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Overwatch League Grand Finals 2019: Bitter rivalry's next chapter

“I mean… just look at these ugly, sloppy players…”.

As the opening outbursts of a sporting rivalry go, this put-down from San Francisco Shock’s main tank, super, will take some beating.

The focus of his contempt were the Vancouver Titans and his words gave spark to a season-long rivalry that will finally come to a head when the San Francisco Shock and the Vancouver Titans face off at the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals in Philadelphia on Sunday night.

The rivalry - which reached boiling point when Super called out the Titan’s “corny-ass tank player” on stream - isn’t unusual in the world of esports, but for the Overwatch League, it is both unprecedented and completely unexpected.

When is the OWL Grand Finals?

The Overwatch League Grand Finals start at 8pm BST / 9pm CEST / 3pm ET / 12pm PT on Sunday, September 29th. Find all the latest OWL and Contenders live streams and bet on Overwatch at Luckbox too! Remember to gamble responsibly and strictly 18+ only.

Overwatch League: The Disney-Friendly Esport

To many who celebrate the long history of esports ‘big three’ titles, Overwatch League is a frustrating upstart. Worse, Overwatch League has embraced an American-style ‘franchise’ model which many established esports fans dismiss as artificial and which lacks the perceived authenticity of organically grown events.

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Playing into the hands of its detractors, the Overwatch League has doubled-down on corporate sponsorship, giving us the ‘Coca Cola Victory Moment’, the ‘Cheez-it Grooves Half Time Show’ and - most egregiously - the ‘Nighthawk Router Rumble’ in which the victorious team is awarded a gold-plated wireless router, crudely fashioned into the form of a pro-wrestling belt.

The result of this Disney-friendly production is that OWL fans have been denied a rivalry of any real substance. Instead, rivalries are either mirrors of traditional sports grudges - such as New York versus Boston - or are solely geographical, as in Fuel versus Outlaws and the genuinely enthralling clashes between Gladiators and Valiant. So how is it a team from San Francisco and a team from Vancouver bucked this trend?

I see a pattern developing

Just 12 months ago, the Shock were reflecting on an uninspiring bottom four finish in the inaugural season. As part of the NRG Esports group, the Shock boasted significant finances but confounded many analysts by devoting resources to players who were too young to participate for most of the 2018 season. What was the point - many asked - of signing minors like super and sinatraa instead of proven talent?

At that same time, a roster of Korean players named RunAway were clutching back-to-back championships in Korea's tier-two scene. The team - which had developed extraordinary synergy during their winning streak - showed no interest in disbanding and adhered to a policy that any team wishing to sign one of them would have to sign all of them. In October 2018, a newly established OWL team from Canada did just that. RunAway became the Vancouver Titans.

Pain is an excellent teacher

As the new season began, commentators were ready to write off the Titans. While their talent was undeniable, the gap to Overwatch League - as well as the move from South Korea - was seen as a distance too far. Yet the Titans won their opening 6 fixtures - including a dominant win over the Shock - and blazed a trail to the top of the OWL standings.

After a narrow victory over Chengdu Hunters, the Titan’s main tank, Bumper, was asked for his opinion on the Overwatch League: “I thought it was going to be difficult and very competitive,” he said, “but now I realise it’s pretty easy. The other teams aren’t that good.”

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A short distance away, San Francisco Shock’s own main tank, super, was live-streaming the match. His reaction was apoplectic. “You’re so stupid," he shrieked, "I can’t wait to beat this kid’s ass!”

Almost immediately, the Shock transformed their mediocre performance and - without dropping a single map - progressed to the Stage 1 finals, where they faced off against the Titans.

The match went the full distance, until a devastating overtime beatdown on Rialto handed victory to the Titans. As their heartbroken opponents sat slumped in their seats, Titans could be heard laughing, “look at the Shock! They’re not smiling anymore!”.

Overconfidence is a flimsy shield

As stage two progressed, so too did the Titan’s winning streak. Not only did they swagger through stage two unbeaten, they lost only three maps along the way. Yet it was the San Francisco Shock - still stinging from the manner of their defeat - who set the pace: they won every match of their stage without dropping a single map. Once again the Titans and the Shock seemed destined for a showdown in the stage finals.

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This time it was the Shock who avenged their stage one defeat. Before the overtime wick had fully timed-out on Blizzard World, super had already jumped from his seat to embrace his team mates. Across the stage, Bumper sat - head in hands - on the brink of tears. For the first time, the Titans had been beaten. “The only team that can beat us now is us,” super declared.

With their sense of invulnerability broken, the Titans began to struggle with the changes in the meta into stage three. Shock, too, seemed to drop their standard although their deep roster left them more resistant to the change from GOATS. Still, both teams cruised through stage three and were widely expected to renew their rivalry in the final. Instead, the Shanghai Dragons blitzed both the Titans and the Shock with their triple DPS composition that heralded the introduction of the 2-2-2 role lock into the Overwatch League.

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Excellence is its own reward

And so the stage is set for the Grand Finals on Sunday. The Titans entered the playoffs as the number 1 seed, and navigated their way through the winner’s bracket with only the NYXL providing a meaningful challenge. For their part, San Francisco were stunned by an opening round loss to Atlanta Reign, but have recovered to make a devastating run through the loser’s bracket with 4 consecutive 4-0 victories, including a win against the NYXL in the loser’s final.

Who will have the last laugh?

Under normal circumstances, it would seem reasonable that the team to have emerged unscathed from the winner’s bracket would have the upper hand in the final. However, such was the nature of San Francisco’s reaction to their shock loss that they have looked like a team on a mission. By every measure, it is the San Francisco Shock who are favourites going into Sunday’s final.

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Throughout the playoffs, the meta continued in a state of rapid flux, and the addition of Sigma further transformed team composition. In the later stages of the playoffs, the tank meta was strongly leaning towards a double shield composition with Orisa as main-tank and Sigma playing a strange flanking role as a pseudo off-tank. Here it is the matchup of Jjanu and ChoiHyobin that could be decisive. Both have adapted quickly to the Sigma role and the entire match could be decided on this battle between the off-tanks.

This meta has placed huge importance on Moira picks, with the flex-support expected to output huge amounts of healing as well as delivering massive damage through enemy shields. Throughout the season, both Viol2t and Twilight have been exceptional and the winner of the duelling Moira battles could well decide who takes home the Grand Finals trophy. Most recently, it seems like Twilight has struggled slightly to adjust, so the Shock may feel they have a slight advantage.

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In the DPS roles, Doomfist and Reaper have been the dominant picks, and while SeoMinSoo and Haksal have impressed for the Titans, it’s the sheer depth of talent available to San Francisco that gives them an edge. Despite sinatraa looking devastating on the Doomfist, the Shock have been fearless in rotating their DPS line up, and both Striker and Architect have looked formidable.

Across almost every role, then, it feels like the Shock have stronger individual players, and it will take an epic team performance from the Titans to deny the Shock the final laugh in this on-going rivalry.

The story comes with one final twist, though - the rivalry that was sparked into life by Bumper’s arrogance and fuelled by super’s outbursts looks set to be decided with both players watching from the stands. As the meta moves on, both main tanks have found their skills out of favour and their hyper-aggressive styles have been replaced with more passive Orisa play. Even without their spiritual leaders leading the charge, it seems like the Overwatch League’s first organic rivalry is here to stay, and whatever happens, you can follow the latest odds, streams right here.

Pictures: Blizzard / OWL

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