It’s not easy being a fan of competitive gaming.
As well as trying to keep up with roster changes and meta shifts, you often find yourself justifying the entire concept of esports to people whose gaming knowledge is limited to Candy Crush and Mario Kart. And then, occasionally, esport organisations do something so farcical that it becomes difficult for even the most hardened esports fan to justify.
Last week, Overwatch League confirmed the worst kept secret in esports: three-quarters of the way into the season they have implemented a new ‘role-lock’ system that fundamentally changes how the game is played and effectively means that much of what was learned in the previous five months is meaningless.
This ‘2-2-2 role lock’ - which mandates teams must always play in a composition of ‘2 tanks, 2 supports, 2 damage dealers’ - is the main backdrop to Stage 4 of the Overwatch League 2019, which begins on Thursday night in the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles.
What’s at stake in stage 4?
This is the final stage of the OWL 2019 season and will ultimately decide which of the twenty Overwatch League teams have a shot at the $3.5 million Grand Finals prize pool in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center at the end of September.
At the end of stage four - just five weeks from now - the top six teams in the overall League Standings will qualify automatically for Grand Final Playoffs. The teams placed from seventh to twelfth will qualify for a ‘Play-off Play-in’ mini-tournament to decide the remaining two Grand Final Playoff teams.
Effectively, at the end of stage four - and after six months of play - 60% of Overwatch League teams will still have a chance of winning the Grand Finals.
The Meta and the Law of Unintended Consequences
The general expectation among Overwatch fans is that the 2-2-2 role lock will mark a return to the “glory days” of the Dive Meta, and many are eagerly awaiting flamboyant DPS plays from god-tier Genjis, Tracers and Widowmakers.
For teams like NYXL and London Spitfire who boast the most mechanically-gifted players in the league, this is certainly a viable option. However, those less gifted teams will need to devise defensive counter strategies, and the 2-2-2 role lock may yet have unintended consequences for the Overwatch League.
As well as facilitating Dive compositions, the 2-2-2 role lock enables ‘bunker’ compositions built around Orisa shields, Bastion sentries, Mei walls and Baptiste Immortality Fields. While ‘2-2-2’ was implemented to restore OWL’s dwindling viewership, Blizzard might yet find their role-lock solution creates a far more unappealing meta.
Chaos is a ladder
Critics of the decision to implement role lock so late in the season will argue that Blizzard have plunged the league into chaos, and that the consistently high performances from teams like the Titans and the Shock are being undermined.
The flipside of this argument is that role-lock chaos can benefit teams who struggled earlier in the season. Even the 18th-placed Toronto Defiant will hope that newly signed DPS talent Mangachu and Logix can lead a winning charge that propels them into playoff berths.
Elsewhere, teams like the Outlaws and the Valiant - who both endured 0-7 losing stages this season - can credibly view themselves as potential champions.
Who will win it all? Overwatch League’s Stage 4 Uncertainty
Overwatch League right now is like a quantum riddle. We know the position of every team on the current table, but the 2-2-2 role lock has made it impossible for us to predict the momentum of each team.
The pragmatic prediction is that Vancouver Titans will build on early season confidence, despite their loss to Shanghai Dragons. Although Haksal and Stitch are among the finest DPS duo in the league, there remains a question about how much support they can receive while resources are poured into keeping Bumper alive on main tank.
From a romantic viewpoint, many fans would love to see ‘Big Boss’ Pine return to the NYXL starting roster and combine with Saebyeolbe and Fl0w3r to finally land a Season 2 finals victory. Similarly, hopes remain that a Birdring/Profit revival could help London to back-to-back Grand Finals glory, and that Dynasty’s deep roster could see them deliver on their rich Overwatch pedigree.
Among the outsiders, Fusion and the Dragons could both flourish in a DPS-heavy meta, and even the wildcard Chengdu Hunters could make an impact in stage four. Ironically, it’s the LA Gladiators who are likely to struggle the most in a meta which limits their ability to confuse opponents with unconventional strategies. Even with Decay and Surefour playing in front of the best support line in OWL, Gladiators seem doomed to struggle.
So, the smartest prediction for stage four might be San Francisco Shock. They already boast the finest tank/off-tank duo, and in Sinatraa, Architect and Striker they can draw on a deep and devastating DPS hero pool. Combined with Rascal’s unique Baptiste play-style they may have an edge in the new meta.
Whatever your thoughts are on the 2-2-2 role lock, there is no doubt that it has set us up for a volatile Stage 4 of Overwatch League 2019 and whatever happens, you can follow all the action, streams and latest odds here at Luckbox.