games / Columns

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

March 26, 2018 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Lucio Overwatch League

The second stage of Overwatch League’s first season is in the books. Stage Two completed on Sunday with the stage playoffs, ending the second five-week/ten game stretch of the forty-game season. Last month I examined the best and worst to come out of the League in Stage One, and this tonight I’m back with a look at Stage Two. There have been a lot of developments in the last five weeks, both positive and negative, so let’s dive right in.

Stage Two Final Standings

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

Stage One Semifinals: Philadelphia Fusion d. London Spitfire (3-2)
Stage One Finals: New York Excelsior d. Philadelphia Fusion (3-2)

The Good:

* The New York Excelsior Win Stage Two in Thrilling Fashion Against Philadelphia Fusion: The end of Stage One saw a bit of a surprise as the London Spitfire reverse swept the New York Excelsior in the finals to claim the top prize of the stage. The XL were the premiere team of the first stage, and the loss to the Spitfire put a damper on a dominating first five weeks. History seemed potentially primed to repeat itself in the Stage Two playoffs as the Excelsior and Spitfire took the #1 and #2 positions in the standings, leaving fans to wonder if the same result may go down.

As it turned out, there was a reverse sweep but it wasn’t the NYXL losing, nor was it the Spitfire who were in the finals. Instead, the Philadelphia Fusion shocked the Spitfire by winning a close-fought five-map battle, becoming the first of the not-all-Korean teams to make it to the Overwatch League stage playoffs. Then they put worry on the faces of XL fans by taking the first two maps. But this time it was the Excelsior, bouyed by the DPS play of Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park and particularly Hae-seong “Libero” Kim, that turned it around and pulled off the three-to-two win.

To put it simply, there was so much to enjoy about this stage’s playoffs. The Fusion’s DPS looked amazing and the tanks (Gael “Poko” Gouzerch and Joona “fragi” Laine) created disasters for the Spitfire. There has long been an assumption that Overwatch League would, like many competitive eSports, be dominated by Korean teams. The Fusion may not have won, but like the Outlaws last stage they proved a point that North American and European players are not going down without a fight. And for the Excelsior, it was a sweet win after they found themselves denied in Stage One. If the stage playoffs can continue to deliver like this one and the one before it, Overwatch fans will remain loyal viewers of the League.

* New Meta and Roster Changes Freshen Up the Teams: Much of Stage One’s more intriguing developments came about as the twelve teams tried out different lineups in the very early weeks (plus the preseason) to figure out what worked. Player rotation was more common early on, which tended to result in more exciting and surprising matches. By the end of the stage, many of the rosters were set around the “Mercy Meta,” which meant a strong dive team that could jump in to battle from high ground (Winston, D.Va, Tracer, Genji) with Mercy and Zenyatta providing support.

Two big things happened between Stages One and Two that shook this up, and allowed us to see which teams could adapt quickly to new situations. For one, the patch that saw Mercy’s power scaled back was pushed to the OWL servers. This was a game-changer for a few teams that didn’t have the best Mercy players in the game. Before the patch change, even if you didn’t have an exceptional Mercy player, you kind of had to play Mercy because her resurrection ability was essential to the team. It’s notable that the second the patch hit, Mercy’s pickrate in Overwatch League matches dropped dramatically, from the 90-plus percent range almost across the board to a mid-thirty percent average. That has opened up the league for heroes like Lucio and Moira to take charge alongside the staple of Zenyatta, which has allowed teams like the Mayhem to fit in better.

Of equal importance to the meta change was the opening of roster changes. Following Stage One, teams were allowed to sign new players as well as trade players, which led to some new roster lineups. The most notable change was that of Chan-hyung “Fissure” Baek. Fissure is an excellent tank, but only played in half of the Stage One matches on the London Spitfire. Since being allowed to transfer over to the Los Angeles Gladiators, he’s been an instrumental part of that team’s rise to potential contender. Fissure played in all ten of the Gladiators’ games and helped lead them to their fifth place standing for the Stage, just barely missing out on a spot in the stage playoffs.

Fissure’s addition isn’t the only one that has had an impact. The San Francisco Shock signed support player Grant “moth” Espe and DPS in Min-ho “Architect” Park, while their star player Jay “sinatraa” Won finally turned eighteen and is thus eligible to play. These additions made the team look more competitive in their final week. The Mayhem added three new players and the Shanghai Dragons have two new DPSers along with tank Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon. As these new players settle into their rosters, we’re sure to see the tables turn for some of Overwatch’s more struggling teams.

* Viewership Holds Strong For Stage Two: After the Stage One of Overwatch League saw strong viewing numbers, all eyes turned to see whether the league could maintain those numbers. The answer was a strong, unequivocal “yes.” Viewership held largely steady with the admirable first stage numbers, right in line with the understandable exception of the the stellar premiere day of the league. Perhaps more impressively, unlike Stage One there was never a point in this second stage where average concurrent viewership dropped below 100,000 for a day.

Skeptics will point out a mitigating factor, primarily that there is a new incentive that provides Overwatch League tokens for watching the game live. And that has certainly been a factor, albeit likely a minor one. But even if you set whatever numbers those are aside, even a slight fall would have been very acceptable for the second stage. Viewer fatigue will be something Blizzard needs to keep an eye on as the season heads into the back half, but for now the League is delivering the kind of viewership that justifies its high-profile launch.

* The Rise of the Florida Mayhem: While they never even got remotely close to competing in the playoffs, one of the most exciting stories of Stage Two was the Florida Mayhem suddenly playing like a team that could contend down the line. At the end of Stage One, the Mayhem were the second-worst team in the league with a 1-9 record and things looked fairly bleak for them. The first couple of weeks of Stage Two didn’t look all that much better either, with positioning and coordinating issues costing them their first four matches.

