It’s all fun! That was the message conveyed by Atlanta Reign support Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman this past Saturday, voice streaked with manic glee and reaching all the way to the rafters of Cobb Energy Centre—which lived up to its name for the Atlanta Homestand. Inside its doors was electricity and magic and, yes, fun: everything needed to forge a lasting connection between a team and its adoring fans.
Dogman and his teammates drew inspiration from it, the Reign organization took pride in it, and the rest of the Overwatch League looked upon it as another good omen for the plans that are taking shape for 2020 and beyond.
Paul Hamilton, President and CEO of Atlanta Esports Ventures, marveled at the “overwhelming” fan support that showed up at the sold-out two-day event. “The players think they know how many fans they have, but they have no idea,” he told me on Sunday afternoon. “And then they land on the ground; there’s thousands of people standing and screaming and waiting for their autographs. Everyone from the Southeast turned out and was rooting on Atlanta. It really connected our team to the city.”
If it seems daunting, this idea of forging an organic bond between a place and a group of pro gamers, don’t tell the people of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, or Dallas, and certainly don’t tell the people of Atlanta. They can’t hear you over the cheering, anyway.
1. Unlike the cavernous Allen Events Center in Dallas, the space in Atlanta provided the intimacy of a theater, and the vibe reminded me of a concert, raucous and a little bit chaotic. The Reign provided the appropriate drama with a walkout that was secretly led by former star Daniel “Dafran” Francesca:
After being received like rockstars, there was almost no way this homecoming could go sour, according to DPS Andrej “Babybay” Francisty. “It’s just extra motivation, you know?” he told me on Saturday. “There’s just no doubt. We’re up there, and we’re like, ‘We cannot lose right now, we have everybody here who’s counting on us.’ It honestly just helps us perform.”
For support Petja “Masaa” Kantanen, there’s no comparison between LA and Atlanta. “The crowd here is insane—the atmosphere, the energy, it’s so hype,” he said. “You can’t stop smiling because you know the home crowd is with you.”
After defeating Toronto 3-1 and sweeping Florida handily with the crowd at their backs, the Reign have vaulted themselves back into the running for a season playoff spot, and the players all believe they can use this Homestand momentum to propel them into even more solid standing in Stage 4.
“I wish you guys were there for all of our games, honestly,” Babybay told the crowd on Sunday, still shaking his head in disbelief. It’s a wish that’ll be granted soon enough.
2. The idea of traveling to Atlanta might not have sat well with the New York Excelsior back in Stage 2, after they lost twice to the Reign, but at least they weren’t scheduled to play against their Achilles’ heel a third time. Instead, the NYXL defeated the Florida Mayhem and Toronto Defiant rather comfortably by a combined 7-0 map score to complete their second undefeated stage and enter the playoffs as the top seed.
Earlier in the season, when Sombra saw a brief spike in popularity, it was the D.Va player who often took on hacking duties, but now that flex has gone in the opposite direction due to the rise of the Sombra-Ana meta, which generally requires a third DPS player over a flex tank. In Week 4, the NYXL asked Hae-Seong “Libero” Kim to occasionally hop on D.Va; in Atlanta that duty fell to Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Kim.
Tae-Hong “Meko” Kim could only praise his two teammates for taking on the task, even calling Saebyeolbe’s D.Va play “fantastic” despite it not being his natural position.
“The only reason it seems like they’re not proficient in D.Va is because they haven’t played much,” he added. Then, with a grin: “The only tip I’ll give them is to watch my POV.”
3. My interpretations of some memorable moments this weekend:
The heart that Dogman threw toward the crowd on Saturday: joy, appreciation, love. Dafran hurling himself to the ground after losing the Torbjörn 1v1 battle: woe, slapstick, drama. Min-Sung “Diem” Bae’s thumbs-down gesture toward the opponent’s side of the stage: taunt, pressure, a challenge issued.
