Wolf Talks About OGN’s APEX? Yes, Please!
While it may seem like he’s moved on to greener rifts, former Overwatch League caster Wolf Schröder still has a lot of love to give to his old scene. Whether it’s reacting to the fantastic meta that fluidified the May Melee, or gleaming with glee at the fact that Dallas Fuel’s Element Mystic reunion tour gave us one of the best narrative arcs in all of Overwatch history, Wolf still keeps the game close to his heart.
Overwatch has been a major part of his career for the better part of three years. As a commentator, Wolf was a fixture in some of the game’s most iconic competitive moments that still resonate in the hearts of many fans today. Wolf sat down with GGRecon to discuss everything from his new venture in the LCK to his thoughts on the current workings of the Overwatch League, but where would we be if we didn’t get the chance to talk to Wolf about Overwatch’s holy grail - OGN’s APEX.
Hustlers and Trailblazers
Even though it's been almost three years since its conclusion and has fallen behind the curve in terms of how its gameplay stands the test of time, APEX is still considered by many to be the gold standard for production, narrative show-casing, and competitiveness for a majority of the game's lifespan. It really is the tournament that showcases the best esports has to offer, yes even beyond just Overwatch. For those who weren't there, it's difficult to imagine the spectacle only through word of mouth, but Wolf's passion and love for his first tournament series in Overwatch infectious, and his story on becoming one of the narrators for such a respected event, is just as riveting.
“I had some experience casting the game, and I had watched a ton because I was really hoping I was going to get a chance to commentate OW. I think the Shanghai World Cup event was the first one that was really big, but I had been getting ready to cast Overwatch for a long time before that.
“At the time, I saw that StarCraft II was on a very massive decline, and it was not even regular work for me anymore. Heroes of the Storm wasn’t doing very well viewership-wise as well, and these were the honest truths I had to think about."
"I had to look at where my career could potentially go, and it just didn’t seem like Heroes or SCII was going to be it."
As Wolf's career as a HotS and SC2 caster seemed to be coming to an increasingly narrower finish, and Wolf would wonder what game would give him that big break he needed to make it further in his casting career. He spent a lot of time hoping that League of Legends would be the opportunity he needed, but of course, something else came knocking.
“When Overwatch came out, and it seemed really popular, I thought, well, if I don’t make this work, then I might be in trouble. I really needed to get into it, and I was nervous cause I'd never cast an FPS game before. I had gone from RTS to MOBA to FPS, and Overwatch is also a crazy fast FPS, so I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.' I thought, 'let’s wait and see, let’s watch it, let’s feel it out, and if I get the opportunity, I’ll go for it.”
“Then Monte and DoA came to me one day and said 'we're leaving Korea, were going to do the Overwatch League, if you want to commentate APEX, get in there.' It wasn’t just for me; it was for all the other casters. Everybody had an opportunity to cast, so I felt really excited but also nervous. If OGN didn’t choose me, that would have just been it. I wouldn’t have ever had my chance. "
“Most people don’t know this, but at that time, I was not a full-time commentator at OGN, whereas everyone else in the pool was salaried, because I was not salaried; there was a lot of pushback about using me. So, I was really nervous, so I thought, ‘I’m not going to get this, and I’m going to be really sad, it was going to be a tragedy.' I was really worked up about it. I was talking to PapaSmithy every night about it, and he pushed really hard for me to get it at OGN. Papa Smithy was one of the people who really pushed with OGN to give me the opportunity, and finally, they said, ‘Okay, let’s give him a go, let’s get him a chance to start in Season 3.”
Through the passion, hard work, and right connections, Wolf made his way onto the APEX casting desk, and in tried and true fashion, like many of his colleagues, Overwatch gave him a trial by fire. To this day it remains the most difficult game to cast for him, comparatively to StarCraft II, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, and (yes) even World of Tanks.
“It took me about a year to get comfortable casting in Overwatch. Even though a lot of people say some of my casts back in APEX were really good, I never really felt comfortable in APEX. I always thought, ‘I’m not living up to the fans expectations; I’m not doing well enough.' I never felt like I was doing my best work at the time. Even though people look back really fondly on that era, the whole time I was like this is not good enough.'
“I do sometimes go back and watch APEX games; I look back and see some of the things I said. I’m actually often shocked at some of the things I said, realised, and did back then. Even looking back, I’m like, ‘ooh, you don’t want to go back there, but then once I watch it, I realise, I did pretty good! I was kind of on top of it!’ I think the reality is that during that time, no one really knew how to cast Overwatch very well yet, it was so new. So, I maybe had too high a standard for myself, so did everyone else, but we figured it out eventually. It was a hard time; I was so scared that if I failed or did badly, I wasn’t going to get a chance in the future.”