Three weeks later and while they’re still in the lower tiers by record, the difference in the team has been night and day. Week Three saw them get heartbreakingly close to a win against the Outlaws, and then a reverse sweep of the Dallas Fuel. Since then they’ve been incredibly competitive. They beat the Valiant 3-1, lost a difficult match against the LA Gladiators and then stunned the Shock and spoiled the Dynasty’s chances at making the stage playoffs. They’ve looked like an entirely different team and have differentiated themselves from the pack. Improved individual performance has certainly been a factor, such as Andreas “Logix” Berghmans making some clutch Widowmaker plays and Johan “CwoosH” Klingestedt’s tanking. But all in all, the team just seems to be working together better and while they’re not a top tier team yet, they are poised to make a name for themselves in the back half of the season.

The Bad:

* The Houston Outlaws Fall Short in Stage Two: One of the standout stories of Stage One came in the form of the Houston Outlaws, who rose well above expectations to make it to the stage playoffs. Many people expected them to parlay that success into being a force to be reckoned with in Stage Two, but that very clearly did not happen. After a strong first week that saw wins against the London Spitfire and Boston Uprising, things started to fall apart. They dropped three straight games to the Fusion, Excelsior and Valiant before squeaking past a surging Mayhem, then dropped a match against the Gladiators and one they really shouldn’t have lost to the Shock.

More than any other team, the Outlaws are the one who have had difficulty adjusting to the Stage Two meta. The team lacks a strong Tracer player, which is a huge problem considering the hero has been largely essential to taking out support players. If you don’t have to worry so much about being flanked, you can keep your focus on the front lines and it’s very difficult to come up with a response. They’re also notable for keeping with Mercy more than most other teams — not a problem in itself, but a telling point given their difficulty adjusting to the new state of the game. The Outlaws did manage to turn it around in the last week thanks to matches against a depleted Shanghai Dragons roster and a few key mistakes by Mayhem, but they have a while to go before they’re viewed with the same level of threat that they had in Stage One.

* The Dallas Fuel Flail Amidst PR Nightmares and Disappointing Play: It’s not an understatement to say that the Dallas Fuel has been one of the most difficult teams (if not the most difficult) for Overwatch League fans to support. The team came in with some heavy expectations, and they’ve completely failed to deliver. Things were potentially looking up at the end of a rough first season, but those hopes never coalesced. By the end of week five, the Fuel were officially the second-worst team in the League, behind only the winless Shanghai Dragons.

Watching Fuel fans discuss their team is often a bit depressing, due to offscreen drama that we’ll get into soon and the way that drama detracted from their ability to perform cohesively. Felix “xqc” Lengyel openly addressed the issues early in Stage Two, saying that the team’s problem was they hadn’t found their identity as a unit yet. There’s truth to that, though it’s also worth noting that xQc didn’t help by bringing his own baggage to the team. The team’s tank lineup looked lost and DPS player Dong-jun “Rascal” Kim, who joined the team from the Spitfire after Stage One, was often benched. When asked about coaching decisions on social media — something many coaches have been open to do — Fuel coach Kyle “KyKy” Souder typically refused to say much and even lashed out at fans. Morale was clearly an issue for this team as the weeks went on and they fell almost completely apart in Stage Two.

The good news for the Fuel is that things seem to be turning around. The tank lineup is solidifying with Brandon “Seagull” Larned and Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod — a situation, oddly, that came about due to a bathroom delay during team practice. The Fuel lost their last two matches of the stage last week, but they looked better than they have since the first week of the league. Here’s hoping the team can turn things around and become competitive…assuming that further PR nightmares don’t screw them up.

The Ugly:

* Drama Continues to Rear Its Head: Speaking of PR nightmares…as much fun as the on-screen performances in Overwatch have been, the off-screen antics have proven to be a frustrating distraction. For an eSports league in its first season, most expected Overwatch League to go through some growing pains. That doesn’t make it any less irritating to see when drama unfolds. And sadly, there was a good amount of drama in Stage Two. Much of it came from the Dallas Fuel, who were already having public relations issues after xQc was suspended for most of stage one for a homophobic remark against the Outlaws’ Muma on his personal stream. xQc continued to be a problem, returning to the lineup for a short time before he was suspended again for a host of issues that included “us[ing] an emote in a racially disparaging manner on the league’s stream and on social media, and us[ing] disparaging language against Overwatch League casters and fellow players on social media and on his personal stream.” The Fuel cut ties with xQc and released him soon after.

He wasn’t the only problem player on the Fuel, though. At the same time as xQc received his second suspension, tank player Timo “Taimou” Kettunen was suspended $1,000 for using anti-gay slurs on his personal stream. That announcement also saw Houston Outlaws coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim get a formal warning for “posting an offensive meme on social media” and the LA Valiant’s Ted “Silkthread” Wang get fined $1,000 for account sharing. Later in the season, new Fuel tank signee Minseok “OGE” Son was suspended for four matches before he even got to play for taking part in a paid “account-boosting” scheme, in which someone accepts money to boost another player’s in-game ranking.

The Overwatch League is obviously young, and will continue to go through these transitional pains as they establish a sponsor-friendly culture around a group of players who became known within a streaming community where personality is a big part of success. Initial punishments like this will enforce the rules of what you can and can’t do, and it will all quiet down soon enough. That said, knowing that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when team owners and coachesz let drama go on. Whether it’s a Dragons’ DPS starter being accused of some abhorrent behavior in his relationship or Fuel DPS player aKM insulting his teammates while complaining about the hate he was getting from fans, Overwatch League is definitely suffering from a drama overload. The sooner that eases, the better for all involved.