After a rough 2020 season, the Overwatch League aims to end on a high note
This year has been a tumultuous one for the Overwatch League. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: the 2020 season was slated to be a breakout year, a chance to finally realize the ambition of having a truly global league with teams traveling all over the world to compete against one another.
That dream was halted due to the ongoing pandemic and the inability for teams and players to travel. To make matters worse, viewership dropped after a shift from Twitch to YouTube, and the rapid rise of Riot’s team-shooter Valorant kicked off an exodus of big-name players, led by 2019 OWL MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won. At one point, the second-best team in the league dropped its entire roster.
But things have steadily been turning around. After shifting to online play, the league eventually adopted a tournament structure, which added some much-needed excitement to the regular season and, later, the playoffs. It seems to have worked: the league says viewership peaked in the playoffs with an average minute audience of 375,000 viewers. Now, OWL is looking to build off of that momentum with its annual championship, the Grand Finals, which kicks off on October 8th.
Given the state of the world, the competition will look a bit different than it has in the past, but it’s still one of the biggest esports events of the year. Here’s what you need to know to jump in.
The first big change in 2020 is the structure. For the past two seasons, the Grand Finals has been a matchup between the top two teams in the league. But that’s not the case this year. After OWL shifted to an online format, it was forced to divide teams into two regional groups; one for North America and another for Asia. Each had their own mini-playoffs, with the top two teams from each region advancing to the Grand Finals.
The finals will still take place online, but in order to ensure the competition is fair — and to overcome issues like latency — the two North American representatives have flown to Korea, which involved two weeks of quarantine prior to this week’s tournament. The teams will play each other online, but each squad will be based out of a team facility, where they can still physically interact with each other and coaches.
This means that the Grand Finals won’t be quite the spectacle it’s been in the past, with previous events held at NBA arenas in New York and Philadelphia in front of thousands of fans. Other esports competitions, like the League of Legends World Championship, have opted to play in high-tech studios devoid of fans. But OWL has gone a different route with a virtual stage debuting at the event that’s meant to mimic the look and feel of a traditional esports arena.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Of the four teams that qualified for the Grand Finals, there are quite a few interesting storylines to follow. The San Francisco Shock are the defending champions, a team that managed to perform well all year despite losing their biggest star midway through the season. The Philadelphia Fusion, meanwhile, have garnered a reputation as a great team that falters in big moments. They were runner-up in the 2018 Grand Finals and similarly finished second in multiple other tournaments. They even had the second-best record in the 2020 OWL regular season. In an article in The Players’ Tribune, Fusion star and MVP candidate Jae-hyeok ”Carpe” Lee wrote about overcoming that runner-up label. “So this chance here … we have to take it,” he wrote. “We have to give it everything we have, for all those that came before.”
In Asia, there’s a clear favorite. The Shanghai Dragons — once the laughing stock of the league, failing to win a single match in 2018 — have since become a dominant force. They had the best regular season record this year and won the Asian region playoffs along with two midseason tournaments. They also boast reigning OWL MVP Byung-sun “Fleta” Kim. Asia’s other representative, the Seoul Dynasty, took a much different path to the finals. After a middling regular season, where they finished 12-12, they came alive in the playoffs, beating every team not named the Shanghai Dragons. Consistency has been a problem for the Dynasty, but at their best, they’re a top-tier squad.
All of this is to say there’s no clear favorite, particularly because the two regions haven’t played against each other this year due to the regional restrictions. Seeing teams like the Shock and Dragons compete for the first time in 2020 should be an exciting moment for fans. And it makes predicting a winner nearly impossible.
HOW TO WATCH
The games will take place during prime-time hours in Korea, which means they could be a bit difficult to watch depending on what time zone you’re in. For those on the East Coast in North America, for instance, you’ll be watching OWL matches first thing in the morning. And as has been the case all year, every game will only be available to watch on YouTube.
Here’s the schedule, and you can check out the full bracket right here.
4AM PT / 7AM ET – Seoul Dynasty vs. San Francisco Shock
6AM PT / 9AM ET – Philadelphia Fusion vs. Shanghai Dragons
2AM PT / 5AM ET – TBD
4AM PT / 7AM ET – TBD
6AM PT / 9AM ET – TBD
6AM PT / 9AM ET – TBD