After equal amounts of hype and doubt, the inaugural Overwatch League season officially debuted on Jan. 10, 2018. Half a year later, the London Spitfire were crowned the first-ever Overwatch League champions. Like London, the league itself had its own ups and downs en route to a spectacular and successful final at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Here are Emily Rand's and Tyler Erzberger's takeaways from the grand finals and Season 1:
Let's talk about London.
Emily Rand: Let it be known that I never doubted you, London Spitfire. That's actually a lie. There was a lot of doubt. I felt burned by this team in Stages 3 and 4. There were so many times where it looked like they were finally coming together, only to still fall apart in a late teamfight or fail to defend a final point. I can't stress enough that even if we may have predicted the Spitfire to be here as early as the preseason, it definitely did not take the expected path.
Every member of the Spitfire continuously stressed that the paring down of their roster was not talent-based but simply an attempt to improve in-game synergy -- and this grand final was the culmination of their efforts and those decisions. You could tell that this team felt very badly for disappointing its fans, especially after such a strong start in Stage 1. Those high expectations that were set due to the sheer amount of talent on this roster -- the lineups of GC Busan and Kongdoo Panthera -- were validated in this championship win. It came home.
Tyler Erzberger: If we were shown this result at the beginning of the season, I don't think either of us would have batted an eye. London always had the most talented roster in the league, but the way the Spitfire got to the final destination of a world championship was something no one really saw coming. This team was dead in the water only three weeks ago when it went down in a sweep to the Los Angeles Gladiators to begin the playoffs, just following a Stage 4 where the team just looked ready to go on a lengthy vacation.
I think what we'll remember most from London's run is how the team rediscovered its swagger when falling behind to the Gladiators. The team realized it was do or die, came to the conclusion it was OK bowing out in the quarters, and just went out there to play with some reckless abandon. It worked out -- the team knocked out both L.A. franchises in Los Angeles, and then beat down the Philadelphia Fusion in a sold-out arena with fans firmly against them.
Rand: Adding to that a bit, what I will remember about this London victory is the team's flexibility. The Spitfire corrected any synergy issues it had prior to playoffs, and what really stood out to me was the ability to adjust mid-map. This was something that had previously plagued London in the regular season. All throughout the playoffs we saw Choi "Bdosin" Seung-tae with his insanely aggressive Roadhog (and even a few swaps to the Tracer), and Park "Profit" Joon-yeong flexing onto everything and anything. His Mei on Point B of Volskaya defense is not something I'll forget anytime soon. We saw throughout the playoffs teams that adjusted more quickly ended victorious, which saw a lot of unlikely teams exiting playoffs earlier than expected, like the Los Angeles Valiant and New York Excelsior.
Which teams do you think have the most to prove next season?
Erzberger: For myself, it starts right where I'm writing this -- New York. The Excelsior should have been at Barclays this weekend playing the London Spitfire for the championship. This team was the class of the league throughout the regular season and then embarrassed itself with a poor performance in the semifinals, not even winning a match in the postseason. You already know the players and coaching staff were looking at the sold-out crowd and the sea of fans wishing it was them playing up there instead of the Fusion. If New York had been in the final, London would have gone from being mildly booed to being mercilessly taunted at every corner in Brooklyn. With Hwang "Nanohana" Yeon-oh poised to break into the starting lineup next year, it'll be interesting to see if the former top player in the world can return to his 2017 World Cup form following an inconsistent year on NYXL's academy team. As a bonus, I'm also calling out Seoul Dynasty. There is so much talent right now in South Korea's Contenders league that there are zero excuses if the Dynasty can't build a championship-worthy roster in the next five to six months
Rand: I'm looking at the Seoul Dynasty first. In a way, Seoul is a bit like London in that they began Stage 1 with high expectations and strong regular-season starts. Even when Seoul missed the Stage 1 and 2 playoffs, the team was adamant that it's a marathon, not a sprint, and that they were always looking toward the big picture. Unfortunately, the Dynasty never came together like investor KSV Esports would have hoped. KSV picked up the old Lunatic Hai roster to continue that team's dominance, and chose the name Dynasty to connect Lunatic Hai's OGN APEX success with this new South Korean Overwatch League brand. Failing to make the Season 1 playoffs is not something that we expected at all from Seoul, especially with such a strong DPS addition to the roster in Kim "Fleta" Byung-sun. Everyone celebrated Fleta's release from Flash Lux only to see him in a similar situation on a team surrounded by talent that should have performed much better as a unit.
I hate to bring this up, since it's an intangible, nebulous quality, but I think Seoul are still missing former captain Kim "EscA" In-jae. EscA soaked up so much criticism while on Lunatic Hai for his mechanics, but he led the team to multiple titles. Ryu "Ryujehong" Je-hong has been honest and open about his struggles to lead the team. I'm rooting for him next season and really hope that Seoul can pull together and find that synergy that they once had.
Favorite moments from the season?
Erzberger: As cliche as it sounds, I'm going to have to go with the opening ceremony from this past weekend's final. Coming into the Overwatch League, I was a bit of a cynic. I saw a lot of parallels between it and other failed traditional sports leagues of the past like the XFL. The numbers for the pre-Overwatch League competitions just weren't there, and I didn't know how much support the league would receive as a whole.
But watching as the two teams were announced on the stage with a sold-out crowd popping for every starting player's entrance, it was a pretty emotional moment. The Overwatch League isn't without its set of flaws and there is still the question of how much more this league can grow overseas in countries like China. In a country where the game isn't as popular as Blizzard would hope, the possible introduction of a Guangzhou franchise in the second season could pick up numbers if the franchise is successful. I saw a jersey from every team in the league over the weekend, and my biggest takeaway from this season is going to be how vital making the league geolocated was to the success of the league. It creates rivalries, ties casual fans into watching, even if they're just learning, and creates a movement for fans from other cities demanding for teams to come to their area. I'm excited to see what new franchises and cities we'll get to check out in 2019. Bring on a maroon and silver team, please!
Rand: Mine is a bit more personal but along the same lines -- I'm going to end up bookending this with the moment that the London players knew that they were going to win the first season championship. Throughout Stages 3 and 4, I interviewed a lot of South Korean players about their experiences in the United States and also differences not only between Seoul and Los Angeles, but between APEX and the Overwatch League, as well as basic cultural differences. Having interviewed Spitfire players, they mentioned feeling really frustrated at their losses. These players were bearing the burden of high expectations, and when they couldn't bring the team together to deliver by combining these two powerhouse rosters, it frustrated them. The fact that every remaining player was so quick to insist that the players that had been cut were not released because they lacked talent told me that this team was a lot more desperate than it seemed on the surface and the players still really cared about the players who had left the team. A lot of small, nuanced things can happen on a roster, but when those decisions reach broader community discussion, we can only infer so much from the outside looking in. For London, the mid-Stage 4 roster move was its last resort and it paid off.
The moment that London captured that final tick on King's Row, all of the players jumped up and started yelling, hugging each other. They seemed not only happy but so relieved, like a giant weight had been lifted off of their shoulders. Watching them celebrate in that moment with "History Captured" behind them was an amazing and cathartic finish to the first season of Overwatch League.