The context for that last one is pretty interesting, for those who aren’t familiar:
Believe it or not, Widowmaker stars and long-time friends Carpe and Diem face off for the first time in professional play in a Widow duel that will decide the final playoff spot for Stage 3. Anime script writers couldn’t top this storyline.— Wolf Schröder (@proxywolf) July 7, 2019
That was the setup for Sunday’s showdown between Shanghai and Philadelphia, a 3-1 win for the Dragons that sent them to their second consecutive stage playoffs. After the match, Diem told insider Danny Lim that his initial plan was to simply point at Carpe. However, he continued, “Everyone on the team said I should take it a little further to assert my dominance.”
This is the kind of banter, with roots in both a long friendship and a high-stakes encounter, that delights a live crowd, and both Carpe and Diem played into it perfectly, turning Volskaya and Dorado into personal highlight reels. As for the head-to-head, Diem came out on top at least by Shanghai’s count, although it was close. Sorry, Latin—guess we’re going with “Diem Carpe” from now on.
4. Less than 24 hours before defeating Philly, the Dragons had looked off-kilter in a 1-3 loss to the Guangzhou Charge. Young-Jin “Gamsu” Noh told me that the team recovered by not dwelling on the match at all. “We went to a restaurant and had a nice dinner, then everyone just slept,” he said. “We just tried to be in a good mood for today, and it worked.”
The good mood continued during Shanghai’s media scrums, as Diem was asked about his showdown with Carpe. With Gyeong-Woo “Coma” Son pocket-healing his Widowmaker and frequent assists from an Orisa Halt!, Gamsu said it was all part of the plan.
“Those were mind games to make Carpe think, ‘Hey, where are my teammates, where’s my backup?’” he joked.
“Protect the king!” Coma added, pointing at Diem.
5. Guangzhou’s 2-0 week was their first since Week 3 of Stage 1, as the team has battled through growing pains for most of the season. In the last match on Saturday, though, the Charge showcased one of their most impressive team efforts all year with a 3-1 win over the Dragons, avenging a Week 4 loss and sending the rest of the league a reminder of their potential.
Nepal: 2-1. Horizon: 6-5. Numbani: 3-2, with the kind of gutsy yet somehow collected Point C defense that we generally see from teams with stage title aspirations. These map scores were tighter than a squeezed fist, but the Charge clutched them out with monstrous performances from Jeong-Woo “Happy” Lee—out-sniping Diem the god himself—and main-tank maestro Seung-Pyo “Rio” Oh, amidst a solid team strategy.
Last time, support Jin-Seo “Shu” Kim said, the team hadn’t been disciplined enough to deal with Shanghai’s tricky DPS comps. This week, Guangzhou came prepared with counter-strats of their own. And while revenge always feels good, nothing beats getting to do it in front of such a lively audience.
“Yaaaaaaah,” Shu exclaimed, emphasizing his satisfaction. “It felt so good, I had goosebumps. We were waiting backstage when Atlanta won [against Toronto on Saturday], and we heard the crowd shouting, and it got us really excited. That kind of feeling is why I’m a pro gamer.”
The Charge aren’t done growing as a team, and Stage 4 will present plenty of opportunities for them to cause some shakeups in the standings. “We have nothing to lose, so we can only try hard,” Shu concluded. “We want to grab other teams by the ankle so they can’t go to the playoffs.”
6. I guess we should probably talk about that Torbjörn 1v1 on Sunday between Dafran and Toronto Defiant DPS Liam “Mangachu” Campbell, two of the Overwatch community’s most infamous enthusiasts. A showmatch born from Twitter’s meme-iest id, this was obviously a huge hit with the Atlanta crowd, but from a pure gameplay perspective, it was admittedly pretty comical. If you missed it, just imagine two squat Nordic men chasing each other around with their hammers out. Mangachu won the thing, 7-5, but what kind of strategy was actually involved?
“First hit’s kind of important, because the animation takes a little bit of time, especially if you’re not using Overload,” Mangachu said. “Dafran was doing tactics like jumping over my head, stair-steps… every time he did that, I was like, oh my god, what’s going on? It was funny.”
