As the calendar turns to September and summer starts winding down, the Overwatch League playoff action is about to heat up. The eight remaining teams all have their sights set on lifting that championship trophy onstage at Grand Finals, and with so many different clashes we could see in the upcoming double-elimination bracket, there are very few paths ahead that are tidy and predictable.
This weekend we got a brief taste of what’s to come with the six-team play-in tournament, which produced the final two playoff teams—the London Spitfire and Seoul Dynasty. Before the best of the best square off, here’s what we learned from the play-ins.
1. Saturday’s war of attrition between London and Shanghai was unforgettable, electrifying, ecstatic. The two teams took very different trajectories to get to that point: the reigning season champions who tumbled down into the play-in tournament, facing the most recent stage champions who fell from grace in recent weeks, with a top-eight playoff spot on the line. There were a lot of ways this match could’ve gone, and it unfolded in the least expected manner possible, over a historic eight maps that extended past the three-hour mark.
If, at the end, the Spitfire celebrated their hard-fought 4-3 victory like they had just won a stage title, no one could blame them—from beginning to end, this match was everything the playoffs hope to be. It stole the breath from a lot of people’s lungs, whether from yelling or a refusal to take in air, and it even left the normally cool-headed Jun-Ho “Fury “Kim feeling shaken.
“After we finished the match, I had goosebumps,” he said. “Profit was running to Bdosin and everyone hugged and was shouting. I never feel goosebumps or feel happy after normal matches in the regular season, but it felt like back in season one, against NYXL in the stage playoffs—the same feeling. Overwatch very fun.”
Very fun, indeed. There were some incredible peaks, like Jun-Young “Profit” Park going feral on Tracer and giving everybody immediate flashbacks to last season’s highlight reels, and thrilling Sigma play from Jae-Hui “Gesture” Hong and Kang-Jae “Envy” Lee, and fantastic support play, and Shanghai’s dynamic duo of Jin-Hyeok “Dding” Yang and Young-Jin “Youngjin” Jin doing their utmost to push London to their limit.
There were also missed opportunities by both teams, chances to seize momentum for good that slipped them by, which was good for overall drama but maybe not for anyone’s blood pressure. A puzzling decision by the Dragons to not play Dding on Numbani for the Pharah counter, resulting in a full-hold. The Spitfire masterfully defending Hanamura Point B, only to squander their opportunity on offense, getting full-held themselves. The entire time-bank round of Watchpoint: Gibraltar. Shanghai unable to get a single tick to win King’s Row despite a 2:46 time bank.
On the eighth map, Ilios (a situation familiar to a couple of the Dragons players), the Spitfire found themselves on the precipice of an unthinkable defeat, as Shanghai approached 99% control on Ruins. Instead, they ran it all the way back before finishing the job on Lighthouse.
“I don’t know how we won Ruins,” Fury admitted. “We were just thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we’re going back home to Korea.’” He credits Seung-Tae “Bdosin” Choi for making a couple of crucial calls for hero swaps and positioning adjustments with helping the team rebound with their counter-dive. Mentally, the team drew upon their collective experience in order to push through.
“Let’s try to think about our champion memory last year,” Fury described. “We just focused on the game, everyone didn’t give up, and we just think, ‘We can win.’ Our teammates trust in ourselves.”
1a. The rest of the playoff teams have to be shaking their heads after watching London clutch out a win on Ilios—one of their worst maps, historically. Not only did they overcome their own weakness, they also managed, as a team, to pressure Dding into obscurity in the final round, which should give them a lot of confidence when it comes time to face some of the league’s other monstrous Pharah players.
Fury says he doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch, but nevertheless, “Maybe we can win like last year. [In scrims] we met the top-six teams like Shock, New York—I think Shanghai was better, maybe.”
That’s another scary thought.
Shanghai were a bit unlucky, and they might spend the entire offseason wondering what might have been. I suspect that the quick turnaround between their two matches—the Dragons played a combined 15 maps in the span of just over 15 hours—put them at a disadvantage for endurance, but c’est la vie.
The Spitfire certainly know all about marathon runs; they played 14 maps in a single day en route to the Stage 1 title last season, after all. Perhaps that’s where the difference in experience is most crucial. They’ve been through all of this before, and some of London’s key players have championship pedigrees that extend even further back. It makes me wonder if there’s something like muscle memory at work, an essential knowledge that doesn’t go away: you don’t know what it takes to be a champion until you actually do it, and then you never forget what it feels like.
2. An underrated part of the Seoul Dynasty getting through to the playoffs is damage Byung-Sun “Fleta” Kim making his first major postseason tournament—one of the most flexible and naturally gifted damage players ever, finally entering a limelight that has always been waiting for him.
In fact, I was actually caught off-guard when he mentioned this fact to me after Sunday’s 4-1 win over a confident, upstart Guangzhou squad. “I don’t really know how to describe how I feel, but I can say that I feel really good about making playoffs,” he said.
Like the other play-in matches, this one ran long, stretching to six maps, which meant the Dynasty players had to be mindful of their condition. “Because we didn’t know what to expect, we first wanted to avoid having low blood sugar, so we ate chocolate in between maps,” he divulged. “We were thinking that this was going to be a long match, so we told ourselves, ‘Let’s not lose focus and play comfortably.’”
Fleta’s not an outwardly emotional player, but he is fiercely competitive, and the playoff meta is one that may finally allow him to find the right balance with the rest of the Dynasty, after swinging in and out of the starting lineup all season. Against the Charge, Fleta’s McCree play was a big factor in shutting down the Charge’s game plan.
“Looking at Guangzhou, they use Doomfist-Pharah comps a lot,” he explained. “Nero is really good at Pharah, so as McCree, I wanted to focus on countering him and bringing his Pharah down. They ended up changing their comp to Doomfist-Reaper, and we felt good going head-to-head with them with those heroes.”
This wasn’t the Fleta that longtime fans are used to seeing—the one who played with a ragged desperation, whose superhuman efforts always seemed to go to waste. Seoul was an upgrade for him last season, but they still failed to make the playoffs, and he still went home emptyhanded. The Fleta we saw on Saturday played as if those burdens had never existed—it was a balanced, frictionless performance, his McCree making room for damage partner Dong-Eon “Fits” Kim to wreak havoc on Doomfist, his Reaper weaving elegantly through the enemy ranks.
We’re lucky to have this upgraded playoff version of Fleta, and he has a clear goal for the Dynasty when they take on the top-seeded Vancouver Titans on Thursday.
“Because we’ve never beaten them, I really want revenge,” he told me. “After that, if Hangzhou wins their match with the Gladiators, we can also go up against Hangzhou, and we’ve never beaten them either. I really want to get revenge against both teams and then go to Grand Finals.”
3. Sigma may tread softly—well, technically he treads not at all—but he carries some big rocks, and they had explosive impact across the play-in matches. It can be difficult for viewers to parse a new hero entering the pro meta for the first time, but this early on, Sigma’s primary value seems to be in his high damage capabilities.
I think that’s partly why we saw flex tanks play him for the most part. Guangzhou’s Hong-Jun “Hotba” Choi was an early standout on Sigma, as was Philadelphia’s Gael “Poko” Gouzerch in a losing effort on Friday. Between flank plays and high-impact ult combinations, Sigma seems to be a very versatile hero that fits well for a flex tank’s mentality.
However, it must be pointed out that both teams that advanced into the playoffs actually had their main tanks on Sigma duty—Gesture for London and Min-Seo “Marve1” Hwang for Seoul.
Fury explained that as long as you have players who are competent on both Orisa and Sigma, it doesn’t really matter who’s on which hero. And although he says he doesn’t personally love playing Orisa, he did show a high level of that necessary competence in the win over Shanghai, and even tweeted after the match that she was “super fun.”
He grinned when I asked him what his true feelings were. “I think Orisa is not a fun hero for me, but today, I feel Orisa is very fun,” he said. “Only today!”
Whether or not we’ll see players like Fury and Seoul’s Min-Hyuk “Michelle” Choi stay on Orisa or swap back to Sigma next week will be interesting, but I’m just excited to see the other six teams show us how they’ve incorporated him into their strategies.
4. A couple more thoughts on the playoff meta:
The Ice (Pick) Age is over. While a four-match sample size might feel too small to produce such a bold declaration of death, all of the indications point to Mei falling massively out of favor, and Roadhog even more so. There are probably certain maps and countering situations where you’ll see her—Fleta did play an effective Mei for Seoul on Saturday—but she’s not viable in all situations anymore. The Fusion tried to hard-force Mei-Reaper and played directly into Shanghai’s hands, as it looked helpless against the superior Pharah-Doomfist combo.
Speaking of, maybe this is an oversimplification, but all weekend it felt like the team that could play the better Pharah-Doomfist duo tended to be favored. This played out in Guangzhou’s win over Chengdu and Shanghai’s win over Philadelphia on Friday, although neither of the losing teams really tried to play Pharah-Doomfist themselves, or had great solutions. On Saturday, the Dynasty had Fleta’s McCree as a counter against the Charge, and it took London eight maps and some creative on-the-fly adjustments to survive Shanghai’s onslaught.
5. In case you missed it, we announced Los Angeles Valiant support Scott “Custa” Kennedy as the recipient of the 2019 Dennis Hawelka Award for his leadership and charitable contributions this season, and unveiled the 2019 Role Stars class comprising the top four players at each role. Congratulations to everyone for their hard work and dedication—in and out of the game—this season! Stay tuned for more award announcements next week.
The 2019 Overwatch League Playoffs continue on Thursday. See below for matchups, match times, and where to watch: