games / Columns

Breaking Down Overwatch League Stage One – The Good, the Bad, The Ugly

February 12, 2018 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Overwatch League McCree

eSports is on its way up, in a big way. The arena of professional video games has been on the rise for years, and Overwatch League is the most ambitious venture in eSports yet. Blizzard Entertainment has one of the most popular multiplayer games in Overwatch, the team-based FPS populated by larger-than-life heroes, an intriguing setting and infectiously fun gameplay. But a count of twenty-five million players in barely over a year and a half isn’t enough for the company, who have grander ambitions for their game and what it can do for the industry.

And that brings us to the Overwatch League. Announced at Blizzcon 2016, the game had a somewhat bumpy road in the year leading up to its launch. Rumors flew that the league was having problems finding teams due to high buy-in costs and contract terms that teams weren’t comfortable with. But those problems smoothed out and on January 10th, the Overwatch League’s first regular season began.

Since then, it’s fair to say that the league has been quite the success. Blizzard and parent company Activision have been very happy with the results so far and are already talking expansion for the second season. And fans have, by and large, found it to be a great watch. With the first stage (out of four) in the regular season complete, culminating in stage finals for a team monetary bonus (and bragging rights), we’re going to look at the best and worst to come out of the Overwatch League thus far.

Stage One Final Standings

1. New York Excelsior (9-1)
2. Houston Outlaws (7-3)
3. London Spitfire (7-3)
4. Los Angeles Valiant (7-3)
5. Seoul Dynasty (7-3)
6. Boston Uprising (6-4)
7. Philadelphia Fusion (6-4)
8. Los Angeles Gladiators (4-6)
9. San Francisco Shock (3-7)
10. Dallas Fuel (3-7)
11. Florida Mayhem (1-9)
12. Shanghai Dragons (0-10)

Stage One Semifinals: London Spitfire d. Houston Outlaws 3-1
Stage One Finals: London Spitfire d. New York Excelsior 3-2

The Good:

* The London Spitfire Win Stage One, But Other Teams Make a Strong Showing: The first stage of the season saw the London Spitfire ascend to the top. The team, which largely consists of former Cloud9 and GC Busan members, performed well throughout the stage but came into the Stage One finals as a bit of an underdog. The semifinals saw them matched against a strong Houston Outlaws team, where they took three of four maps to advance onto the finals against the New York Excelsior. The Excelsior had been dominant throughout the stage and won the first two maps. However, in a thrilling comeback the Spitfire completed a reverse sweep and upset the Excelsior to win the stage finals.

There’s a lot to love about how the stage playoffs went down. Going into the first season, there was a strong assumption that the South Korean-heavy teams would control the league. And to be fair, it’s true that the Spitfire and Excelsior are both entirely comprised of South Korean pros. But the placement of the Outlaws can’t be understated. This team, composed entirely of North American and European players, wasn’t expected to make it to the stage finals and yet they had a great first stage. The Los Angeles Valiant, Boston Uprising and Philadelphia Fusion all had points where they looked like they could be legit contenders as well. The stage finals were exciting, competitive battles that felt very much like the best of the best going head-to-head, something that bodes well for the season going forward.

* The Presentation: I’m not going to lie; I’ve never been a fan of eSports. As much of a gamer as I am, there’s just something lacking in watching most video games played whether it’s in a professional competitive atmosphere or not. That said, Blizzard deserves a lot of credit for going all-out to make Overwatch League worth watching. Watching a third-person shooter game can be chaotic at the best of times, so Blizzard has come up with ways to help make the action easy to follow like team colors and multiple views that they can switch to. The casters have done a great job of calling the action, building excitement during matches, and providing context and important information during the match. Most importantly, many people who don’t play the game have commented that the casting team and presentation make it easy for Overwatch novices to follow what’s happening.

Between the casters, the instant replays and the team uniforms, Overwatch League feels closer to traditional sports than your standard eSports league. That’s not accidental. The presentation format has done a lot toward building team loyalty. Blizzard and Activision have shown that they’re willing to go all-in on the league, and that’s inspired big-name partners to follow suit. Twitch signed a $90 million, two-year deal to be the exclusive broadcast home of the league, while big sponsors like Jack in the Box and Toyota have come on board. All that sponsorship has empowered Blizzard to put their best faces forward with the League, and the results have been quite effective.

* Viewing Numbers: As good as the OWL looks, it’s not going to matter if there’s no interest. Fortunately, that hasn’t been a concern thus far. The league launched in a big way in mid-January with 10 million total viewers in week one. That’s an average of 280,000 viewers per minute, peaking with 437,000 viewers for the Dallas Fuel vs. Seoul Dynasty match. The opening day was comparable (and possibly bigger) than the streaming numbers for Thursday Night Football the same night. Obviously, the NFL is mostly watched via traditional television and not streaming. Still, those are very strong numbers.

Of course, premiere numbers are always the peak. People will tune in out of curiosity and may well leave. Others almost certainly watched the first day or the first week in whole, and since have tuned in only for their favorite teams. Still, while the numbers predictably dropped in week two, they stayed strong and more importantly, stabilized. The performance has been encouraging for the league, who have said that expansion of the league into further teams is likely for season two. It’s a good start for an organization that needs to keep things going strong throughout the season to keep any naysayers at bay.

* The Shanghai Dynasty Become Fan Favorites: While the following statement shouldn’t be interpreted as anything being scripted, it’s an undeniable fact that what really keeps passion going for a sport is a good narrative. Most traditional sports leagues build multiple narratives over seasons, years, and decades. The Red Sox curse and the Bronx Bombers in Major League Baseball, team rivalries like the Celtics vs. the Lakers and, of course, the establishment of underdog teams to root for. There are plenty of team rivalries already developing in the OWL, and there is no shortage of personalities to get invested in (not to mention which characters you may dig). But without a doubt, the role of the plucky underdog team goes to the Shanghai Dragons.

It’s easy to root for the Dragons. To say that the Chinese-based team has struggled is an understatement. As stage one ended, the team had yet to win a match. And yet, everyone wants them to. After a very rough first couple of weeks, the team had yet to even win a single map and it was clearly taking its toll on the players. They looked stressed and emotional, which was negatively affecting their play further. Up next for them was a match with the Seoul Dynasty, the best team in the league at the time. To be frank, it looked largely hopeless.

As it turned out, that situation was the perfect mix to build sympathy and support for the team. OWL fans began pulling for the team across social media and in other forums. And when the Dragons took their first map off the Dynasty, the reaction was ecstatic. As the stage has progressed, the Dragons have failed to pick up a win but have won matches and, in some cases, even looked competitive. They’ve turned into the team that everyone wants to root for and when they do pick up their first win — very likely early in stage two — it’s going to be one of the league’s most feel-good moments to date.

The Bad:

* Seoul Dynasty Fall Apart Toward the End: The first two weeks of the league saw a clear front-runner emerge in the Seoul Dynasty. The all-South Korean team dominated their first four matches, winning fourteen out of sixteen maps (and one non-win was a tie) to go 4-0 and end up at #1. It seemed clear at this point that, whatever may happen, the Dynasty would be at or near the top spot once Stage One was over. And yet, that didn’t happen. Not only did the Dynasty not finish at #1 in the standings, they didn’t make the stage finals after going 3-3. That included losses to the Excelsior, Spitfire and Los Angeles Valiant.

On the surface, those don’t look so bad. The Excelsior and Spitfire were the two teams that faced off in the finals, while the Valiant were #4. But the team’s wins are more telling. They lost a map to the winless Dragons, struggled against the Outlaws, and even went to five maps with the San Francisco Shock. Saying this as a Shock fan, that latter result never should have happened. The team’s inconsistency proved to be their undoing as they lost due to perplexing substitutions between maps and an overreliance on Byung-Sun “Fleta” Kim, their star DPS player. Ryu “Ryujehong” Je-hong was benched at odd times and the team showed a failure to work together at key moments that cost them some key maps.

To be clear, things are far from dismal for the Dynasty. They’re still in a high-ranking spot at the end of the stage, and there’s plenty of time to get back on one page. But the way they stumbled shows one of the key trials Overwatch League teams are discovering: as the less-dominant teams are learning to work together, the stronger performers can’t just rest on their dominance. There’s still a lot of time left to go, and it could be any team’s game.

* The Dallas Fuel Massively Disappoint: While the Dynasty tripped up in the last half of the season, they’re still in a good spot. The same can’t be said of the Dallas Fuel. The team was considered one of the favorites coming into the regular season, with an incredibly strong roster of top players. And yet, as Stage One ends they’re sitting near the bottom of the league with a 3-7 record. The Fuel was the last of the non-winless teams to pick up a win and went 0-4 before finally beating the Shock in week three.

There are a lot of reasons for the Fuel’s failure to deliver, but they largely come down to one thing: communication. The Overwatch League broadcasts have occasionally played the voice communication of teams after matches are done, and with the Fuel it’s clear that there’s a lack of coordination. Shot-calling is an issue and with one of their better players suspended (more on that shortly), there has been a hole in their roster. They’ve been forced to rely on brute strength rather than strategy, and that won’t cut it among the top teams at the game. Things may turn around once Stage Two kicks off next week, but for now the Fuel is the single-most disappointing teams in the league.

* Spectator Misses: I praised the production value of the OWL up in the Good, and I stand by that. They haven’t exactly been flawless, though. To be fair, it’s understandable to some degree. This is the first few weeks of a major venture. And with a lot of eyes on them, mistakes will be scrutinized heavily. But one area where they certainly must pick up their game is in the spectator team.

The spectator team is the group that keeps an eye on the action and determine what view the audience is seeing at any moment. While they often do a good job capturing some of the best moments, there have been distressing moments where they’ve fallen down. On one notable Junkertown, the camera focused on a sniper duel between two Widowmakers while most of the action went down on the payload. Other gaffes have seen the camera cut away just before players unleash easily-predictable Ultimate abilities or a sticking with airborne Pharah players who aren’t really seeing a lot.

It’s important to note that Blizzard is taking steps to fix this. Commissioner Nate Nanzer said that there will be an “internal Observer Summit during the break between Stage 1 and 2” to discuss ways to improve the issues. Hopefully, that includes less of a reliance on the DPS players and giving support and tanks a little spotlight. As thrilling and crowd-popping as it is to see a Widowmaker one-shot kill or Pharah blasting from on high, the other roles deserve more of a spotlight and can be just as thrilling to watch. It’s not a huge issue for the league, but it’s something that does need to be addressed.

The Ugly:

* xQc Suspended for Homophobic Comment: Overwatch League has done a lot to push past some of the negative connotations of professional eSports and perceptions of gamers. But there’s one glaring example that threatened to undo a lot of that. It’s not a stretch to say that Dallas Fuel tank Felix “xQc” Lengyel has been one of the more controversial members of the Overwatch League player base. He is one of the most popular Overwatch streamers with over 350,000 followers on Twitch. But he’s also one of the most hated. xQc has been suspended on his personal account within Overwatch twice, once for making false reports against other players and another for throwing games. He tends to be toxic in game on his stream and generally gives off the wrong impression you want sent about pro Overwatch players if you’re Blizzard.

That said, his skills can’t be denied, and it wasn’t a surprise when he was signed to a team in the Dallas Fuel. But while the Fuel have problems that don’t have anything to do with xQc, his suspension for offensive conduct on his own stream just made things worse. The suspension came after the Fuel got beaten by the Outlaws and Outlaws player Muma used one of xQc’s catchphrases in his post-match interview. That led to a rant from the latter — a regular occurrence on his stream. But xQc (who, it must be said, was benched for the whole game) took it too far when he said Muma could “suck” something, then added, “he’d probably like it.”

Yeah, I should probably mention here that Muma is the only openly gay player in Overwatch.

By xQc’s reaction, he immediately knew he’d screwed up. And to their credit, Overwatch League and the Fuel didn’t hold back in taking action. The League suspended him for two games and fined him $2000. Then the Fuel said they were taking it further by suspending him for the rest of stage one. This happened in week two, so they basically benched one of their better tanks for the last half of the stage. The organizations’ actions were correct, but the fact that something like this popped up within two weeks of the season beginning wasn’t great. And the lack of surprise by many over the whole thing is telling. When you sign a player who is known for going bad things, you can’t be shocked when he does something bad. Hopefully this has been a learning experience and they (including xQc) can move forward from this, but it briefly put a black eye on both the league and the Fuel, something neither of them could afford this early in.