Perhaps the new dawn for the Excelsior needs time to catch its own shadow.
Living up to their namesake, the 2021 New York Excelsior are a new-look team. As one of the league’s most recognisable and prestigious franchises, the Excelsior face fresh challenges as they approach the start of the Overwatch League’s fourth season.
However, these new hurdles are not easily vaulted, and the sunrise that New York fans deserve is a bit further off than you might hope. Stylistically, statistically, and even reaching into their historical results, the 2021 New York Excelsior have impossible shoes to fill.
Historically, New York has been a city of success in Overwatch. The 2018-2019 New York Excelsior will likely go down as one of the most recognisable and successful teams just based on their consistent performances. Over the course of Overwatch’s competitive history, few teams can boast the same level of consistent success that New York had in the past. During the inaugural season, they managed to find their way to every single stage final and managed to win two of them.
While they didn’t find the same level of success in the 2019 season, they ended stage one as the Atlantic Division leader, in stage two, they finished within the top five teams, and in stage three, they returned and led the Atlantic Division again, going 7-0. However, one fact that people tend to give New York credit for is their playoff performance. Finishing third when you have two teams playing at their peak, namely the Vancouver Titans and the San Francisco Shock, is no small task. New York fans know excellence; that’s what they’ve been given for years now. However, this success came by way of their unique style of Overwatch.
When we think of modern stylistic Overwatch teams like the 2019 Chengdu Hunters and their Wrecking Ball, variation of GOATS might come to mind. Perhaps the Shanghai Dragon’s stage three playoff performance from the same year might be more your speed, or maybe you're more partial to the 2018 Houston Outlaws Junkrat compositions? Regardless, most of the time, we think of style in Overwatch as something that is hero-centric. We can debate if that is the case and why that might be, there are other ways to have an identifiable style in Overwatch.
Take the 2019 finalists; both the Vancouver Titans and San Francisco Shock were known for being incredibly proactive and would dominate the tempo of matches. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, we have the New York Excelsior.
When it comes to identifying New York’s style, let’s take the New York Excelsior’s match against the Los Angeles Valiant from the stage three semi-finals.
Centred around giving their ace support player Bang "JJoNak" Sung-hyeon as much space as possible, New York’s tanks notably are focused on having a strong presence around the point before the objective unlocks. While the initial fight doesn’t go their way, once they gain map control, New York’s frontline is very controlled in where they are taking their engagements.
On Lighthouse, the Excelsior are completely content with sitting on the point and letting Kim "Libero" Hae-seong on Pharah and JJoNak’s Zenyatta pelt the Valiant ahead of their engagements. However, this flips on Well quite considerably. Due to how enclosed the point is for Well, New York doesn’t have the same tailored gameplan.
The focus shifts from enabling JJoNak with their overwhelming map control, to giving him the space and breathing room needed to perform. Often times they do this by having Kim "Mano" Dong-gyu and Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol dive onto the enemy Zenyatta. This not only has the potential to pick off an important piece of the Valiant’s composition, but it also baits out their Transcendence as well as dictating where their tanks can position.
New York’s reactive and measured approach continued well into the GOATS era in 2019. Facing down the Vancouver Titans, a team that thrived in this metagame, in the stage two semi-finals, their two opposing styles couldn’t be more different.
Take the first fight on Sanctuary; immediately, you see Vancouver press the issue while New York kites back and gives space. Even when New York takes the enemy D.Va out of her mech-suit, they remain measured and respect the Titan’s uncanny ability to thrive in aggressive brawls.
This happens again in their first fight on Meka Base as well. The initial press forward from the Titans is met with steps back, followed by a counter-swing from Mano, and their own small jab of pressure covered by Zarya bubbles. Even when the enemy Reinhardt is nearly dead, they refuse to charge forward. New York takes the small positional advantage and attempts to leverage that into added pressure on the supports and then taking the fight.
The narrative that the New York Excelsior, in their first two years, was a patient and passive team, discounts the nuance of how they enabled their stars, but it wasn’t entirely wrong. This is also supported statistically.
Statistically, the New York Excelsior have been freakish anomalies, this was brought on by their more reactive and measured style, but nevertheless, it still remains impressive. Measuring just the 2018 Overwatch League regular-season games and excluding stage playoff matches to keep the total number of maps played more equal, New York took 2,134 team fights and won approximately 57% of them. The average total number of team fights take across the league was 2,161. While they aren’t too far below the average, their first death rates compound the idea that the 2018 Excelsior were an incredibly measured team.
Out of the twelve inaugural teams, New York had the second-lowest first death rate with 43.6%. They also led the league that season in team fight win rate after first death with 32.9%. New York took fewer fights on average, rarely got picked off, and when they did, they still managed to remain competitive.
The 2019 Overwatch League season echoed that same measured attribute. New York ended the regular season with a team fight win rate of 55.3%. To put that into perspective, that was the second-highest in the league. When it came to the number of team fights, the NYXL took a total of 1,471 team fights. The average across the league was 1,564.5 team fights. The only team to take fewer team fights and also have a higher win rate was the San Francisco Shock with 1,425 total team fights while also managing a 57.6% team fight win percentage. The most fights with the lowest win percentage was the Boston Uprising, with 1659 team fight initiated and a dismal 40.4% win rate.
The same goes for their first deaths as well. New York was ranked as the lowest in the league in terms of first death rate with 41.5% and was ranked second in the league for win rate after first deaths with 22.1%.
With these three notions in mind, the picture is painted clear. You have a notable style, one that bred impressive statistical finishes and results for seasons straight. Those are shoes that almost no franchise, team or player is going to fill after a rebuild. That’s also not to discredit the 2020 Overwatch League season, but with the COVID-19 global pandemic, no team can really be held super responsible for taking a dip in performance.
That all changes in 2021.
Year on year, the Overwatch League has steadily become more and more competitive, and this year is no different. Not only that but with New York now playing in the Eastern Region, they’ve walked into the lion’s den. Pre-season projections mark the Asian region as the more difficult one out of the two. Not only do they have a deep well of strong teams to have to face, the smaller pool means there isn’t as much of a chance to hopefully draw a weaker opponent. And, as the cherry on top, New York has rebuilt the roster nearly from the ground up.
Outside of retaining JJoNak and tank player Kim "BiaNcA" Dong-wook, the Excelsior are a fairly young team. Yes, they’ve signed more experienced players like Lee "Ivy" Seung-hyun and, at the very least, Jo "Yakpung" Gyeong-mu debuted on the Toronto Defiant in 2019, but outside of that, the core of this team is very young. That’s not to say that is a bad thing inherently, but it should add a sense of volatility on top of the fact that the 2021 Overwatch League is stacked against them.
Throughout their roster reveal trailers, the imagery of a new dawn is constant. And perhaps they need to take steps backwards to move forward, closer towards that sunrise. However, until there are boots on the ground and actual progress made, it’s hard to forget just how impressive the past iterations of the Excelsior have been. When fans of the Overwatch League look at New York’s logo, they get transported back. They remember the dominance, they remember JJoNak’s debut, and it’s difficult to separate their shinning past from what looks to be an uncertain future. The potential is undoubtedly there, but it needs time to blossom and find itself. This is not the same team that we remember, and they’ll need time to even scratch the surface of their past.
The fact of the matter is this; it will be a Herculean effort to see the 2021 New York Excelsior roster match their past achievements this season.
Those shoes are two sizes too big—at least for right now.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment