Blizzard Arena Los Angeles didn’t want to say goodbye, not just yet. Sunday’s regular-season finale between Guangzhou and Dallas was a marathon—not because of anything that happened in the match itself, which was a 4-0 stomp for the Charge, but due to a delay that lasted just over an hour and three minutes.
For anyone who was there at the arena, I imagine it felt like one of those lengthy rain delays that occasionally (or frequently, depending on where you live) upends a baseball game, makes everyone a little stir-crazy and featherbrained, and always feels a bit surreal—the sky looking apocalyptic, people milling about and checking their phone apps, time looping in on itself.
A lot can happen in an hour and three minutes. You can show a lot of stats and standings graphics, not to mention fit in an entire postshow, as well as the post-postshow 1v1 challenge, which was supposed to be a Hanzo duel but pivoted to analog bow-and-arrow. (Just…watch it.)
Technology, like nature, doesn’t need a reason to get all wonky—sometimes all you can do is be patient and wait it out. Sometimes, the company makes it easier. And honestly, if there’s one player in the Overwatch League you’d want onstage during an hourlong pause, it would have to be the beloved Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod.
Even as players on both teams were fidgeting in their chairs, squeezing their hand warmers, and yawning and resting their heads on their arms, there was Mickie, subbed in by the Fuel for a 2019 season sendoff, still trying to keep the energy up, goofing around with his teammates, hamming it up for the cameras. The megawatt smile told us he was just happy to be there—and he wanted everyone else to be happy to be there, despite the circumstances. And as we approach the end of a long and demanding regular season, sometimes that’s a reminder we all need.
1. The final eight matches of Stage 4 will take place at The Novo in downtown LA as part of the Los Angeles Valiant’s KIT KAT® Rivalry Weekend. There’s still a lot at stake, especially for the hosts—they can complete their miraculous redemption arc with just one more win, which would allow them to overtake the Chengdu Hunters for 12th place in the standings. For a team that started the season with a seemingly insurmountable 0-7 deficit and didn’t really get going until midway through Stage 3, this would be an incredible turnaround.
There’s just one thing—the Valiant’s opponents next week are the powerhouse Shock and the crosstown Gladiators, who are both in the top six. These three teams have always maintained a fairly affectionate rivalry, but Week 5 should swing the pendulum firmly from “friend” to “foe,” with so much on the line.
There’s also some potential shuffling in the top six. The Atlanta Reign, one of two undefeated teams in Stage 4 alongside San Francisco, swept the London Spitfire on Sunday to break open the race for the final spot. If the Reign can snatch a pair of victories next week—and with Dallas and Boston a combined 0-11 this stage, it’s more likely than not—their superior map differential will carry them straight into the double-elimination bracket.
2. In all the hype leading up to the playoffs, don’t forget about the two Vancouver Titans matchups. The schedule makers have to be credited with either extreme luck or extreme clairvoyance, because we’re getting Vancouver vs. San Francisco on Saturday and Vancouver vs. New York on Sunday.
The Titans and Shock forged the league’s best rivalry in the triple-tank, triple-support meta, and although the spotlight shines on different players in Stage 4, the next installment of this matchup should live up to its predecessors. And while the meta has thrown the NYXL off their game thus far in Stage 4, any chance to see last season’s titans duke it out against this season’s Titans is still a mouthwatering prospect.
3. The stars really aligned for the Reign in Stage 4. After enduring a rough stretch that saw them lose narrowly to a handful of playoff-bound teams, they used the Atlanta Homestand to kickstart their rebound tour, and since then their schedule has felt like a walk in the park by comparison. In fact, the only match they’ve come close to dropping was against the white-hot Washington Justice.
Andrej “Babybay” Francisty playing three of the four maps felt like a direct challenge to Corey “Corey” Nigra, and two of the maps—Hanamura and Junkertown, where Atlanta clutched out some spectacular teamfights—were fantastically close. The Reign’s ability to freely swap out Babybay for Ilya “Nlaaer” Koppalov has been one of the keys to the team’s success, allowing flexibility in the damage pairings, but the two are vastly different players when it comes to communication.
I asked flex tank Nathan “Frd” Goebel how the shotcalling structure changes between both configurations. “I take a bigger role when Babybay is out of the roster,” he explained. “In my past teams, I’ve always been that in-game leader, and I’ve been a very vocal person. Nlaaer is a bit on the quieter side, but Babybay is very demanding, very assertive with what he wants to do, so that’s how the dynamic changes for me.”
Even with a top-six finish in sight, Frd said the Reign are simply riding the high of their win streak and looking forward to another homestand experience in Week 5. “If the energy in that arena is even close to replicating what it was in Atlanta, I think I’ll just be a fun experience overall,” he told me.
4. While Frd has exhibited solid D.Va play since becoming a starter for Atlanta, he was able to live up to his nickname with some inspired Roadhog play against London on Sunday.
“There’s a running joke we have on the team, because originally I was a Roadhog player, and I think I’m very very good at it,” he told me after the Washington match. “It’s a very assertive character—you’re in people’s faces. Anytime I’m doing really well I call myself the Dominator, and everyone else will be like, ‘Oh, you’re dominating!’ So it’s a running joke that we have. If I’m playing and hitting my hooks and stuff, I think we’ll do OK.”
He was more than OK, earning Player of the Match honors—and a chance to show off some uniquely utilitarian fashion choices:
5. The Seoul Dynasty got an early taste of what play-ins might look like, facing both the freefalling Shanghai Dragons and the inconsistent Philadelphia Fusion in Week 4. Their 3-1 win over Shanghai on Thursday featured confident counter comps, a sign of growth for a team that struggled to adapt to the meta early on.
“The first week, we were just so bad since we couldn’t find the right team comps,” main tank Min-Seo “Marve1” Hwang told me after beating Shanghai. “Now, the difference is we’re better prepared, and we’ve found our balance in this meta. We’re just much better.”
Better doesn’t mean the work is done, though, and Marve1 gave me a somewhat lukewarm confidence rating: “Out of 10, maybe a six or seven? Let’s say 6.5.” A couple of those missing points can be gained through better in-game adaptations and more research on opposing teams, Marve1 explained.
Another crux? “Our weakness is obvious on escort maps, so we also need to improve on that.”
Two days wasn’t quite enough for Seoul to shore up their issues on escort, it seems, as Havana was where they ultimately lost their match against Philly, falling 3-1 instead of being able to force a tiebreaker. But hey, they could very well get a second chance in the play-ins.
6. The Houston Outlaws and tiebreaker maps—name a more cursed duo.
After dropping their season finale to Chengdu, 3-2, Houston is now 5-15 in tiebreaker maps across two seasons. What started last season as kind of a punchline has now gained enough data points to become fertile ground for a rigorous piece of analysis. What, exactly, happens to this team in map five?
It’s not that they’re especially bad at control maps; take away the tiebreakers and they’re over 50% all-time. Are they simply drawing bad maps more often than not? Is there a mental reason, perhaps attributable to attention span, lack of preparation, or situational stress? Is it some unlucky combination of one or more of the above factors? Inquiring minds (read: the Houston Outlaws) would like to know.
7. After a disastrous 0-3 start to Stage 4, the Hangzhou Spark have seemingly found their footing in the new meta, winning each of their last three matches, including a hard-won 3-2 result over the Gladiators on Friday.
Flex tank Sung-Wook “Ria” Park described the early speedbump as a total lack of coordination. “We had to really increase communication between the players and try to understand what everyone else was doing,” he told me. “Once we came to an agreement, then we put all of our efforts behind that.”
One noticeable improvement for Hangzhou over the last two weeks has been their tank synergy. It took Ria and Qiulin “Guxue” Xu awhile to get going in the 3-3 meta due to the language barrier, and they’ve had to retrace their steps, in a way, now that the meta favors an entirely different setup—Orisa instead of Reinhardt, Roadhog in addition to D.Va.
I asked Ria how he and Guxue were able to rebuild their chemistry. He explained, “At first, I had to find my own style for playing Roadhog. Once I developed those patterns and habits, I watched a lot of Guxue’s VODs and studied his playstyle and approach. We worked together to build coordination that way. As a result, now during the matches we don’t have to say a lot to each other to know what the other person wants to do.”
8. Usually, if a team subs a player into an atypical role, it reeks of either desperation or troll. The Shock aren’t a usual case, though. Damage star Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim was the best Baptiste player in the league in Stage 3, and on Friday, with a win already sewn up against the Hunters, he got a chance to prove that he’s still the best Baptiste player in the league, even after role lock.
If the Shock get to be silly, so do I. Stats producer Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman was kind enough to provide stats for both Rascal and Grant “Moth” Espe—the Shock’s regular Baptiste player—for the Chengdu match. Cautionary note for both sample size (only one map for Rascal…) and YOLO energy (…it was the last map of a stomp):
Verdict? (Please note that this is a biased source.)
I can tell I was the best baptiste and I still am https://t.co/jbwqhkfuJG— Rascal(동준) (@Rascal) August 17, 2019
9. It’s time to say goodbye to five teams (for now), as they played their last matches of the 2019 season this past week.
Paris Eternal, it was nice to meet you, and I can’t wait to soak up your home crowd next season. Houston, you always kept things interesting, and ditto on the home crowd. Toronto Defiant and Florida Mayhem, you both changed direction midway through the season, and I’m excited to see where the road will take you. Washington Justice, I think Ethan “Stratus” Yankel said it best on Sunday after helping you complete a rather glorious 6-1 run: “It felt really good—REALLY GOOD—being able to come back this stage.” It felt good for us, too, watching these glimpses of a bright, bright future.
We’ll see you in 2020.
Stage 4 wraps up at the KIT KAT® Rivalry Weekend in Los Angeles on August 24-25, with the final eight matches of the regular season. 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.