Do big moves pay off? Well, we’re going to have to find out.
Every competition has to evolve over time. Sports, esports, TV game shows, anything that has a competitive nature and edge to it will require better strategies and bigger moves to triumph above the rest. To win the game, eventually, you have to change the game, to take the script into your own hands, and rewrite the narrative yourself. That’s the mark of a champion, a person, or team that understood what needed to be done, what needed to be accomplished, and worked until they achieved those dreams.
“What do I/we need to do to win? What is my path to victory, to ensure I end up on top”? These are the questions teams and players have to constantly ask themselves and constantly focus on, whenever they’re competing. “What do we have to do, in order to win, and how do we accomplish that with just the pieces at our disposal”? For the teams in the Overwatch League during the season, it all focuses on coaching, adapting, and understanding how the game is played well enough when it matters.
So far, there are only two teams, who have had their strategy and their plan work out for them, the London Spitfire, and the two-time champions the San Francisco Shock. One team clicked and slammed their foot on the gas at just the right time, and the other was two seasons of sheer masterful calculation and dominance over the rest of the competition. Both had their hiccups, both had their moments of mistakes and failures, but both were the only two teams to win when it counted, in these past three seasons of the Overwatch League.
So, as it usually goes, the off-season rolled around, and all sights were set on OWL 2021. Several teams looked at the end goal, painfully acknowledged how they had fallen short in the past three seasons, and made the decision to drastically change their identities, for better or for worse. Out of the 20 in the league, there are four key teams, with vital figures added to their lineups, that signify a new direction, and hopefully, a successful vision to the all-important win in the final match of the season.
Yakpung and the New York Excelsior
Obviously, the NYXL completely changing their beloved three-year-long eternally semi-finals locked roster was a big heartbreaker for many fans, but most definitely a change that could be seen as a strong positive for the franchise in the years to come. Now, with only Sung-hyeon "JJoNak" Bang remaining as the sole survivor of the new year NYXL apocalypse, New York have to prove themselves in a league where the cards are already stacked against them.
If they stay in APAC, they’re victim to a possibly dominant Philadelphia Fusion, a very hungry Shanghai Dragons, and even a wild card Hangzhou Spark that made pretty considerably strong moves in the off-season. North America is no different, the San Francisco Shock are still there, waving down at everyone from the top of the mountain. The Gladiators, Justice, and Fuel have all made huge off-season moves that shook the core of people’s expectations for the upcoming season. The battle is nowhere near started for NY, and already it’s looking like another uphill battle from the middle of the pack. With all this adversity, every player has to play to earn their spot, but the cornerstone of their prospects lies in the hands of Gyeong-mu "Yakpung" Jo.
A returning player from 2019 after having a very quiet year on the Toronto Defiant, Yakpung is reemerging from the grind in Korean Contenders. There, he garnered a win with O2_Blast and due to his performance, has been widely praised and talked about as one of the best main tanks on the market since the start of the off-season. So, he and the NYXL really have this one chance to redeem themselves and escape the shadows of the past, where not only he was left behind in the pages of history, but so was that iconic New York squad, that could just never close the gap when they needed to most. If Yakpung is as good as people hype him up to be, he has the opportunity to be one of the best main tanks in the league, and a huge pickup for New York that will sing them all the praises of once again being top dogs in the league.
Decay and the Washington Justice
What was the one thing everyone predicted about the 2021 off-season, while 2020 was still rolling? That no matter what happened in the playoffs, or what behind the scenes drama was revealed; Gui-un "Decay" Jang was going to get the bag. Whoever had massive bundles of cash for this superstar after his departure from the Dallas Fuel was going to strike big. However, no one could have guessed that it would have been bottom of the barrel Washington Justice that snagged him right before the playoffs, and 0% of people predicted the Justice would then completely butcher their way to a top-four finish with Decay leading the high-energy charge.
If their playoff run wasn’t bad enough for any Washington Justice haters out there, not only were they able to keep Decay, but they then sign three widely-prized free agents to completely beef themselves up to levels no one even imagined for them in 2021. The Justice are no longer the meek, socially distant pariahs they were only a few weeks before the playoffs, they are now a top dog - goliath brick wall that is going to absolutely bully North America, or so they hope.
