Note: This article contains spoiler for the Overwatch League semifinals. Read at your own risk.
Coming into the Overwatch League semifinals, everyone agreed on one thing: New York Excelsior (NYXL), the season favorite, were surely getting a spot in the finals. After all, the finals are to be held in the Barclay’s Event center, and many fans eagerly bought their tickets expecting to see their team live. Not to mention how absolutely dominant the NYXL were during the regular season, with a mind-blowing 47 map win lead over the second ranked team.
Yet when it was time for the semifinals NYXL seemed absolutely lost. The Philadelphia Fusion swept them 3-0 in their first match and then pulled ahead 3-2 in their second. The team looked distraught, wiping tears from their eyes, and fans could not believe what they were seeing. Fusion players were bouncing with joy.
Stage 4 saw the introduction of Brigitte, a hero specifically designed to counter the reigning composition: Dive. For the uninitiated, Dive is a team composition that relies on coordinated strikes or jumps (called dives in the game, hence the name) on enemy heroes. It’s no coincidence that Stage 4 was by far NYXL’s worst stage, a fact sharply punctuated by their defeat at the hands of the LA Valiant in the stage playoffs. As others have pointed out, Brigitte was the beginning of the end for the NYXL. Storm Arrow Hanzo was the nail in the coffin. The team we saw perform during the season playoffs were not the same boys in blue we saw throughout the year.
For one, Main Tanks Mano and Janus looked lost when they played Reinhardt. The combination of Hanzo and Brigitte made Winston unviable most of the time, yet both of these tanks could not perform on Reinhardt as well as their opponent. And with the main tanks lacking, the rest of the team crumbles. Fusion took this opportunity and exploited it, netting them the win.
Meanwhile, other teams managed to adapt and quite beautifully. In fact, the fifth and sixth seeds – Spitfire and Fusion, respectively – both came out on top due to their ability to do so. Bdosin and Boombox both flexed to Roadhog at a higher level than their opponents did. EQO and Profit flexed to meta heroes such as Hanzo and Pharah and wiped their competition. Not to mention the insane carry potential of both Birdring and Carpe. Yet some NYXL players – despite their proficiency on certain heroes, looked lackluster.
Some blame the balance patches for sweeping the rug under NYXL. They argue that the constant changes the game receives makes for inconsistency.
In one meta shift the NYXL have gone from the best team in Overwatch, strong contender for best team in all of esports, and eventual OWL champion, to now 3 maps away from being remembered as a disappointment.
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) July 19, 2018
flavor of the month balance patches so easily override consistency in this game
— amelia x pasch (@paschlol) July 22, 2018
And while there is some merit to this idea, I strongly believe that this is not the whole picture. What Overwatch needs to succeed is not necessarily consistency in its metas. Instead, adaptability is the name of the game in Overwatch, and it damn well should be.
Metas – the term for what team composition or strategy is in vogue at any particular point in time – often get stale which can lead to player and viewer burnout. Before Brigitte came out, people were clamoring for the death of Dive, signaling their exhaustion at the meta. Balance patches are useful in jumbling up the meta, resulting in a few weeks of players figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately for NYXL, their success relied heavily on Dive for the first three stages and they failed to adapt to the necessity of fast hero swaps during the playoffs. This cost them their title. The importance of re-arranging the meta is twice as important for the viewers as it is for the players. During Stage 1 the state of Mercy’s double Resurrection made teamfights very drawn out and, by that extent, very exhausting to watch. It was crucial for a meta switch to happen, because it changed the viewing experience for the League moving forward.
Variability helps not only the games, but the players and team themselves. New patches shuffle things up: Stage 4 saw the Fuel make a comeback and Reinhardt players such as Fissure make a splash. If the same patch as Stage 1 had persisted throughout the League, the same top teams would have been dominant which ultimately does not make for good entertainment. By introducing new balancing changes, players that had not been performing so well, such as Mickie, get a chance to show off their skills.
- Some might argue that traditional sports have an established set of rules that make it consistent. But I would argue that esports are not sports, and we should not conflate the two. The beauty of Overwatch is its variability, and the absolute joy of watching it is seeing players adapt to it. This makes it so that the real entertainment is not the game and how consistent it is but rather the raw skill and talent its players display. The Overwatch League is barely in its first season, and I can assure you that in the future the players that teams will actively seek out will be the flexible ones who can easily adapt to Overwatch’s constant changes. Although some teams had a rocky season, I expect that to change for Season 2.
Variability helps keep the game fresh for viewers.
Ultimately, this benefits the game overall. I would like to point to another esports scene: Super Smash Bros. Melee. It is undeniably one the more popular fighting games at a competitive level, and although it has a very tight community, the game can be unappealing to many. The same few characters dominate the landscape and make for very uneventful and repetitive gameplay to watch. And while Melee might be a stable esports title, it will never be more than just that. But Overwatch wants to be more than that, as evidenced by the recent broadcasts on ESPN and Disney XD.
Overwatch needs to continue being the trailblazer it is being in order to pave the way for future esports that want to break into the mainstream. And the way to do is to constantly keep things fresh through balance patches that grants every match-up unexpected twists and turns. We need more of the Boston Uprising Perfect Stage. More amazing Reinhardt play from Fissure, Gesture and Envy. More upticks in Hog-Orisa compositions. And the only way we can get those is by wrecking the meta every now and then.