As the last flakes of confetti fell on the newly crowned Overwatch League champions last July, many fans put down their inflatable boom sticks, hung up their replica jerseys and turned their attention away from the tournament that had become a weekly mainstay in their lives.
With Overwatch League Season 2 on its way, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to look at some of the biggest changes that were made during the off-season and prepare fans for what's in store for OWL 2019, starting on February 14th.
The first thing most returning viewers will notice when they tune in for the new OWL season is the raft of unfamiliar names on the fixture list. During the off-season, Overwatch League welcomed eight new teams - or "franchises" as Blizzard hopes we will call them - expanding from a 12-team league built of mainly American interests, to a league comprising 20 teams spread more widely across the globe.
The biggest changes came from China, where three new teams - Chengdu Hunters, Hangzhou Spark and Guangzhou Charge have signed on for Season 2. They join last year's underachievers, Shanghai Dragons, in bringing China's overall representation to four teams.
To give some context to that number, there is just one other team - Seoul Dynasty - from the entire continent of Asia, and the newly formed Paris Eternal join London Spitfire as the only teams representing the continent of Europe.
Elsewhere, though, Canadian Overwatch fans finally have home teams to root for, and can choose from either the strongly-backed Vancouver Titans or the rag-tag Toronto Defiant.
American cities continue to drive the growth of the fledgling league, with newcomers Washington Justice and Atlanta Reign bringing the total number of US teams to eleven.
It's hard to predict what impact these expansion teams will have on such a young esport, or which team’s approach is likely to reap the most rewards.
Among the new teams from China, Chengdu Hunters have opted for an all-Chinese roster of OWL rookies which looks destined to struggle at this level of competition.
Guangzhou have signed a mix of Western and Korean players, aspiring to form a team around their highly rated Chinese star, Eileen.
Hangzhou - who have already made a splash with their distinctive pink and blue jerseys - seem best equipped to make a tilt at the play-off places. Their star players - Krystal and guxue - impressed during China's World Cup run and could be the surprise outfit of this season's league if they can iron out communication issues with their Korean team mates.
The contrast between teams is equally apparent in Canada. On one hand, Toronto Defiant have cobbled together an all-Korean blend of newcomers and off-season transfers that seem unlikely to deliver more than a mid-table performance.
The Titans on the other hand are owned by the family behind Vancouver's NHL franchise, and are run by the Luminosity Gaming organisation. With these significant resources, they decided the most effective path to success was to buy-out the entire RunAway roster from South Korea's Contenders scene and relocate them to a mansion in Los Angeles.
If this team can adapt to American life - and if they can get off to a winning start - a play-off spot could be a realistic target.
However, for both Atlanta Reign and Washington Justice the place-offs seem a remote possibility. Reign boast the most diverse line-up in OWL, comprising players from Finland, Russia, Denmark, Germany, USA and South Korea. In dafran - their DPS star - Reign are gambling on the reliability of a talented player who comes with something of a troubled reputation. Justice, who have signed a mix of rookie American talent and OWL bench-warmers, are widely expected to languish in the bottom four places.
Everything from their Rooster to their roster seems designed to build upon the extraordinary support the Parisian fans showed during the World Cup
Finally, Paris Eternal have come to the league with some genuine continental-Europe flair, and everything from their Rooster to their roster seems designed to build upon the extraordinary support the Parisian fans showed during the World Cup qualifiers in Paris.
Their key signing from LA Valiant, SoOn, is one of four French players on the team, and Eternal will hope that SoOn's leadership can get the best out of ShaDowBurn, the talented but underperforming Russian DPS. In every sense, Paris Eternal are a wildcard hope for Season 2.
With so many new teams joining the league, there was speculation around major changes to the tournament structure. However, Blizzard announced in October that most of the last year’s structure will be retained.
To recap, OWL is a league competition culminating in a series of knockout matches. An overall table ranks all teams based on wins and losses. At the end of the season, the teams with the highest number of wins proceed to a set of “Grand Final” knockout fixtures to decide the overall winner.
The season is split into four distinct stages. Stages 1, 2 and 3 will each culminate in a 'Stage Final', which has a monetary reward for teams, but has no impact on final standings. In an effort to avoid a repeat of last year's sandbagging accusations, stage 4 finals have been abandoned in favour of a post-season "Playoff Play-in". Effectively, the teams placed from seventh to 12th in the final standings will compete for one of two places in the Grand Finals.
So, yeah. It's complicated.
Throughout the inaugural season, OWL's insistence on enforcing arbitrary Atlantic and Pacific divisions seemed like just another imitation of traditional American sports leagues. Rather than abandon this for Season 2, Blizzard seem to have doubled-down on the concept.
