Take the nameplates off the playoff bracket, and you’ll see that the top two seeded teams have made it through to the deciding match of the winner’s bracket, with one win standing between one of them and a spot in the Grand Finals. The seventh and eighth seeds were the first two teams to be eliminated, and the third through sixth seeds are set to duke it out in the loser’s bracket later this week.
It’s all very normal, right?
Nameplates back on—these playoffs have been anything but normal. The defending champion London Spitfire are out after being dumped unceremoniously by two of the remaining frontrunners. The San Francisco Shock, the consensus favorites entering the postseason, were upset by the Atlanta Reign in their opening match. The week started with two highly contentious seven-map thrillers, continued with an outpouring of emotion from two of Overwatch’s most enduring legends, and ended with only slightly more clarity as to which two teams will make it all the way to Philadelphia at the end of the month.
Along the way, we had some surprising roster changes, playful riffs on the meta, and a whole lot of dramatic Overwatch action. That part, at least, is normal.
1. The top-seeded Vancouver Titans looked—for lack of a better description—comfortably dominant. They were pushed, certainly, by both of their opponents, but never needed to shift into the highest gear. Vancouver trailed the Seoul Dynasty 1-2, only to take the next three maps at a trot, their full-hold on Eichenwalde serving as an emphatic punctuation mark on the 4-2 win. They then allowed the Los Angeles Gladiators to draw even twice before pulling away on the final two maps, again winning 4-2, again ending with a flourish on Eichenwalde. (Maybe teams should stop picking Eichenwalde against the Titans?)
Maybe the only surprise when it came to Vancouver this week was the identity of their main tank: Jang-Hyun “Tizi” Hwang started both matches over Sang-Beom “Bumper” Park.
“As a lot of people know, Bumper plays really aggressively,” Vancouver damage Min-Soo “Seominsoo” Seo explained. “Tizi plays a more defensive, safer style of main tank. At the moment, for our team in this meta, his style fits a little better.”
This certainly seemed to be the case, as Tizi’s steady Orisa play synced well with Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi’s outstanding Sigma, setting up Seominsoo and Hyo-Jong “Haksal” Kim to carry. Playing damage in this meta is “a little more difficult for me,” Seominsoo admitted, due to the additional pressure put on his role, but otherwise, compared to the triple-tank, triple-support meta that Vancouver thrived in, “it’s not too different when it comes to ult usage and timing.” No wonder they’ve been comfortably dominant.
2. The most striking thing Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park said after the NYXL’s 4-2 win over the Atlanta Reign on Sunday is that he thinks his team is unequivocally the best in the league this postseason. Outside perception doesn’t matter, nor does the team’s history of underachieving.
“I think this is the year where we must win the championship,” he said. “I don’t care what other people think about us.”
What people should be thinking, after watching New York destroy London and then handle a surging Reign team, is that this team has evolved. They displayed their trademark defensive-minded patience, but there was something else—a real sense of self-confidence in the new meta. They weren’t experimenting or going in blind; there was a plan for every map and a counter for every team comp they faced, and they knew how to execute them.
The Doomfist-Reaper worked. The Bastion bunker worked. The tank synergy was impressive. Atlanta’s Ashe and Symmetra picks, while somewhat successful, didn’t throw them off. Their four-minute defensive hold on Rialto was a masterclass of positioning and target focusing.
And after every map win, there was Saebyeolbe, the team captain, getting out of his chair to go down the line and high-five all five of his teammates. Although he said he had to get used to playing onstage again after not having a starting role for most of the season, his performance on Bastion and Reaper made it clear he hasn’t suffered from rust.
This applies to interviews as well—he’s still a quote machine. His description of next week’s rematch against Vancouver, which should be an upgraded clash of styles: “Previously, they had a sword and we had a shield, but this time we have both a sword and a shield.”
His thoughts on playing Bastion: “Sometimes when I play Bastion I can let go of the keyboard and pick my nose—I’ve actually done that in a match.”
And just in case you needed to hear it again: “Everyone’s super confident nowadays. The coaches, team staff, we all think this is our year.”
3. No matter what happens to the Shock from here on out, one of the indelible images from this year’s playoffs will be the sheer disbelief on the players’ faces at the end of their loss to Atlanta on Friday—Grant “Moth” Espe’s distress, Jay “Sinatraa” Won’s stunned blankness. Their failure to contest the payload was a collective mental mistake, a trauma that could’ve festered overnight, but to their credit, the Shock recovered well and redeemed themselves with a smooth sweep over the Spitfire.
“A game like that, when we were in a situation where we could win but got off the payload, it took a huge mental toll on everybody,” flex tank Hyo-Bin “Choihyobin” Choi said afterward. “We told ourselves that we still have a match left and it’s not over and were trying to encourage each other. We also kind of like being the underdogs—we went back to that mentality and were able to respond against London.”
It’s hard to recall the last time this San Francisco team truly felt like underdogs—they were the only team in the league to sail gracefully through every single meta change, and Choihyobin credits that to the team’s immense flexibility across all the roles. That attribute is paying off yet again in the playoffs, as the Shock have trotted out a main damage duo of Sinatraa and Nam-Ju “Striker” Gwon in yet another new combination.
Choihyobin himself is showing up big-time on Sigma—he says he picked up a few things from Atlanta’s Blake “Gator” Scott, a silver lining of that loss—and the breezy win over the defending champions gave the Shock a much-needed confidence boost.
While their road ahead is now more precarious, requiring three more wins to get through the loser’s bracket, Choihyobin has his eyes on the end goal. “I’d like to meet the Titans in the Grand Finals,” he said matter-of-factly.
4. The Hangzhou Spark were probably the most enigmatic team entering the playoffs—how smoothly would they adapt to the meta? Who was their Doomfist player? Did they have any tricks up their sleeve? Would they stick around long enough to show those tricks?
After this past weekend, I think they’ve answered at least some of those questions. They adapted quicker than a lot of people thought. Jun-Ki “Bazzi” Park is their Doomfist, and a very good one at that. They have a couple of quirky strats, but mostly they play by the book. What took me by surprise about the Spark, though, was the resilience they showed in their 4-3 loss to the Gladiators, scraping their way to a seventh map after trailing 3-1.
This is a team that’s getting better and better with every meta, something support Ho-Jin “IDK” Park attributes to experience.
“At the start of the season, 3-3 meta lasted so long, but the Stage 4 meta didn’t last as long, and each time we had to adjust we gained a bit more experience,” he explained. “Now we also have more confidence as a group, and we’re much quicker at adjusting.”
That also applies to in-game adjustments, which Hangzhou demonstrated to full effect in their 4-1 win over the Dynasty on Saturday. Facing a top-tier Sigma player in Min-Seo “Marve1” Hwang and a breakout Doomfist star in Dong-Eon “Fits” Kim, the Spark made a decisive call that allowed them to shut down both threats as the match progressed.
“The first two maps, there wasn’t that much separating the two teams,” IDK told me. “It was actually Bebe who identified some things about the way Seoul was playing and had some ideas about how we could counter it. So after Eichenwalde, we experimented a little bit with what he suggested, and it worked out. We were able to regroup and play the last few maps a lot smoother.”
There’s an inherent desperation to playing in the loser’s bracket, with elimination looming large over every match. IDK says that the team felt it keenly after defeating Seoul and seeing the reactions of Je-Hong “Ryujehong” Ryu and Jin-Mo “Tobi” Yang.
“Seeing Ryujehong and Tobi crying after the match today, it gave us a sense of urgency, that we had to win,” he said. “We don’t want to think about the possibility of losing and feeling that way, so we have to prepare well for all of our matches from now on.”
5. One of the most interesting things the Gladiators did last week was utilize João Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles’ flexibility, swapping him between damage (Doomfist) and tank (Sigma) in their 4-3 win over the Spark. It’s the first time this has been done after role lock was introduced, and Hydration always felt like a sure bet for that honor. Then, it got even more interesting when they backed away from doing it at all in their loss to Vancouver. Hydration went 1-1 as Sigma against Hangzhou, so I wonder if the decision hinged more on the performances of his counterparts at each role—Gui-Un “Decay” Jang and Jun-Woo “Void” Kang—rather than Hydration’s proficiency on each hero.
Of course, keeping him in a damage role on Rialto (where he had previously swapped to Sigma) allowed him to do this:
For a group of players that loves to get a little freaky with their strats, the Gladiators are probably the most lowkey team in the playoffs, from an energy standpoint—they never get too hype or too down about any single result, and there was a quiet sort of satisfaction to the way the team celebrated their win over Hangzhou on Thusday, with slightly bigger smiles and a group hug.
Afterward, Lane “Surefour” Roberts denied that the Gladiators’ previous playoff futility was “a curse,” but that was before they lost to Vancouver, sending them down to the loser’s bracket to face off against the Shock. We’ll see what they bust out on Thursday, I guess, and if they do go out, at least they’ll make it interesting.
6. The one thing everyone has in common when it comes to the Reign is this: an opinion. They could go all the way. They’re vastly overrated. They’re too cocky. They’re a breath of fresh air. They should play with less emotion. Their emotion is their engine.
All of the players I talked to over the weekend had something to say about this conversation starter of a team.
“Atlanta is the type of team whose mechanics are really good, so they depend on it a lot in order to win,” Seominsoo assessed.
“If you play into their tempo it can get dangerous,” Saebyeolbe cautioned.
“Atlanta is a team that feeds off momentum,” Choihyobin said. “If they’re able to get into a rhythm, they’ll be able to take that all the way to the Grand Finals.”
The Reign themselves would agree with Choihyobin, and have done so publicly. While their momentum was cut off by their loss to the NYXL, Andrej “Babybay” Francisty had a very grounded reaction to dropping down into the loser’s bracket, where they’ll face the Spark next.
“We’re not too down about it—we’re not done yet,” he told insider Mica Burton afterward. “I don’t think we feel any pressure [in the loser’s bracket]. Just the fact that we made it this far, and we know we still have a shot to win the entire league, we just use that as motivation. Nobody feels like, ‘Oh no, if we lose we’re going to be out of this,’ because honestly, nobody even thought we were going to be here in the first place.”
7. All playoff exits are the same, in a sense: a team’s journey is cut short, and everyone goes home to rest and recharge for the future. London and Seoul’s eliminations felt very different, though. The championship hangover effect was real for the Spitfire—there were significant cracks in their armor this season, and despite their pedigree and experience they never really managed to find their comfort level in any meta. They made just one stage playoffs, couldn’t hold onto a top-six spot at the end of the season, and lost steam after grinding out an exhausting win over Shanghai to make it to the double-elimination bracket. There could be significant roster considerations in the offseason to shore up the weaknesses that were exposed throughout the year, in addition to another head coach search.
The Dynasty’s exit may have been heartbreaking, as Ryujehong and Tobi both expressed in their emotional postmatch comments, but in hindsight they can be proud of how far they progressed from the inaugural season. Overall, the team took huge strides forward in terms of finding their identity and integrating a whole host of young players successfully throughout the season. Despite the lack of playoff success, this felt like a foundational year for Seoul and should set them up for even more growth in 2020, hopefully led by their iconic duo of leaders and a coaching staff that has stabilized.
8. On Thursday, we named Sinatraa as 2019 Most Valuable Player and Haksal as 2019 Rookie of the Year. While profiling the pair, I gained a lot of perspective on how far each of them has come, even though their journeys were vastly different.
The growth that Sinatraa has demonstrated over the past year and a half has been immense, to the point where he sometimes feels like a brand-new player. Haksal, while a bit younger than Sinatraa, has been a pro player for much longer, and some would argue he’s not really a rookie, at least not in spirit.
But no matter how long the resume is, the Overwatch League is the pinnacle of the esports, and so even veterans like Haksal—or his Titans teammates, or proven legends like Ryujehong and Tobi—carry a deep hunger to succeed here. It’s why the accolades and trophies and titles mean so much, on top of just the fact of making it to the league and competing as the best of the best; every achievement is another mountain they’ve scaled.
The 2019 Overwatch League Playoffs continue on Thursday. See below for matchups, match times, and where to watch: