How do you improve who are already great?
The season is over for another handful of North American teams as the number of remaining competitors in the playoffs dwindles down to four teams. The dream of the 2020 championship is dead for these teams, and yet the majority of them have nothing to be ashamed of, falling firmly in the zone of delightful and even inspiring surprises. Given that many of them created pure magic in 2020, it might feel a little rushed to demand even bigger and better things of them, until you realise that the transfer window opens soon, and plans have to be in place by then. Overwatch League might have a month-long off-season, but especially Overwatch League staff, never get to rest for long.
What are the strategies that the teams who almost made it to Korea could employ in the off-season to get even further in 2021?
Florida Mayhem - Depth to the core
What a beautiful year the Florida Mayhem have had, repainting their legacy in all kinds of rose shades. Building on their South Korean core of the second season, the team brought in the pink power rangers of RunAway in Jun-ki "Yaki" Kim, Nam-jin "Gangnamjin" Kang, and head coach Dae-kuk "KuKi" Kim. Whether it was growth alongside each other, or an uplifting of the shaken core of season two by the fresh talent coming in, the entire team improved significantly, with Beom-jun "Gargoyle" Lee becoming a monster in the off-tank position, Sang-bum "BQB" Lee showing his sheer brainpower, and Pan-seung "Fate" Koo coming back to the levels he had once played at the Valiant in season 1.
Depending on the meta, Mayhem became very dangerous to the top tier teams, knocking Philadelphia Fusion out of the May Melee bracket to play the Shock in the final. In the pre-season, very few expected a glow-up like they had, but in order for them beat the competitive treadmill, the Mayhem can not rest on their laurels for the 2021 season, likely requiring adjustments to move into the top three.
One position that appeared to be an obvious weakness for the Mayhem during the 2020 season was the lack of a second main support player to cover for the weaknesses in Jun-soo "Kris" Choi’s champion pool. Already identified in the pre-season as a possible weak link, Kris delivered admirably but couldn’t hold a candle to the likes of Daniel "FunnyAstro" Hathaway, Jae-gon "LeeJaeGon" Lee and Grant "moth" Espe. This isn’t to say that Kris would have to be replaced, but that even some of the best main supports in the league needed to be exchanged frequently during Baptiste metas when their skillset failed them.
In general, depth will likely be an area of improvement that the Mayhem will have to take a look at. Compared to the likes of the Shanghai Dragons and the Philadelphia Fusion, their DPS roster looked thin, despite the undeniable qualities of their starters. It’s important that we have to remind ourselves that even players of the calibre of Jae-hyeok "Carpe" Lee were moved out of a starting position if the meta required it. Depth allows players to specialise in a tighter range of heroes which the Mayhem could’ve gained from. The departure of at least Jung-woo "Sayaplayer" Ha appears likely, and a replacement should help the Mayhem tremendously.
Los Angeles Valiant - Soft reset in season 4?
A piece of gum, a handful of hungry young lads, and about $3.50 is all it took for the MacGyver of Overwatch League Mike "Packing10" Szklanny to create a top five roster in North America. Overcoming bumps in the road like having to let go of two of their assistant coaches in Warsi Faraaz "Stoop" Waris and Justin "reprize" Hand, Valiant regularly brought it to the top teams though admittedly still performing a tier below the Shock and the Fusion over the season. Still, judging by pre-season power rankings, they are every bit as impressive as the Boston Uprising of season 1, having effectively taken over as the budget dark horse team that underappreciated players should look to flock to for season 4.
The Valiant are unlikely to fully retain their breakout talent due to their market approach, likely being open to sell-off one or the other player if the offer is right. With that, the wheel of trying to find the diamonds in the rough would start once again. The coaching and management team have proven to be adaptable to market realities, but there are some hurdles in place which will limit their movement. As general manager Mike Schwartz stated, signing players from regions outside of South Korea, Europe, and North America is a challenge given regulations and visas. Of these regions, it’s likely the case that the European region will be the most fertile ground for underappreciated talent, after the teams with big pockets are done grazing off the perennial green pastures of the likes of Element Mystic and O2 Blast.
Unless the Valiant fundamentally change their spending habits, they will likely remain in the underdog position they feel so comfortable in, and the team around Packing10 will have to create a miracle a new each season with the Shock but a dot on the horizon.
Washington Justice - Proving the concept with the last possible chance
The majority of the teams that had an amazing turnaround with their franchise from season to season the likes of the Shanghai Dragons and Florida Mayhem is that they inspired confidence in their core roster many months before their final breakthrough. Whether it was Shanghai winning stage 3 last year or the Mayhem at least finishing solidly in stage 4, a proof of concept has to be shown that could even be improved upon as starting from zero is an incredibly challenging task.
Just when we thought that the Justice roster failed to deliver that spark of hope, the lifeline of season playoffs rolled around, and a late restructuring of the team allowed the team to have an impressive run that allows their fans to dream for the 2021 season.
While they did have an incredible run, surely even the Justice front office is aware of how the stars aligned for them this post-season, and that their job of rebuilding the roster into a top-performing team is far from done.
The first move in the off-season will likely be Chang-hoon "rOar" Gye leaving at least the active roster. Throughout the season, the player had looked out of his depth and it appears to be no coincidence that the team had their best performances when the main tank position could be entirely avoided. In order to close the gap to the top teams, the Justice will likely require one top tier tank with another promising rookie coming in to take hero pool pressure off the starter. The calibre of the signing might be even more important given the limited length of Gui-un "Decay" Jang’s contract, who will likely need both numerical and on-server reasons to stay with the Justice when the likes of the Fusion are openly courting the player.
The idea of a “mean and lean” roster with no more than eight players has been thoroughly disproven this season, with most of the top teams having at least nine players, and we have little reason to believe that this will change in 2021, especially given that we could expect Overwatch 2 heroes to be played at some point, increasing the hero pool requirements on each player significantly. Given the inconsistency of Minseok "AimGod" Kwon and Yeonjoon "ArK" Hong, and the aforementioned challenges of the support role this year, at least one back-up to cover for all kinds of possible main and flex support combinations will be required.
If the Justice start the off-season with a signing of an outstanding main tank and an additional top tier flex and main support while securing Decay, they should have your attention for season 4 as one of the potential top teams.
Atlanta Reign - Doing it by the book and still struggling
We can’t help but measure the Atlanta Reign against their performance in season 2, which saw them finish in a position that very much reminds of the aforementioned team’s qualities of being able to punch up their initially perceived skill level. At the same time, the Reign are a reminder that despite obvious improvements in regions that they lacked in season 2, there’s still a real possibility of an underperformance. We have to hedge that evaluation that the Reign were likely one of the most prepared teams to the travel requirements of homestands, and I believe that their organisational structure would’ve given them an immense advantage, likely to the point that other teams would’ve tried to emulate their preparation. Alas, a global pandemic came around and took one of their major competitive advantages. I suppose they should’ve prepared for that.
It’s hard to even pinpoint what the Reign did wrong, because they failed with a very similar approach that the Fusion employed. Building up their own talent from scratch with their academy team, and bringing top tier rookies up, while bringing in other highly contested prodigies from other academy teams, there was little fault in their team-building approach. It follows inevitably that when the fabric of the team is sound, the coaching has to be the first in line for questioning. The recently picked up Cas "Casores" van Andel of the San Francisco Shock was the one coach that the Reign had to let go between the season. Could that really have made all of the difference?
More likely, the Reign suffered under the new requirements of hero pools, and while they showcased an ability to specialise in season 2, their adaptability was not up to par. It’s especially confusing that proven to be flexible players like Joon "Erster" Jeong had a mediocre year. Ranking among the best players in season 2, we went into the season with Erster as a potential superstar in mind and were disappointed.
Whether or not the Reign would need to make changes, it is likely that they will, potentially thinning out their roster initially to once again make big moves in the transfer market. A lot of their market movements will likely depend on whether the Overwatch League will move forward with Hero Pools. We’ve known head coach Brad “Sephy” Rajani to be a publically active learner from his mistakes and if Hero Pools were to continue, we could expect the team to move forward with a strategy that will incorporate the required flexibility to adjust to any given meta both in the area of player recruitment and coaching staff.
Image via Blizzard Entertainment