How these OWL underdogs are leading their teams in the fight for the top.
T-minus less than three weeks until the start of the Overwatch League 2021 season. After the longest off-season to date, on April 16, twenty OWL franchises will begin the journey to have another chance at glory and another chance to be crowned as the best team in the world.
The road ahead is long and arduous, only two teams, so far, were able to go all the way, and one of them pulled it off twice. What the season holds ahead is a mystery; for all the pick 'ems and power rankings, there’s no certainty moving into the Overwatch League’s fourth year. This time around, maybe more than ever, the playing field looks so closely contested. Almost every team has put effort into rosters that could give them possibly the best results they’ve had in their history.
Some of these lineups look fantastic, maybe running some of the best iterations of teams that we’ve seen ever. Especially in the perceived top tier of teams, with the best normally recognised as the San Francisco Shock and Shanghai Dragons, with different combinations of teams that normally consist of the LA Gladiators, Philadelphia Fusion, and possibly the Chengdu Hunters or Washington Justice to round out the top six of the league. These teams play host to some of the best players in their respective regions and the world, so it’s pretty easy to get excited at just the thought of the skill ceiling for these rosters.
However, other teams have spared no expense at the very least in keeping parts of their rosters worthy of title contenders. While we don’t know how the complete package will turn out for a lot of the franchises, one of the things you can bet on, is the specific duos and parts of some rosters will be completely serving it this year. The combinations of players that will be featured here are equally as exciting as something you can see from a top team, and who knows, maybe everything can just click together, and each piece can meld perfectly to actually make a top seed a reality. We’ll have to wait and see what the final result is, but for now, here are some key players to keep an eye on in their 2021 debuts.
ANOTHER LAST BASTION – LONDON SPITFIRE’S TANK LINE
For every esport, there’s usually a time period where a specific region has a group of players that can be hailed as the best it had to offer. When these teams were in their prime, they looked like they could topple any challenger; think the CIS region’s Virtus.pro in CS:GO and Dota 2, North America’s Cloud9 in League of Legends, or Lunatic-Hai for South Korea in the early days of Overwatch.
Every year in the Overwatch League, we’re always promised that Europe will be introducing some of the finest talents the game has ever seen. However, historically, this narrative and promise has not held up. While it sometimes wasn’t an issue at the individual level, primarily European rosters have had a pretty bad run in the Overwatch League. Who could forget the massive train wreck that was the Florida Mayhem’s debut roster, or Team EnVy’s European core that became the epicentre of a disastrous first season on the Dallas Fuel? You also can’t count out the Paris Eternal who, in 2019, were clamoured to be a surefire threat in the GOATS-era of Overwatch, but who could never escape the middle of the pack in a meta they were supposed to be good at. So far, there has been a massive mishandling of European rosters in the Overwatch League.
2021 may change that, however. The lesson right now is that for a lot of teams, the final product as a whole may be difficult to judge at the moment. Because the variables between how each team will perform against each other on game day are so uncertain, you really can only guess where the level of competition is this upcoming season. However, if you can’t fully judge the product as a whole, what you can do is look at the different pieces that each team is presenting and make a judgement for there, and for the London Spitfire, the standout piece has to be their tank duo, Hadi Daniel "Hadi" Bleinagel and Mikkel "Molf1g" Djernes.
The Spitfire have elected to promote the core of their academy team, British Hurricane, who as a squad absolutely ran Europe for the majority of 2020, with a total of six Contenders titles to their names. Hadi and Molf1g were a huge part of that success, which as a tank duo, helped completely stifle the competition to a point where the Hurricane seemed absolutely untouchable. Into the Overwatch League season, you can expect Hadi and Molf1g to be the unbreakable backbone of London; they will always be there to give standout performances.
2021 will have fewer surprises than ever in the Overwatch League. Outside of balance changes, there will be no new heroes to worry about, meaning the stability of a roster is even more likely this year. This looks to be especially prudent for Hadi and Molf1g, who can play any combination of tanks at the top level, and if you get these two on their comfort heroes, they look like players who can bring it even to the best. They showed that reliability in their match against the LA Gladiators at the Steel Series Invitational, in a close five map series. Even though it was a loss, prior to this match no one expected London to be able to play it close to a team that was so highly regarded. It was the leadership and synergy from Hadi and Molf1g led the Spitfire to a strong series, and while the tournament itself wasn't highly indicative of the level of preparation we could see in the Overwatch League, London looked good, and a lot of that comes from the stability of the tank play.
LET FREEDOM RING – THE BOSTON UPRSING’S SUPPORT LINE
Along with Bobby Schmurda, 2021 will hopefully get to see another widely beloved figure be released from prison, flex support Sang-min "Myunb0ng" Seo. Yes, the once, highly anticipated back-to-back Contenders finalist, was locked away in the inescapable prison that was the 2020 Boston Uprising. Outside of their first win against the Houston Outlaws in the notorious seven-map first-to-three toilet bowl at the Washington Homestand, in the next twenty matches, Boston would go on to only win… once.
The worst performance from a team since the record-setting 2018 Shanghai Dragons, the 2020 Uprising went 2-19 in the regular season, and every week in every match, fans had to solemnly watch as Boston became the North America Division’s collective punching bag. The worst part about it was having to watch this widely awaited potential star be relegated to the worst team in the league when it was so obvious that he was the best performer in every match. Every loss, Myungb0ng did absolutely everything he could to try and salvage some type of victory. Like Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, Myungb0ng was that standout quarterback whose team could never complete a single pass thrown.
This year, however, Boston has more promising prospects, and while they admittedly don’t look like contenders for the title this year, they at the very least look competitive, and after 2020 that has to be more than enough. One of the reasons why is this impressive backline of Myungb0ng and Korean Contenders 2020 champion Hong-gyu "Faith" Kim. Faith was another hotly anticipated pickup, and really if Boston is good at anything, it's snagging promising support players off the market. Faith plays that aggressive style of main support, especially since he hails from the school of Lucio freaks, much like his peers in Daniel "FunnyAstro" Hathaway or Jae-gon "LeeJaeGon" Lee. He’ll definitely be fun to watch and key for the Uprising, and paired with a known great performer like Myungb0ng, at the very least, this support line will look solid at the absolute worst.
Including the rest of the team built around them, this year’s Boston Uprising looks pretty decent. It’s nothing incredibly amazing, but talented enough to bring some potential upsets and fun matches, especially with a backline that looks more exciting and promising than a lot of their other counterparts in the league.
THERE’S ONE LESSON LEARNED AT LEAST – NEW YORK EXCELSIOR’S DPS LINE
Alright, ignoring the typical spiel of the history behind the NYXL’s old roster, let’s look just at 2020, the team’s worst season so far in their history. New York had problems in every role, but if you want to choose the worst issue, it had to be their DPS line. Seung-jun "WhoRU" Lee did not work out in the slightest, and the absence of Hae-seong "Libero" Kim and Yeon-kwan "Nenne" Jeong for the majority of the season, just basically meant it was up Jong-ryeol "Saebyeolbe" Park to be everything for this team and more, which he was just simply never going to be able to do. Hyojong "Haksal" Kim did provide a breath of fresh air and great reprieve for the team for some short while, but after his retirement, the team was left with a group of players they simply could not work with again moving into their fourth season.
The story was simple; New York needed to make drastic changes to the team; they needed to adapt, and looking at the pieces they’ve collected in the off-season, they at the very least have a group of DPS players that can do the same. The lineup of Seung-woo "FEATH5R" Lee, Young-woo "Flora" Lim, Seung-hyun "Ivy" Lee, and Gwang-won "Gwangboong" Kim, might not look noteworthy at first glance. Sure, there’s Ivy, who has looked great at times on the Philadelphia Fusion last season, but the other three are Contenders rookies with not a lot of prominence in the spotlight of their respective regions.
However, upon closer inspection, this New York DPS line has the potential to actually be one of the best in Asia, and that’s not a light statement to make. Ivy was a proven star on the Fusion, and he looks to bring that experience and talent along with him to the DPS line of New York. Ivy is a true flex player, projectile or secondary hitscan can suit him well, and his level of performance will be absolutely necessary against the already stacked APAC region. His counterpart in FEATH5R also has a wide array of heroes under his belt and looks to be a nice complement to Ivy’s pool. These two players provide a lot of variety and adaptability to the front line, something New York has learned from their first three seasons; it's important not to put all the flex responsibility on one player as they have done in the past.
As if that weren’t enough, because it especially isn’t when you’re in the toughest region in the league, New York definitely has learned that they need to have star power if they want to compete again. Last year New York struggled, a lot of that came from the lack of flexibility and raw power on damage. This year they have Flora that can serve as another Sombra specialist and a talented secondary hitscan player, but that raw impressive star power comes in the form of Gwangboong. Like other impressive hitscans before him, Gwangboong is a freak of nature, whose raw mechanical ability is absolutely beyond impressive to watch. He has become a rising star for New York this off-season, and if his gameplay continues as it has already been showcased, then New York's DPS line might be able to put in a world of hurt for even the toughest teams. When you watch Gwangboong play, you can see the flashes of Do-hyeon "Pine" Kim, the former New York hitscan player who took the Overwatch world by storm in 2018. If Gwangboong can bring the shades of Pine's dominance back to NYC, not only could it just simply be exciting to watch, it could become enough to really showcase that New York is more than ready to fight back to the top spot they used to reside in. If every piece comes together if everything clicks, New York might be the ultimate dark horse of the APAC region.
All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment