In 2018, Activision-Blizzard established its own professional competitive league for its premier esports game Overwatch, arguably the most popular multiplayer shooter on the market. Not simply content with being at the top of the esports scene, the Overwatch League made a successful push to enrapture mainstream audiences, structuring its teams by home cities and scheduling itself to run in annual seasons like a traditional sport all the while being backed by national television networks like ESPN, ABC, and Disney XD. The league is one of the quickest growing enterprises in professional gaming and with its second season along with its 8 expansion teams both on the horizon, now is the perfect time to look back on its inaugural year.
Sports fans will be very familiar with the regular season and playoff format of OWL, though there are some alterations to better fit the requirements of esports. Each regular season is divided into 4 5-week stages where teams play a set number of matches. Each of these has players face off in a series of at least 4 games, each centering on a given map type with alternations between attack and defense roles when applicable. Play is strictly 6-on-6, but player substitutions are allowed between games and, of course, a tie-breaking 5th game is played if needed.
The first three stages culminate in minor playoffs to determine said stages’ champions with a final playoff tournament at the end of the 4th stage to determine the best in the league that season. In both cases, playoffs are seeded according to performance, with the weaker teams not even qualifying. The league playoffs seed according to overall seasonal performance and the winners are of course crowned the champions. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s meet these teams we’ve been talking so much about.
In no particular order, the original 12 OWL teams are:
- The Shanghai Dragons
- The Dallas Fuel
- The Seoul Dynasty
- The Houston Outlaws
- The LA Gladiators
- The LA Valiant
- The London Spitfire
- The New York Excelsior
- The San Francisco Shock
- The Philadelphia Fusion
- The Florida Mayhem
- The Boston Uprising
Now it's time to spread the word on the league's first stage. And that word is upsets. Lots and lots of upsets. One of the first of these was the Florida Mayhem, mostly comprised of the best players in the European scene who had been playing together for years, not that you would know that from their gameplay. It was clear even to the untrained eye that they consistently failed to synchronize, what with how their tanks would dive straight at the enemy with no teammates backing them up or how their DPS players would try to go off on their own to solo carry. They had some pretty funny walkouts, sure, but they only won a single match, and it was against the Shanghai Dragons.
Oh yeah, those guys. Despite China’s favorable reputation with esports, their only OWL team at the time became a laughing stock almost immediately. Unsafe positioning, bad aim, support players who struggle to keep up with the buffs the team needs, if there was a problem a team could have, it would be shown in a Dragons match and they finished the stage winless, and promptly fired their coach.
All was not lost for Asia, however. The Seoul Dynasty started their season with a 5-game win streak and their DPS star Fleta was outperforming almost every other competitor in the category. But he could only keep them treading water for so long, as their frantic roster switching in order to try and find another damage dealer on his level was in vain and the efforts of other top players like Bunny and Miro were not enough to get them to qualify for playoffs after their impressive win streak turned into a losing one.
Not all the upsets were negative though, the much slept-on Outlaws showed a fortitude in their team play that shot down any enemy dives and lost few team fights. Not many people paid them any mind during the preseason, but almost every player on their team was setting league standards, though they had trouble with some of the league's top teams.
The Spitfire, on the other hand, had a roster everyone knew would be great from the start, establishing an early lead in the stage that gave them the liberty to experiment with their composition like the Dynasty. Also like the Dynasty, their shakeups didn’t always pay off, costing them matches against the Outlaws and the NY Excelsior. Thankfully, they seemingly found their groove pretty quickly and maintained a powerful presence, at least in this stage.
Now, the Excelsior on the other hand, was unquestionably dominant, thanks largely to having the best support line in the game at the time. Ark had an unkillable Mercy, and the then-unknown Jjonak set the bar for what Zenyatta could do in terms of both healing and damage. Only one team beat the Excelsior during stage one and that was the Philadelphia Fusion, who also nearly gave the Dragons their first win.
Yeah, the Pennsylvania team were not consistent. They were another case of a team with strong individual players but a palpable lack of coordination.
That's about it for the teams that stood out in stage one. The Shock had their moments but often came up short. the Uprising beat a few tough teams and were showing the potential to eventually climb the ranks, but that wouldn't happen in this stage. The LA teams both impressed early on but ended up being pretty average overall. The final scores for this stage were:
- New York Excelsior 9-1
- Houston Outlaws 7-3
- London Spitfire 7-3
- Los Angeles Valiant 7-3
- Seoul Dynasty 7-3
- Boston Uprising 6-4
- Philadelphia Fusion 6-4
- Los Angeles Gladiators 4-6
- San Francisco Shock 3-7
- Dallas Fuel 3-7
- Florida Mayhem 1-9
- Shanghai Dragons 0-10
Stage One Playoffs
Stage playoffs are only fought between the top 3 teams, with the number 1 earning a bye into the finals. The Excelsior's 9-1 record made them the favorite to win, only for the Spitfire to reverse-sweep them after clobbering Houston. As we said, stage one was all about upsets, meaning it could still be anyone's game.
Except for the Dragons.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to talk about each great player and team in detail here but be sure to join us in part 2 where we’ll be covering the second stage of the first season of OWL. In the meantime, be sure to tell us your favorite OWL team and your favorite moments from stage one in the comments below.