After a lengthy break at the end of Stage 4, the Overwatch League returns with the playoffs where we will finally separate the best from the rest. Half of the twelve initial teams are gone after six month’s worth of grueling battles, producing many upsets along the way (except for a Shanghai Dragons win, of course). No more player trades or sweeping changes can upset the delicate balance of the inaugural contest – not that it makes any easier to figure out which of the six teams left standing will lift the trophy on the 28th of July.
Will the seeds grow into a majestic flower?
When you’re trying to win an event that consists of three knock-out rounds, receiving a bye is a pretty nifty advantage to have – especially when you are guaranteed to face the lowest seed remaining in your semi-final. This would already make the New York Excelsior the favorites even if the teams were evenly matched in strength, but NYXL’s all-Korean line-up towered over the field in the early months of the league, and while they may have failed to replicate their dominance in the latter period, they still picked up the Stage 3 title and made it to the final of 4, similarly to the first two title matches.
If they are the favorites based on their overall performances, the Los Angeles Valiant are right on their heels thanks to their form: the latter part of the regular season saw a massive improvement from the team that managed to clinch the overall runner-up spot despite their fourth-place and eighth-place finishes in the first half of the regular season. They managed to win the Stage 4 title, becoming the first ones to beat NYXL twice in a stage along the way. Form may be temporary, class may very well be permanent, but right now you’d be a brave man to bet against them if they can keep up the level of performances they’ve shown in the twilight period of the inaugural event. The Valiant are also going to start their adventure from the semis as well, and certainly are in pole position alongside New York’s crown jewel to duke it out in the final.
Will the Pacific get fully pacified?
Not all divisions are made equal – at least that’s the story the raw stats tell us so far about the lay of the land in the Overwatch League. Though the discrepancy between the Atlantic and the Pacific has certainly lessened by the time Stage 3 and 4 rolled around, the “right coast” completely swept the top three placings of the first two, hosts the team to beat in the form of the New York Excelsior and delegated four out of the six units present in the playoffs. Their fifth team. Houston Outlaws, would have pipped Seoul Dynasty to third place in the Pacific divisional standings – though statistics such as this are always going to be skewed by the mess that is the Shanghai Dragons team.
You could pin some of the blame on the compound interest of intra-divisional rivalries – having to play better teams will force you to aspire to greater heights as well, after all – but that would hardly explain the rise of the Pacific in Stage 4. While home advantage hasn’t played that much of a factor for the two LA teams in the regular season, it might turn out to be more important as the stakes increase – and if you look at the Gladiators, they will not be wasting the first half of the event without Fissure, which certainly is a major improvement. The majestic tank’s performance against his former side should be one of the more interesting storylines of the quarterfinals.
With growing pains affecting the participants of the inaugural OWL season, it’s probably not a good idea to come up with long-term projections about the individual divisions’ prospects and health – and comparisons with the NBA or the NFL are certainly unwarranted at this early stage. Still, it’s not out of the question that all semi-finalists could end up from the Atlantic. In terms of bragging rights, that would be a pretty impressive feat.
Also-rans or comeback kids?
If you see a burning Spitfire tailspinning towards the ground, you can’t help but look for a Messerschmitt in the sky. After starting out so well, pulling off a surprise Stage 1 title win and a third-place finish in the second one, following up a 7-3 and 8-2 win-rate with a 5-5 and a 4-6 certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence, especially considering they seemed to be nailed-on for third place with just two weeks to go, only to slip down into fifth. Whether you put down the change in the Cloud9 roster’s fortunes to Fissure’s departure or parting ways with their head coach in early March, it’s hard to find a reason for optimism as they go up against a team that beat them all three times they’ve met so far who are also on quite a late-season roll. A hypothetical Widowmaker-off is perhaps their best chance, looking at birdring’s excellent performances so far. Even if they make it past the quarters, it would be quite an upset if they managed to go any further – then again, of course, they’ve already shocked us once by taking down the Stage 1 title. Now would be a good time to soar to those heights once again.
On the other side of the bracket, two teams with identical records face off in the form of Philadelphia Fusion and Boston Uprising. They also have an almost completely even head-to-head record in the regular season, meeting once in every stage so far. It’s the highs and lows of Boston – including an unparalleled 10-0 run in Stage 3 – against Philadelphia’s relative stability, albeit at a slightly lower level of performance that could have easily seen them drop out of playoff contention altogether after massive losses against the New York Excelsior and the Los Angeles Gladiators in the middle of Stage 4.
Of course, all the carefully arranged factors can immediately go out of the window depending on how the teams adapt to the ever-changing metagame – and in the heat of battle as the tension mounts, having only a few series’ worth of time to find answers to brand new questions, flexibility may just be the greatest asset of them all. That is something the Fusion certainly have in spades. Their slightly deeper roster could turn out to be an important asset in this series – however, you can’t help but think that all this is just a desperate search for some sort of signal in the noise as the maps of the first match of the series greatly favor the boys from Boston. If they can wrestle away that from the third-place finishers of the season, look out for a potential upset.
However the playoffs may pan out, the first one is always special – and no matter whether the eventual winner goes onto a period of dominance or falls off into the void, their name will be etched into the annals of the Overwatch League forever. This time, more than ever before, history is on the line alongside the glory for all these teams.