If there’s a problem with Blizzard Entertainment’s big esports gamble, Overwatch League, (beyond its rather obvious lack of female players and presenters) it’s that the divide in the skill level between its best teams and its less talented ones is pretty stark.
I spent most of last week in the grip of full blown Overwatch League hype. I’m a huge fan of Overwatch. I raved about it in our review (now thoroughly outdated after a year and a half of updates), I still play the game with friends almost every day, I was there with bells on for the Australian leg of last year’s 2016 Overwatch World Cup and I had high hopes for the next step in the evolution of Overwatch esports.
While the production, streamed live from the custom-built Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Los Angeles effortlessly matched the slickly-produced broadcasts of esports rival ELEAGUE, it was the games themselves that were perhaps the weekend’s most contentious point.
Of the three matches that made up the Day One competition, two of them were complete 4-0 steamrolls. Perhaps leveraging the home crowd advantage, the two local teams, Los Angeles Valiant and Los Angeles Gladiators took wins in straight sets against the much-hyped San Francisco Shock and a Shanghai Dragons squad unable to find an ounce of cohesion.
The day’s third match proved its best with season favourite Seoul Dynasty up against a Dallas Fuel squad comprised of DPS show ponies like Seagull and Taimou. While the two teams were fairly evenly matched throughout, Seoul were eventually able to bait Dallas into making some key mistakes, pulling away to take the series 2-1.
These three matches more or less set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Day Two provided a series of matches that, while fun, were not terribly exciting. London Spitfire, another team comprised entirely of high level Korean players, dominated Florida Mayhem 3-1. Imagine a school yard bully picking a fight with a smaller kid, putting their hand on the smaller kid’s forehead so that their swings can’t find purchase and you’ll have a good idea of how that match went.
Day Three began with a legitimate barnburner of a first round between Dallas Fuel and Los Angeles Valiant. The match went to an unheard-of 8-7 on Escort map Junkertown before Valiant were able to finally stall the Fuel out on the way to Point B and seal the deal. It was a wonderful example of what this league could look like at the highest levels of play.
The second match on Horizon Lunar Colony drew at 5-5, at which point Dallas Fuel, perhaps exhausted, appeared to give up entirely. They went down 2-0 on both of the remaining maps, Ilios and Numbani. Indeed, Fuel began to make some very strange moves in these two matches — Taimou taking Soldier:76, charging solo into choke points and dying instantly, neither stalling nor getting any value; Effect taking Sombra before switching to Genji, this despite their near-total lack of familiarity with the character.
It was hard to believe that this was the same team that had viciously beaten back Valiant’s defence on Junkertown only 15 minutes prior. So apathetic did Fuel become that I began to wonder if they were simply throwing the match to get it over with. If they weren’t, then Control and Hybrid map types represent significant weaknesses in one of the league’s strongest talent pools.
Sunday, Day Four, saw all three of the league’s Korean teams duke it out against the Westerners and here, again, we quite clearly saw the stark difference in skill levels between these teams. The Westerners did their best but the Koreans were out to remind everyone in the room who’s really in charge here.
Across Sunday play, Philadelphia Fusion just couldn’t get the picks they needed when the pressure was on despite a heroic attempt to dig in against London Spitfire. Houston Outlaws were able to take only a single point away from an incredibly strong New York Excelsior squad, getting knocked 3-1. The Los Angeles Gladiators, one of the strongest teams in the league by a wide mark, put on a show against a rampaging Seoul Dynasty, but still going down 4-0.
My point in all of this is if the best Western teams in the league are struggling to come up with viable strats to throw at these all-powerful Korean squads (and, on occasion, each other) what hope do lower seeded teams like Shanghai Dragons, Boston Uprising and Florida Mayhem have? 4-0 sweeps are fine when the both sides can put up a fight. 4-0 steamrolls, on the other hand, don’t make for very good television, and I fear we may see much more of the latter than the former throughout this inaugural season.
This is, of course, all based on the first week of the competition. Maybe my worries are unfounded, and this is just everyone settling into a rhythm ahead of a great season. But I do still think Blizzard need a contingency plan. It’s fun watching the Koreans clean house, but if it happens every single week without fail then the Overwatch League will be in dire straits before long. The best part of any sporting league is the unpredictability of week-to-week matches. Unpredictability leads to close games, triumphant wins, bitter losses, entrenched rivalries and inspiring underdog stories — this weekend had a few shining examples of exactly this kind of play. But when you have a handful of teams that are quantifiably better than everyone else, that unpredictability is stifled. It’s still there, its just much harder to find it. Add to this, the notoriously short attention span of the esports community for anything less than constant fireworks, and you have a bit of a problem brewing. I’m interested to see how Blizzard plan to solve it.
The Overwatch League continues Thursday, January 18.