The Justice aren’t out of the woods yet, because yes, on paper they look strong, but they still have to prove that their last-minute cramming session in the 2020 playoffs wasn’t just a fluke. If the Justice can pull out consistent top-level performances throughout the season, and keep Decay at peak form, then they’re only a couple of months away from becoming this year’s Shanghai success story.
Moth and the LA Gladiators
It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Gladiators let’s be real. In season one, you could consider them one of the fan favourites to win. Rounded out with famous or increasingly popular players, the hometown team, and filled with some of the best talents of that era of Overwatch. Except, while the Gladiators were always loud and proud and unique, they could never actually cross into the upper echelon of the league’s elites. They almost did when they went 1-0 against the London Spitfire in the 2018 playoffs, but because of the admittedly terrible bracket format of that year, were quickly disposed of in their subsequent two rematches.
Then came 2019, where they picked up their next superstar in Decay, but with the GOATS meta proving unmasterable for them, they then were subsequently absent for a majority of that season’s narrative, again, having the full support of their fans behind them, but falling increasingly behind, more so than their debut season. The Gladiators continued to slip, and come 2020, they had their moments in certain matches, but nothing really ever came together barring some exciting plays from their best players.
Now in 2021, the LA Gladiators have said, forget it, we’re going to be a super team now, and subsequently made big-money moves to ensure their place as a potential top-dog of NA. Maintaining the best players from last years roster, rounding up with highly sought after and promising free agents, and the Gladiators now finally ask of us, how on Earth can you forget about us now?
While it’s true their roster is incredibly mesmerising; the Glads are not without criticism. What makes this season the one that’s going to work? What about the formula has changed other than new interchangeable variables? Once again, the Glads have a good roster on paper, as they have in the past three seasons, but what's the x-factor? Additionally, in a narrative that goes even beyond the team, how will Grant "Moth" Espe fare outside of the Shock, and beyond Dae-hee "Crusty" Park’s system? The only other post-2019 Shock careers in OWL have been Andreas "Nevix" Karlsson and Minho "Architect" Park, both who had drastically fallen from the heights they once were considered to be at. Is this the forming of a curse for any of the Shock's soon-to-be former players, or can Moth and his team deliver where others couldn't? There are too many questions facing the Gladiators to really pinpoint whether or not this season is the one for them. Promising moves that still need to be tried and tested.
RUSH and the Dallas Fuel
To say that Dallas has had it bad in the Overwatch League is a bit of an understatement. In the beginning, they were to be the gods of the game, the king slayers, and the best from the west. Yet, season after season after season, it has been nothing but bitter and sometimes humiliating defeats and implosions to consistently finish at the bottom of the league every year. No matter the players, no matter the coaches, no matter everything they tried they still always managed to follow the same exact cycle every season. Look good at the start, hit a wall, and immediately crumble into fodder for the better teams in the league. Throughout all three years, Dallas has never been the worst, but they've never finished better than bad.
This past season was the final straw, the plug was pulled, the show was cancelled, and the Dallas Fuel completely cleaned house leaving one player and one coach remaining for the pending metamorphosis. Instead of taking the time to really build their team like a well-crafted RPG character and think about the points and skills needed to balance a good experience, Dallas has decided to build their team through the use of a preset. The team laid out and everything ready to go within minutes, Dallas hovered the slider on Preset 1 and never looked back, choosing to reunite Korean Contenders superstars Elementic Mystic under the Texan blue banner.
With head coach Hee-won "RUSH" Yun at the helm, Dallas's plan this year is to essentially be the greatest hits collection of one of Korean Overwatch's best teams. Sliding in from different eras, teams, and varying seasons, Dallas became a new home for the former EM players, who are looking to capitalize on their already established synergy and high skilled gameplay. They were even able to rescue their former support line from the Houston Outlaws, to give them a third chance of making their dreams come true in the Overwatch League.
Everything about Dallas this year is going big or going home. They have collected a fine amalgamation of stars, solid players, and those who maybe have yet shown their full potential. This is Dallas finally handing the reigns over to one man and saying everything here is set for you to control and execute how you see fit, and we'll have to see if RUSH is capable of succeeding in that task. This has the potential to be one of the greatest revivals of a team in the game's history, and it's up to this man and his chosen soldiers to finally give Texas something to cheer for.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment