The separation of tiers and competition was one of the strongest fears moving into the Overwatch League. Unfortunately, that fear was made evident on day one as the Los Angeles Valiant and Los Angeles Gladiators shut out their opponents the San Francisco Shock and Shanghai Dragons respectively. The difference between the top tier, mid-tier, and bottom tier of teams is profound and tedious. To succinctly put the expectations of the league in focus, teams will only be competitive within their tiers and nothing more – upsets may be more of a misnomer. And for those matches that are close, the impact of the actual game on the league standings make those matches function as an encore for the most obtuse fan.
However, do not tell the niche fan any of the above; while the separation gap between teams presents a logistical nightmare for league coordinators (selling a product with little parity and matches devoid of purpose is a challenge), the opening week of the Overwatch League was still jubilantly fun. Selling fun to a community entranced in the new spectacle is much easier than selling complete instability – hence, moving forward, the narrative from the community will be on the players and their own battles more so than standings, playoffs, or impact. The infancy of the league implicates several unknowns, which puts the onus of week two on closing the gap of competition and becoming increasingly more competitive by player strategy.
Overwatch League Stage One: Week Two – Closing the Gap
Recap of Stage One, Week One
As alluded to, the opening day of the league was headlined by two quick blow outs, then an exhilarating match of the night. The Seoul Dynasty came in ranking first or second in most power rankings, but had a test with the emphatic Dallas Fuel. Both teams showed a deeper understanding of game and map mechanics in the opening minutes. The Fuel even jumped to an early advantage due to their flanking and ability to coral the Dynasty. However, the Dynasty won 2-1, close opening night with purely austere fundamentals.
Thursday was not headlined by any powerhouse, save the London Spitfire looked fantastic against the Florida Mayhem in a convincing 3-1 win. However, the world got to see the Philadelphia Fusion play as a unit for the first time. The Houston Outlaws proved a perfect opponent – a team not overtly nuanced in skill, rather marked by strategy. The Outlaws came out with that strategy, setting off perfectly timed strikes to sweep wide swaths of the Fusion. But with the game pushing toward overtime, the Fusion were resilient, playing behind support Alberto “Neptuno” Molinillo to take Lijiang Tower for an inspirational team victory.
Day three saw a clear shaping of tiers – the Valiant had more personnel flexibility than the Fuel, leaving them guessing in a 3-0 sweep; the Boston Uprising swept the Mayhem with a quick 4-0 series. The Shock closed the night with a concise 3-1 victory over the Dragons.
Saturday afternoon was a chance for the Fusion to prove they were a lot better than rankings credited them for; they were not. The Spitfire put themselves in the top tier with a 4-0 sweep of the Fusion. The New York Excelsior beating the Outlaws 3-1 was not so much commentary on the state of the Excelsior (they have a lot of questions), but a commentary on the Outlaws lacking fundamental strategy. And just in case anyone thought the Dynasty were going to suffer a loss, they only improved in a 4-0 sweep of the Gladiators.
Stage One Week Two Power Rankings
The only major changes here are due to the Outlaws looking confused and a bit lost, while the Fusion came out stronger than expected. The biggest riser in the future may be the Mayhem; they did not look holistically broken, but were poignantly boring. Moving the Outlaws up is going to be a tough sell due to a lack of functionality.
- Los Angeles Valiant
- Seoul Dynasty
- London Spitfire (Up from four)
- Dallas Fuel (Down from three)
- New York Excelsior
- Los Angeles Gladiators
- San Francisco Shock
- Boston Uprising (Up from 10)
- Philadelphia Fusion (Up from 12)
- Florida Mayhem (Down from nine)
- Houston Outlaws (Down from eight)
- Shanghai Dragons
A prominent strategy in Overwatch is flanking, most succinct with a quick utilization of a tank and support in the forward position, while Widomaker, Zenyatta, or another long-range unit sets the stage for a DPS player. The best flanking units of the DPS heroes tend to be Tracer, Reaper, or Genji. The synthesis is then finding the quickest, yet sneakiest, alternative route through a map and positioning oneself there. Nothing too extreme; but a technique demanding practice to execute.
Several teams, with the Dallas Fuel being a prominent example of this on Junkertown, utilized flanking to break the core of a defense. The key is to sweep in, sight unseen, kill any snipers, then puncture the heart of the defensive set, typically a tank. Once those two units are dead, the support and DPS who remained up front can penetrate the point, connect with the flanking units, and advance either toward the target or break through with the payload.
Flanking in the Overwatch League becomes a nuanced practice of catching opposing teams off guard, unprepared, and entirely focused in their own brevity. Flanking is also intrinsically a risk; failure is implicative of lost time on the clock – a desirable commodity which allows for in-game flexibility and changes.
Flanking also demands the opponent adjust their strategy if an initial frontal assault is successfully asserted. At this point, even if the flank fails, a subsequent and rapid secondary push might catch the tank or support off-guard. Thus, a successful flank is a process of focusing on the target and quickly recognizing when, where, and how to punch once the enemy is in chaos.
Who Are the London Spitfire?
The Spitfire showed up to the party last week ready to go. Admittedly, they jumped two weaker teams in the Mayhem and Fusion, but had a convincing tone about themselves. The Spitfire may be a sneaky team who will align in that upper echelon come end of the season. So, who are the Spitfire, and what makes them so good?
The Spitfire are owned and operated by Cloud9, a renowned esports operation in Europe. Although they are Europe’s sole Overwatch League franchise now, they have the attention of the league. Jack Etienne, owner of Cloud9, built the marketing on competition and the youth desire to get into esports. Hence, he is harnessing the same momentous marketing instituted by the British Premier Leagues.
Ironically, none of the players are British – in fact, they are all from the defunct Asian APEX League. Joon-yeong “Profit” Park is one of their two leaders in the DPS front – he helped institute the comeback victory over the Mayhem in match play this week. Their other DPS lead is Ji-Kyeok “Birdring” Kim, a functional leader for the offensive point, and a precise Widomaker on defense.
Fortunately for the Spitfire, many of the players already knew each other through the APEX League. Which means their 12-man roster has full flexibility in design and map approach. Albeit, one of their problems is an inability to adjust to a new style of play from the APEX League – old habits are hard to break in Overwatch.
Chan-Hyung “Fissure” Baek and Jae-Hui “Gesture” Hong are the two sole tanks of the team; a roster construction strategy which emboldens the cohesion between fast, traditional movement with DPS and support tied together.
Seung-Tae “Bdosin” Choi, Hyeon-Woo “HaGoPeun” Jo, Won-sik “Closer” Jung, and Jong-Seok “Nus” Kim take over the interchangeable slew of support members. Dong-jun “Rascal” Kim and Dong-eun “Hooreg” Lee are the remaining two DPS players, allowing for fundamental changes in the roster when necessary. However, their often-overlooked members are Seung-Hyun “WooHyaL” Seong and Jun-ho “Fury” Kim. WooHyaL and Fury are both flex roles, supporting the back end of the roster. Fury can play either an aggressive D.Va or Zarya, while WooHyaL can be either of the above with some intertwined Roadhog (although the current meta prevents that).
The Problem of Tiers
Belabored upon in the opening, but needed to be detailed with more focus is the problem of tiers in the Overwatch League. There is a dichotomy in the problem; in one hand, tiers are positive and introduce the psychology of comfort watching. The other, however, presents a league in its infancy which has little parity, upsets, and matches carry little surprises outside of those tiers.
However, before moving forward there are two other notions in this problem. Foremost, the Overwatch League’s fanbase will alleviate many of these problems precisely because esports is born out of a love for the game, and by and large, still very niche. The growth of esports to a wider fanbase will come within five years’ time. Hence, in the initial year, having tiers as the status quo is acceptable as the current viewers are in love with the process, not only the results.
The second notion is the most obvious: every sporting league ever will create tiers. The difference in the Overwatch League is the factor of only 12 leagues, hence variety is even further limited.
Delving into an alarmist mentality after one week is premature and a bit harsh. To cut short, tiers become a problem only if other teams become completely incompatible with their presentation and fanbase, and due to infancy, lose revenue and go defunct. Since players are currently on a one-contract basis, there will not be a disparity in free-agency. However, there will be a disparity in connections. Money, esports knowledge, and connection dictate who is successful, and the more success, the more connections.
The Valiant, Fuel, Spitfire, and Dynasty all have top rosters precisely because they were able to net the best pitches in the signing period due to connections. If the connection disparity continues due to intrinsic success and apt boredom, then the tiers will widen, new fans will not come, and the League will wallow in a mediocre niche and become defunct without opportunity.
The answer to this problem is not artificially managing player movement from a league point of view, but hope strategy, practice, and technique will quickly close the gap. Then again, no parity may be a blessing. There is a certain truth to the psychology of fans being comfortable knowing who and what to watch on a consistent basis. Having teams such as the Valiant or Dynasty being complete dominate at least provides fantastic gameplay to watch.
Best Matchups to Watch
With three matchups per day, and each match ranging from 90 minutes to two hours, here is the (predicted) best match to watch each day of the week. (All times are in Pacific Standard Time)
Wednesday January 17th – Houston Outlaws vs. Shanghai Dragons (8PM)
Watch the match between number 11 and 12 in the power rankings? Do so, because Overwatch is fundamentally fun no matter who plays. One of the differences between esports and on-field sports, is esports still can look exquisite when two bad teams play each other. When two bad teams play each other in football, watching is a difficult sell. No matter, the Outlaws and Dragons will be battling each other for the respective 11 seed next week – watch for better execution from the Outlaws while the Dragons refine their technical approach.
Thursday January 18th – Philadelphia Fusion vs. Los Angeles Gladiators (6PM)
The Fusion and Gladiators is an intriguing matchup of two question marks. The Fusion will be battling an opponent more apt to their tier, while the Gladiators will be taking on a squad looking to squash and contrived opinions. The Fusion and Gladiators are both young, inexperienced teams with a theme of inflexibility. They are good where they are good, and bad where they are bad. Naturally, however, this is a matchup allowing for some more inexperienced aspects of their strategy to more thoroughly vetted.
Friday January 19th – London Spitfire vs. Dallas Fuel (8PM)
The match the power rankings needed and wanted – number three and four battling in a way too early season match. A plethora of factors will change over the course of the season, but the stage and narrative for that second tier will be set this week. The flanking Fuel will play into the hands of a traditional and nuanced Spitfire team. Yes, the league is young, but the Spitfire represent a traditionally bold strategy, while the Fuel have been more apt to break the meta. Then again, the Spitfire could shock everyone with a new-found flexibility; they will need to operate in that style on Saturday.
Saturday January 20th – Los Angeles Valiant vs. London Spitfire (11AM)
The week of the Spitfire – not only one gut check on Friday night, but another on Saturday morning. If they are going to be an early and consistent pain in year one, they will probably shine through. Since they do battle the Fuel the night before, they will need to show resolve with an entirely new game plan on Saturday morning. The Valiant will have plenty of time to watch and analyze film just before, putting the onus on the Spitfire’s strategic flexibility. In other words, Saturday morning may be more emblematic of a coaching clinic.
Main Image: Blizzard Entertainment