There are some positives though. The 'divisional' structure means that teams will now play just 28 games per season, as opposed to the 40 games played in Season 1. Specifically, each team plays against 'home' division teams twice, and plays teams in the opposing division just once. Although there are justified objections to this structure on gaming integrity grounds, this change is exceptionally important for the league.
Behind the Disney-friendly presentation and the candy-sponsored intervals, there were real concerns last year that OWL was overlooking player-welfare issues. The 40-game season required each team to play twice a week, every week, with only short breaks to rest between stages. Several players - including Seagull, xQc and Babybay - spoke out about the stressful workload and star players including Pine and Effect required time off mid-season to get treatment for mental health issues.
Thankfully, OWL seems to finally have taken these concerns on board. The 28-match format means every team will now enjoy 'rest weeks’ or weeks with just one match to contest.
Despite suggestions that the Atlantic division is now a markedly tougher environment than the Pacific, Blizzard announced that each divisional winner will automatically get a place in the finals. So, in the entirely plausible scenario that San Francisco Shock finish fourth place in the overall standings, they will progress to the play-offs as second seeds as long as the three teams ahead of them are from the Atlantic division.
Finally, Blizzard announced the some teams will host matches in their home cities for the first time. Those teams are Dallas Fuel (April), Atlanta Reign (July), and Los Angeles Valiant (August). Considering the visa issues many teams already have getting their players to LA, it seems completely sensible to restrict this practice to American cities for now. With so much investment pouring in from China though, it seems only a matter of time before we see a major matches taking place on Chinese soil.
Nerfs, buffs and heroes
As with any esport, Blizzard constantly make small adjustments to the overall balance of their game in the form of patch updates. Following the recent confirmation that Stage 1 of the new season will be played on patch 1.32.1, we now know which nerfs, buffs, heroes and maps will be in play.
Though it already seems like a lifetime since Wrecking Ball was added to our screens, this is actually the first chance to see our favourite psychotic hamster in Overwatch League. By now though, top level players know how to deal with this highly mobile, highly-armoured tank.
By contrast the newest hero could yet provide some surprises. Ashe - a character combining Cowgirl and Biker Gang aesthetics - is something of a hybrid between McCree and Widowmaker. As a relatively mobile hitscan hero with some effective zoning ability and an Omnic Butler ult, Ashe might find a role as a niche DPS pick as the meta evolves.
Nerfs and Buffs
In reality, there have been far too many nerfs and buffs over the last 6 months to detail here, but some of the changes below are so significant that it's likely to affect pick rates and effectiveness of characters you're used to seeing.
While she's suffered nerfs and changes in the past, D.Va is still the most enduring pick in the game. So, it's probably no surprise that Blizzard came back to nerf her again in the latest patch. The cooldown for her Defense Matrix has been doubled from 1 second to 2 seconds. This is a significant change for players in the low elos, but for OWL players already accustomed to disciplined use of the Matrix ability, it’s unlikely to be more than an occasional inconvenience.
When Brigitte made her debut in Stage 4, nobody was quite sure how to get the best out of her abilities. In fact, nobody was even sure how to pronounce her name. Originally created as an anti-dive hero to hard counter enemy Tracers, Brigitte was actually a powerful healer-tank hero in her own right. In fact, she was so powerful that the Overwatch community were soon calling out Blizzard using the #deleteBrig hashtag.
Blizzard quickly complied, reducing shield bash damage by 90% in November's patch, and limiting her Rally ult in January's update. With game-wide changes to how armour is used, Brigitte is a much less viable pick than at launch, however her utility within the triple-healer meta means she's likely to remain a popular pick, at least in the opening weeks of the season.
In another case of the community calling out a hero that was perceived to be OP, Blizzard reduced the loss of control experienced by victims of Doomfist's 'Rising Uppercut' ability from 3 seconds to just over half a second. Combined with a reduction in the outer blast radius of his ult ability, and other mobility nerfs, you're less likely to see Doomfist marauding on unstoppable killing sprees.
In the October patch, changes were made to Pharah which affect how she will be deployed n Season 2. Effectively, the direct damage of Pharah’s rockets was increased while the indirect splash damage was reduced. As a result, the tactic of raining down rockets indiscriminately on an area has been tweaked in favour of a more targeted strategy.
When taken as a whole, the recent batch of nerfs and buffs might be seen as an effort from Blizzard to exert a change in the meta at the top level. Why they might want to change a meta that some consider unwatchable in favour of a meta that viewers might enjoy is anyone's guess, but their persistent buffing of Reaper's indicates a desire to turn him into a "tank-buster" hero. Over the course of two patches, Reapers passive healing increased from 20% to 50%, meaning he now gets 50% of his damage output back as healing. In reality, OWL level players will still be able expose Reaper's vulnerabilities, but these buffs may become a meta-changer at lower levels.
In other news, Torbjorn got a complete rework. He no longer collects scrap or shares armour, and his ultimate ability now sprays brightly coloured lava across floors and walls. Stage 1 will also be first opportunity for all teams to deploy the reworked Symmetra.
Don’t expect those OWL cowards to pick either of them, though.
We need to talk about meta.
As stage 4 of OWL was reaching a close in May 2018, a group of 8 American teams sat down to play a small online invitational event, when something slightly strange happened.
An American team named GOATS emerged from the losers' bracket and won the tournament without dropping a single map. The GOATS team wasn’t particularly talented, and their triple tank/triple healer comp wasn't particularly innovative, but it was played with such coordination and such hyper-aggression that it devastated opponents and quickly gained notoriety as a low-skill/high-reward strategy.
While OWL was shut down for the off-season, the influence of this comp spread throughout the amateur and tier 2 scenes. The era of the 'GOATS meta' had begun.
The basic strategy of GOATS is simple - a Lucio speed boosts a tightly knit team into a brawl, where a Zarya-bubbled Reinhardt engages with his counterpart as D.Va dives in to attack opponents and Matrix their damage. Brigitte provides the team with stuns, armour and health, while Moira and Lucio fill the region with AoE heals. As soon as ults become available, Zarya locks the enemy team in Graviton Surge and D.Va wipes them out with a well placed Self-Distruct.
Across all levels and all elos, expansive DPS play was spurned in favour of close-counter TripleTank brawls. Variants of the meta emerged: teams selected Zenyatta in place of Moira to counter ults with transcendence healing, or deployed the so-called FLOATS composition which substitutes Winston to add dive-style verticality to the brawl. As the meta took hold, matches descended into Mirror GOATS, where both teams lined out with identical composition.
From an esports fan’s point of view, there’s one problem. GOATS is not pretty. If Overwatch's 'dive meta' was a leopard skilfully pouncing on a wayward gazelle, the 'mirror GOATS' meta is two river hippos wrestling for the last puddle of mud.
As the division between Pacific and Atlantic teams become more pronounced, it will be interesting to watch if 'divisional metas' take hold
The big meta question as we approach Season 2 is whether these brawl compositions will be seen across OWL, or whether the exceptional mechanical skills of the world's best DPS players will be able to stop the spread of the GOATS deathball.
A second area of interest will be the introduction of Chinese teams to the league. In the past, Chinese teams have played in something of a 'meta-bubble', often experimenting with unusual team composition and developing strategies outside of the influence of Korean and Western styles. In the World Cup, their innovations won over many fans and took them all the way to the final showdown against South Korea.
Finally, as the division between Pacific and Atlantic teams become more pronounced, it will be interesting to watch if 'divisional metas' take hold.
How to watch OWL 2019
In late 2017, Blizzard announced that it was seeking a new Director of Broadcasting to lead its observing team and to define how Overwatch League matches would be viewed on Twitch streams and television broadcasts. In October, the position was filled by Jason 'Alchemist' Baker - a massively respected esports veteran with a hugely impressive track record leading observing teams in top tier esports.
Just 12 months later, to the surprise of everyone in the industry, Blizzard quietly opted to not renew the contracts of Alchemist and his team.
This decision immediately raised many questions about how Season 2 would be experienced by the OWL audience, and to date, there remains serious concerns about the quality of product that can be delivered by Blizzard's rookie observing team. Overwatch League fans felt entitled to wonder what Blizzard were thinking.
The first hint of an answer came during the final stages of the 2018 Overwatch World Cup.
Using the new 'World Cup Viewer', fans could log in to battle.net software and customise their viewing angle in real-time to experience Overwatch World Cup matches from any perspective. Fans also had access to all 12 player perspectives in both first and third-person views, as well as 'bird's-eye' and 'worm's eye' views.
This revolutionary experience, provided to fans free of charge, effectively meant that viewers took control of their own observing team, and a new world of analysis and commentary became available. Fans couldn't wait to try it on OWL matches.
The sense of excitement was short-lived, though, as Blizzard announced that the custom observing tools which had been provided free of charge would now only be available to Twitch users at a cost of $14.99 for the season.
This leaves Overwatch fans with the unsatisfactory choice between paying $14.99 for a Season Pass to watch on Twitch, or watch free feeds created by an unproven observing team.
In any case, leaked imagery has shown a number of improvements to gameplay UI designed to help viewers keep track of what's happening in the game. These include new icons to show when players are under the influence of enemy CC (e.g. sleep darts, Flash Bang, freeze gun etc.), and smaller images to represent when non-hero assets are destroyed (e.g. D.Va's mech or Torbjorn's turret).
Fans will have to wait and see whether Blizzard can find the right note to showcase their flagship event to newcomers and hard-core fans alike, but for now, all we can do is enjoy the action and prepare to crown our Season 2 champions, Los Angeles Gladiators...
Pictures: Overwatch League