With absolutely nothing at stake, the teams themselves nevertheless got super invested. Dogman and Babybay snuck onstage and even tried some intimidation tactics, Mangachu recalled with a laugh.
“They were trash-talking, yeah,” he said. “Then I killed Dafran twice and shooed them away. My teammates were watching the stream and they saw Babybay and Dogman run over, and they booked it from the player practice room, which was like two floors above. They charged in to cheer me on.”
7. The Defiant players felt the brunt of the Atlanta crowd’s playful disdain when they squared off against the home team on Saturday, and they were happy to play the antagonist role.
“It gave me so much energy, it gave our team so much purpose,” Toronto flex tank Daniel “Gods” Graeser told me after the match. “If I could be the villain every time, I think we would all be down for it. It’s fun to be cheered against just as much as it is to be cheered for. We didn’t hate the crowd or anything; we loved it.”
“It’s awesome to see a crowd so passionate, even if they were cheering against us,” Mangachu added.
8. Gods, who hails from Jackson, Mississippi, was the only player I talked to who had zero complaints about the muggy embrace of an Atlanta summer.
“This feels like home, you know?” He told me. “I go outside and my teammates are like, ‘Oh, it’s so hot, the humidity…” And like, I walk outside at home and it feels like this, so it feels perfectly fine [to me]. And the temperament of the people that live here and the city itself and the culture—it’s familiar to me. I’m happy to be here.”
I was curious how someone from a colder climate was holding up.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m suffering here,” Masaa admitted with his usual good-natured candor. “The humidity and heat is like, a little bit too much for me, but I think it’s just getting used to it. You spend a week or two here, you probably won’t notice it, but right now I go outside and I’m sweating in two minutes.”
9. Record aside, the Washington Justice have been a much-improved team over the last couple weeks. They’re experimenting with their compositions, especially around the DPS role, which has given players like Ethan “Stratus” Yankel a chance to break into the lineup. He tweeted something after Saturday’s 1-3 loss to the Fusion that served as a reminder that every player, no matter the success of the team they play for, is constantly striving for improvement:
Reflecting on that breakthrough, he told me: “I’ve been in Overwatch League for three stages. First two stages I hadn’t played my role [DPS] a single time except Junkrat once against NXYL, and I’d never played more than two maps in a series. Because of that, I never had a map win behind me, I never had a pop-off moment or anything like that to prove my place.”
The long-awaited pop-off moment:
10. Only eight teams competed this weekend, but the Overwatch League presence wasn’t limited to just them. Spectacle aside, there’s a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes to make an event like this happen, and many other teams sent representatives to observe the Atlanta Homestand as part of their own planning for 2020.
I asked Mason Dusanic, player operations manager for the Justice, about the information that non-hosting teams could take away from the homestand events.
“It’s a vision into what we can expect and what is expected from us next year,” they said. “A lot of our staff came down from DC, not just to support our team, but also to make sure that we can see how well people are putting on a show and how we can do it just as well, if not better, ourselves. On top of that, we also want to understand how our players are doing, especially in a traveling situation.”
Dusanic said that a previous trip to DC had shed a lot of light on the players’ habits, likes, and dislikes. For the Atlanta trip, because so many of the American players had family on the East Coast, the priority was to allow everyone to see their own parents or siblings or friends rather than holding a team outing or group bonding activity.
The other big objective was to rent some rooms at a gaming center close to downtown Atlanta for the players to use away from the arena—“trying to allow them to remain in their comfort space even when they’re in a place that’s not comfortable,” Dusanic elaborated.
The Stage 3 Playoffs start on Thursday, July 11, when the Outlaws take on the Titans at 6 p.m. PDT, immediately followed by a clash between the Dragons and the Excelsior. Watch all 2019 season matches live and on demand on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, ourTwitch channel, MLG.com, and the MLG app.