to prove themselves.

8. Washington’s win over Florida put both teams at 1-6 on the season. The Mayhem’s lone win thus far came against Philadelphia, of all teams. To be fair, it was a weird time for Philly. If you’ll recall, that was the week they had to sub in Eli “Elk” Gallagher for Isaac “Boombox” Charles, with the rookie playing an unfamiliar Zenyatta role.

As the other support, Alberto “Neptuno” González Molinillo said the late swap didn’t affect him personally, due to the way the support roles are divvied up in the current meta, but the lack of practice was detrimental to the team as a whole.

“What I regret is that we were sloppy,” he explained. “We tried, but we could have tried even harder to make it work. We didn’t think about it, but deep inside it affected us. To not have one of your carries, it changed our playstyle. We rely a lot on Winston [3-3], and that comp relies especially on Winston and Zenyatta, because they are the ones targeting people, and it has to be fast. So it affected us on those comps specifically. But in my opinion, we should have won. We played bad onstage, and we paid for it.”

That 0-2 week meant Philly needed to defeat Paris on Sunday to secure their spot in the Stage 1 Playoffs, but the natural rivalry between the two teams made it a perfect situation.

“I think the whole team was excited to play Paris, because we’re an almost-European team even though we have Koreans,” Neptuno said. “We have a good relationship with them, and we really want to beat them because of that. We proved today how strong we are.”

Part of that strength comes from being stronger as a team, mentally. The Fusion actually dropped their opening map against Paris, and last season that might have spiraled through the rest of the maps. Now, it’s easier to stabilize—“not being too hectic, and being smart and energetic with the comps,” as Neptuno described.

“The coaches have done a great job these last 10 days, and our manager, [is] making everyone understand that we have to perform and we have to be a team,” he added. “We’ve been working towards that. We’ve always been good in game, but […] we needed also the psychological part, and that’s what we’ve been working on these last two weeks.”

9. When I interviewed Neptuno, most of the playoff field had been set, so I asked him if there were any surprises in the top eight.

“Boston is a surprise,” he said, scanning the standings page. “Toronto, nobody expected them to be that high. I didn’t expect Shock to be that low—they’re one of the strongest teams right now. I think Guangzhou Charge not being in the playoffs really surprised me. I think they’re really good.”

He chuckled when he got to the top of the table. “[New York] doesn’t surprise me at all. Again, the best team in the league right now, the most clean team.”

Ready for a spicy take? Neptuno’s got one: “Vancouver, also, is too high in my opinion. I don’t consider them as good as people think, or as they look. I think they’re really beatable. They have a super straightforward playstyle.”

The 2019 Overwatch League Stage 1 Playoffs start on Thursday, March 21, at 6 PDT. 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.