Wolf cast primarily alongside Seth "Achilios" King, but would occasionally co-cast with another member of the team should the need arise, and it was here that he got to experience a first-hand and second-hand dive into Overwatch's ring of fire.
“Funny story about PapaSmithy on the first time I cast with him. I think it was his first time casting Overwatch ever, and we were both colour commentators, and normally you don’t cast together, but that day we had to. It was pretty funny because I think it was my third time casting at the time, but it was PapaSmithy’s first. I remember sitting next to him on the casting desk and asking, "Are you ready? You think you’re ready to cast?’ and he responded with ‘Oh, it’s going to be easy, I prepared a lot, I’ve practised a lot, I think the game doesn’t even feel fast to me,' just really confident... I remember our first game was on Nepal, and I start the play by play, and as I look to him for a comment he gives me this look of pure horror. ‘I was not ready; I was not ready!’.
“The first time you cast Overwatch, you think you’re ready, you see the other casters, and they’re so confident, and you think, I know I can do this. And then you look at the game, and all of sudden you have 12 players jumping around, the observers are struggling to keep up, and you’re like, ‘ooh, maybe this is going to be hard.'; Almost every commentator is going to tell you the first time they cast a game of Overwatch, it was like "....Woah".
Pinnacle of Standard
Even with such a short time between its completion and now, it doesn't take much to consider the May Melee as being the best Overwatch tournament the game has seen in years. The 2021 May Melee will have its praises sung for months and maybe years to come, and truly is an excellent introduction as to what could be a transformative and ground-breaking year of Overwatch. Until the reviews come out on the June Joust and the rest of the season, however, it's not ridiculous to believe that APEX still reigns supreme as the shining example of “apex” Overwatch. It had everything for a growing and bustling esport, and Wolf looked back in time to really highlight the significance of it all, and just how well crafted the tournament was.
“I think the main thing to talk about APEX before anything else, you have to look at OGN’s fantastic history of making great esports tournaments.”
For those unfamiliar, the broadcast company OGN had been built up as an excellent standard by the time Overwatch released. With their Ongamenet Starleague (OSL) for StarCraft II and Champions tournament series for League of Legends, OGN had served Korean esports well and contributed to its boom in popularity at home, and growing audience abroad. For both games, it was the place to find and watch the best competition, and it had become renowned for its killer production and incredible story-telling.
“When they had the rights to do Overwatch to me, this was going to be a great product because we didn’t know what was going to happen between them and Riot in the future League of Legends. This was an opportunity to make something else amazingly huge for themselves. I know that everyone in Korea was really forward to what OGN would be able to do because if they really could make a new legacy tournament that could last for five or ten years, if they did a good job, OW would be a good esport."
Tales of Two Timers, Pink Sweaters, and Royal Roaders
The specialness that came from APEX, was its ability to create a narrative and story with players and teams that, for all intents and purposes, seemingly had none. In both the West and in Korea, APEX was wildly successful at selling the images and experiences of the key players in the tournament. In APEX's first season back in 2016, the narrative surrounded the balance between the capabilities of the local Korean teams and the international talents that were invited, ultimately culminating in Team EnVyUs being the first western team in esports history, to win a championship on Korean-home soil. While that win was historic, it was in Season 2 that APEX really came into its own, and really started to deliver on the tales and stories that would tug heartstrings and capture the attention of thousands of fans.
Of the sixteen teams in contention, it two teams that would eventually make the Grand Finals, Lunatic-Hai and RunAway, who became absolute stars in the Korean Overwatch scene, arguably more so than any Western team had become back home. Lunatic-Hai's gradually increasing dominant status with world-class players, and RunAway's charming and loveable underdog status, would simmer and develop across the whole season, and reach an explosive end in the final match.
“It was the craziest finals I had ever been to in my entire career. The number of fans there, how loud they cheered, I had never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen a League of Legends finals, and LoL was by far the most popular esport at that time by a large margin.”
Hosted in the Tiger Dome at Korea University in Seoul, the grand finals of APEX Season 2 saw a packed audience, a seven-map series, and crowning of the new kings of Overwatch, Lunatic-Hai.
“It’s funny most people remember RunAway as being the more popular team because RunAway lasted longer after APEX. RunAway still made the run through Contenders, pink jerseys, but actually, Lunatic-Hai was by far the most popular team. They ended up completing the almost reverse sweep, end up taking the Season 2 finals... Then we go into Season 3, and it was a really exciting finals set up. Yeah, RunAway didn’t make the final, which was kind of sad, but most people agreed Kongdoo Panthera was the better team, that season. They’re the stronger team; they’re the team that can dethrone Lunatic-Hai."
What became of the match was the arguably closest final in Overwatch history. A nine map first-to-seven that featured two ties, two tiebreaker maps, and multiple overtime rounds, to crown APEX's only two-time champions, and one of the most epic battles in the game's history. It was the match that solidified a dynasty, subsequently created one, and made a team become almost diets.
"I think the reason Lunatic-Hai was so dominant and had so much attention around them was that they were just so popular; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team match it. Even SK Telecom TI, their fans are really passionate; you see them come out to the studio and see how excited they are. I have not seen even SKT fans scream and cheer as loud as some of the fans of Lunatic-Hai did. I hadn’t seen them post as many pictures of the players and how many times they interact with people on Twitter and get into heated arguments... I think that in a weird way, all the added pressure but also support that the LH players had during that time, really pushed them to be this almost unkillable team, because nobody had more eyes on them than they did. If they failed in that season, they would be letting the most people down. It felt like watching them win in Season 2 and then having their run to the finals in Season 3 it just felt like there’s no way they can lose”.
Lunatic-Hai, unfortunately, would never reach the same heights ever again. Their reign of dominance would end with the following APEX Season 4, an unravelling, and a shocking drop of performance in the group stage, lead LH to not even make playoffs that season. Mixed between the uncertainties behind the Overwatch League and the future of Korean Overwatch, Season 4 began with an air stress and anxiety.
“During Season 4, the big looming thing that was on everyone’s mind, and it kind of tainted the season, in my opinion, was, who’s staying in Korea and who’s leaving to OWL. Are we going to be able to watch them next year? What time zone were they even going to play in? Lunatic-Hai was already kind of acquired by Seoul, and I think there was a lot of questions surrounding the players. Pretty much everyone in Korea was getting offers, every top player was getting offers that whole season...
“That’s when GC Busan came in, and if you were a foreign fan, you were excited about them because the casters, especially Achilios and I, were really hyping this team up as better than anyone was really talking about. They 6-0ed Lunatic-Hai in the group stage, but they weren’t that popular in Korea compared to RunAway or Lunatic-Hai, so it felt like when LH didn’t make playoffs, I originally thought it really hurt the Korean narrative going into the finals. Yet even then, when we got there, the venue was still filled. It was massive and completely filled, and it was another amazingly close final, and of course, RunAway failed again. It just felt like, the top teams in Korea, the teams with the biggest fans, just couldn’t catch a break. Then GC Busan their history ended there because they got absorbed and APEX ended. It was such a huge crushing moment for the non-Overwatch League Korean Overwatch scene. For non-OWL players and non-OWL tournaments, it lost Lunatic-Hai, and GC Busan, the defending champions."
"After that, everyone just wanted to cheer for RunAway; they were the only heroes left, they were the only people that still had a massive fan base that stayed in Contenders, stayed together… and then they still couldn’t win until Contenders Season 2! And that’s why I think RunAway has a bigger legacy than Lunatic-Hai, GC Busan, and Kongdoo, just because they were around for so long in that Contenders time. But I think this important for people to look back and realise that Lunatic-Hai was by far the most popular team in that era, and losing them was a huge crushing blow. I remember when I heard Lunatic-Hai didn’t accept their seed into Contenders, it was huge crushing news. I was like, we really needed this. I really needed Lunatic-Hai to still be in Contenders. It was a snap of fingers, that a lot of people who loved to follow Korean Overwatch esports just vanished with them. That was a really sad moment”.
Wolf is well-known for referencing APEX history in his casts, and while he may catch a little bit of a hard time for always having a lesson at hand to teach the audience, he does it from a place of love and respect. There's a reason the tournament is still so highly regarded, and why it means so much to people. From Wolf's perspective, it was mesmerizing, exciting, and a shining example of what Overwatch esports could be. The Overwatch League certainly has delivered in a lot of aspects, it was certainly an evolution for the game's scene, but we also lost something incredibly special, and something has so far, yet to truly be replicated. It's not wise to live in the past, but it's always important to pay due respects to it. While, it's still early, hopefully, OWL 2021 can be the season where the Overwatch League community, can finally get it, for the first time in a long time.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment