Could the trade window finally break the Korean stranglehold on the Overwatch League?

In its first three weeks of competition, the Overwatch League, Blizzard’s ambitious tilt at an organised esports league, has been dominated by a triumvirate of Korean supersquads. All three have confidently held gold, silver and bronze on the ladder since the competition began. Many, ourselves included, wondered what, if anything, Blizzard could do to ensure a season that hadn’t been conclusively decided the moment it began. Training and team ingenuity, it seemed, was only going to take the Overwatch League so far.

With Stage 1 of the competition winding up this week, we may have our answer: trades and free agents.

Until last weekend, it didn’t seem like there was another team in the Overwatch League that could bring rampaging Korean squads Seoul Dynasty, New York Excelsior and London Spitfire to heel. Any match the involved the Koreans seemed to be a forgone conclusion, especially against the European squads. And then, quite abruptly, it all changed.

On Friday morning Australian time, Seoul Dynasty found themselves up against a hungry and winless Shanghai Dragons squad. Knowing what they were up against (and enduring a joyless 0-5 debut season) the Dragons flatly refused to give up, putting a strangely unprepared Dynasty on the backfoot. The crowd — very few of them actual Dragons supporters — were beside themselves, rallying to the underdogs’ side with screams, chants and wild applause. The Twitch chat was going bonkers. The Twitter hashtag was in meltdown with messages of encouragement and support. In that moment, everyone who’d bothered to tune in was a Dragons supporter. It promised to be the kind of upset match the Overwatch League has seen too few of so far, and we badly wanted the Dragons to be the ones to do it. Lord knows, they deserved it. Ultimately, it wasn’t be. Despite losing to Dynasty 3-1, watching Shanghai damage Seoul’s calm a little told us something important —  the gods could bleed.

Over the next two days, the dam broke at last and the upsets came thick and fast. All three took their first losses of the season in a series of 5-match upsets — a resurgent Boston Uprising knocking London Spitfire 3-2, Philadelphia Fusion sat New York Excelsior down 3-2 and, perhaps looking to reassert themselves, New York Excelsior finally took down Seoul Dynasty 3-2.

But is that enough? While these losses certainly don’t affect the Korean stranglehold on the ladder’s top three spots, it did give many viewers hope of seeing more upsets as the season progressed. Those hopes were raised again this morning with the announcement that all 12 teams are now cleared to headhunt players operating as free agents. Further, the competition’s first player trade window is set to open on February 12, the day after Stage 1 play concludes. This window will close on April 3, two days prior to the commencement of Stage 3.

The pool of players for interested teams is wide open, with teams able to add any player not currently signed to a League contract to their roster. Importantly, this includes players currently in the Contenders, Academy and Open Division circuits so up-and-comers also get a look in. Any and all signings will be subject to approval by the Overwatch League.

It’ll be a hot minute before you see any of these fresh new faces joining your favourite squad though, with the League declaring no new players will be eligible to compete until February 22, the first week of Stage 2. What’s more, your favourite squad may have to let other members go in order to bring new ones in — Overwatch League rules state that no team can exceed the roster limit of 12 players at any time. But whatever’s best for the team, right?

The trade window and free agent acquisition periods are exactly the sort of seismic shift the Overwatch League needs to keep from becoming predictable. While the practice of player trades and head hunting is common place to the point of total banality for anyone who follows regular sporting leagues, its another of many baby steps taken by an esports industry still finding its feet.

We can’t wait to see how it shakes out. An unpredictable Overwatch League is a better, more exciting Overwatch League, and we’re here for it.