Last year featured a lot of firsts. The first Overwatch League season, the first MVP, the first champions. After the confetti settled and the spotlights were dimmed, another first began on Aug. 1, when the player signing window reopened: the first Overwatch League offseason.
This is a competition of a different sort, one that doesn’t get broadcast every week, but certainly generates a fair bit of discussion around player movement, free-agent signings, and lineup speculation. With eight teams joining the league for the 2019 season and the introduction of two-way contracts, every organization had big decisions to make.
Managers and coaches from five teams—two new, three returning—offered their insights on lessons learned from 2018, team-building philosophies, and how they approached the first offseason.
From the Ground Up
Starting from scratch can be an immensely difficult and high-pressure task, but some general managers of new teams are choosing to embrace the freedom afforded by a blank slate.
“It’s really exciting, actually,” Washington Justice GM Kate Mitchell said. “We get to learn from the successes and failures of the first Overwatch League season and try to make an operation that doesn’t just emulate the best organizations but tries to blaze new territory. We didn’t have any existing commitments coming in, so we got to build the exact team that we want.”
Looking to the past can reveal what works and what doesn’t, but there are no absolutes. For example, some original teams were able to transport an existing roster core to the Overwatch League and make it work (New York), while others couldn’t keep up with meta shifts (Dallas, Seoul).
Toronto Defiant GM Jaesun Won says his organization decided to scout players that would be as meta-proof as possible.
“Our main goal was to try and find the players we felt best could fit the roles and adjust to the different meta changes that happen during the entire season,” Won said. After scouting for potential targets, holding trials are a crucial next step. “[The players] may look great on paper, but until you actually trial them, you don’t actually know if your scouting proved to be worthwhile.”
Won says Toronto began building the team in early October, shortly after Beoum-Jun “Bishop” Lee—who led the London Spitfire to their Stage 1 title before parting ways with the organization—was brought on as head coach. Having a head coach in place is vital for the process, a sentiment echoed by Mitchell, whose first act on the job was to announce the arrival of head coach Hyeong-Seok “WizardHyeong” Kim, who had recently parted ways with the New York Excelsior.
“Every part of our trial process for our roster has been collaborative,” she said. “We’re not going to have a team that doesn’t fit with the head coach’s style. We’re not putting together a roster and stapling a head coach to it.”
Head coach aside, both GMs were emphatic on what the first roster building block had to be: putting together a strong tank line.
Washington got a head start in this regard, as WizardHyeong had arrived with former NYXL main tank Jun-Hwa “Janus” Song in tow, giving Mitchell that all-important core player. “You saw [last season] just how important the style of main tank play was,” she said. “It ended up being, I think, the most important position for determining a team’s style. How do they play? Aggressively? Defensively? What sort of maps were they strongest on? We know that coming in.”
Justice tryouts started in September, just after WizardHyeong was hired, and included more than 100 players from various regions, either in 12-person internal scrims or in groups of six against Contenders teams. Players swapped between various sets of teammates to make sure the staff could evaluate them fairly. The range of experience in the tryouts ranged from known Contenders talent to a couple players who only played for Open Division teams—“diamond in the rough-type candidates,” as Mitchell described them.
The Defiant also sought out a tank line to build around, and their linchpin player is off-tank Kang-Jae “Envy” Lee, who spent half of the 2018 season with the Los Angeles Valiant before returning to Contenders Korea.
“Bishop wanted him not only because he was a veteran player who’s been in both Overwatch League and Contenders Korea for a while, [but because] he was a player that a lot of players in general respected,” Won explained. “A lot of the younger players—which is funny, because he’s only 23, but that’s actually old in Overwatch League terms, especially among Korean players—look up to him. He knows his role now, that he’s going to be a leader on the team.”
Finding a main tank to complement Envy proved to be challenging, as Won and his staff knew they needed to have the right fit for the position. Eventually, Toronto secured Kyeong-Mu “Yakpung” Cho from Contenders Korea Season 1 runner-up O2 Ardeont.
“I think we went through nine main tank trials until we found the one,” Won said. “It was getting grim, but that wasn’t surprising, it was more stressful than anything. I think every org is understanding how valuable the main tanks are. Look at how OGE changed [the] Fuel, how Fissure made a big difference on the Gladiators, how important Fate and Gesture are. These main tanks, they change their teams.”
For returning teams, their approach to the offseason was directly affected by the results of 2018. Teams that performed well exhibited less urgency to make sweeping changes, electing for the most part to keep their cores intact. If some of the top teams did tinker, it was largely in the form of streamlining bloated rosters or making key acquisitions to address specific lineup needs.
The Los Angeles Gladiators finished the 2018 season with a 25-15 record and a playoff appearance, and their offseason moves could be categorized in that latter category. The team needed to replace their main tank after the departure of Chan-Hyun “Fissure” Baek, and the process started with a thorough review of players, coaches, and management. The next step was to hold trials, and the Gladiators were one of a few teams to announce open tryouts for both their Overwatch League and Academy team rosters, netting nearly 1,000 applications—“some more legitimate than others,” according to head coach David “Dpei” Pei. In the end, those who met the team’s SR (skill rating) requirements trialed alongside scouted players.
One potential challenge that existing teams faced was the delayed signing period, which was designed to give the expansion teams first crack at signing top free agents. On the other hand, Dpei argues, being an established team—a known quantity—has unseen advantages when trying to recruit talented players.
“Coming in, we have a lot more appeal as a team, given that we did really well in , and among the players we have a very strong reputation of being a very well-coached team, a very well-financed team, a very well-managed team,” he said. “It’s much easier to attract players now than before, [when] no one really knew who was good. Coming into a 20-team season, it’s going to be really important that a lot of the competitive players want to be on our team.”
Having a year of experience also makes a world of difference, from a managerial perspective. “The first season was a little bit rough, just because the Gladiators got into the game pretty late,” Dpei said. “We had to have very quick tryouts rather than more iterative tryouts. I think what we learned is what we’re looking for in certain players and how that will affect the team. I think that’s only gotten better from the inaugural season, when we were more rushed and, in general, we didn’t know what the season would look like.”
Two teams that struggled to evolve last season were the Florida Mayhem and Shanghai Dragons—both finished at the bottom of the standings. Both organizations essentially underwent total rebuilds, and both recognized the need to start as early as possible, even as the league playoffs were still ongoing.
“We spent nearly half a month reviewing and summarizing every section in the first season, comprehensively and systematically; then, we began to rebuild the team,” Dragons GM Van Yang said. “Having confirmed the coach, we started to select the original players [we wanted to keep] and tried out new players.”
Yang said that the trial process began in July, lasted three months, and involved a few dozen players. In the end, Shanghai’s new head coach and players turned out to be Seung-Hwan “Bluehas” Wi and four members of his former team, Kongdoo Panthera, who had just made the Contenders Korea Season 2 Finals, plus a pair of Korean players from Contenders China. Rebuilding around a strong core should give the Dragons a new identity for the 2019 season.
Mayhem GM Matt Akhavan Kim says that Florida took a very focused approach and was one of the first teams to begin trials.
“We did a closed trial, so unlike what some other teams have been doing, we had select candidates that we thought might fit into the style of play and the culture that we wanted to create,” he said. “We had people who we had our eye on, some people who were signed to other rosters, [and we looked] at lots of Contenders players and Contenders teams internationally—so Europe, America, Korea, basically everywhere.”
Kim only officially joined the organization in March and didn’t take over GM duties until the end of the season, but he still has a set plan for helping the Mayhem right the ship.
“One of the biggest things that I’m focusing on is creating the proper infrastructure and proper staff lineup and making sure that we have flexibility—at the beginning of the season, the end of the season, the middle of the season—to adjust with the meta changes,” he said. “Another thing that I’m being very diligent on is being very purposeful with acquisitions. This isn’t something that necessarily happened to us, but something I saw in the league: there are lots of players riding the bench, they were picked up to be picked up. I think that it’s really important to have a purpose for an individual and making sure they’re continuously improving and developing as a player and as [a member of the] team throughout the season, whether they’re playing or not.”
What the Eye Can't See
One way to be more purposeful with roster construction, Kim says, is through two-way contracts, which allow for a limited number of designated players to play for an organization at both the Overwatch League and the Contenders level. As of the start of February, there have been six two-way contracts signed, one of them belonging to Florida’s young DPS prospect, Damon “Apply” Conti.
In Apply’s case, his designation as a two-way player means that the Mayhem believe he has the potential to be in the Overwatch League, skill-wise, but that he needs more development before he’s ready to make the leap. As Kim puts it, “There are lots of things you can’t judge—does he perform onstage, does he perform in clutch moments, does he perform in [front of] crowds of hundreds or thousands of people? That’s stuff that we could put him in for a couple of [matches] this season to test out, and if he’s not there yet, we can continue to monitor him while he’s [on] our Contenders team.”
Experience, especially in front of a live audience, is one intangible that is prized in professional Overwatch. Other qualities, like maturity and leadership, are valued in team-based competitions because they can help elevate a group of players above their individual talent. In the Overwatch League, there’s the added factor of stress management, as young adults—some of them operating in a professional setting for the first time—try to navigate a strict practice schedule with individual activities and live competition.
“I think the stress of the Overwatch League is not stated enough,” Dpei said. “A lot of the Contenders players are put in very stressful situations [...] but once you’re in the Overwatch League, it doesn’t get easier. It’s a different type of pressure, it’s something hard to deal with, and it’s something that’s just based on experience.”
As a GM, finding players who can remain unflappable under pressure, react well to coaching, and maintain a healthy work-life balance can be daunting. Mitchell says it helps to closely observe players during the tryout process, which is naturally a high-pressure situation for players. Then, as with any other hiring process, follow up with references.
“Reach out to former teammates, former coaches of these players, and ask them, ‘Hey, how were they over the course of an entire season?’” she said. “’How were they when things were good? How were they when things were bad? Were they a pleasant person to work with? Did they shut off when things were challenging, did they blame their teammates, or were they the kind of player that looks for a solution while being constructive about it?’”
In addition to evaluating player behavior during trials, Kim added, “A lot of the intangibles you have to have a larger sample size for, and it’s something you can also build internally as long as you have a good structure around [the players] and you jump right off the bat with those expectations.”
At the team level, fostering strong interpersonal relationships can be crucial; the Defiant felt it was important enough to impact signing decisions.
“When we were developing the team, we wanted to make sure there was team chemistry,” Won explained. “We did scout a player who was going to be on the team, and he was a good player, but he wasn’t getting along with the team. The coaches tried to do one-on-ones with him, to get him to open up to the rest of the team, but it was just his personality. His personality didn’t work with the rest of the players, and we agreed to just go our separate ways. No hard feelings.”
The 20 teams of the Overwatch League have each taken a different path when preparing for the 2019 season, and there are 20 different fates that will be determined over the next seven months. Whether new or established, each team has an identity waiting to be unlocked, and the people responsible for building each team each have a vision for that identity, whether it’s playstyle, achievement-based, or some other rallying point.
Toronto, according to Won, will be an aggressive team, based on Bishop’s preferred style. Yang wants Shanghai to prove critics wrong with an “all-around transformation.” Florida, Kim hopes, will be able to rely on the experience of their newly recruited players and make the season playoffs.
Mitchell wants her team to be scrappy and flexible, but she sees an opportunity for Washington’s players to leave their mark on history. “I want them to be players who all feel like they have something to prove,” she said. “I want this team to have a real sense of ownership with it. These are players who are establishing the Washington [Justice]. They will always be remembered as the first players who came out on the [stage]. We are building something from scratch, and if players come on and prove themselves, they can immediately become legends of this new team.”
No matter how ambitious the goal is, though, the reality is that there’s a lot of room for error when it comes to getting the desired results. “Building a roster is always a gamble,” Kim mused. “You can think, theoretically this should work, these pieces fit together, but really, whether you’re trialing, whether you’re looking at someone’s past experience, no matter how much planning really goes into it, it’s really hard to have all of that theory and planning come out perfectly.”
Just as there’s no single blueprint for how to construct a roster, there’s no guarantee that a team will emerge from the forge exactly as it was designed. The season is a long and grueling crucible, and starting February 14, we’ll all gather around to see what emerges.
The 2019 Overwatch League season kicks off on Thursday, February 14, at 4 p.m. PST with a rematch of the Grand Finals between the Philadelphia Fusion and the London Spitfire. 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.