As the first stage of Overwatch League drew to a close, it represented a major milestone for Blizzard's big gamble on esports. The London Spitfire faced some setbacks during the final day of Stage 1, but after coming back from an earlier defeat against their rivals the New York Excelsior, they were able to secure victory and earn $100,000 in prize money. During a chat with Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer at the finals, he spoke about how event organizers plan to refine their approach to the competition, while also reflecting on how things have transpired so far.
"I think we're off to a good start," said the commissioner. "There's tons of things we want to continue to iterate on and improve, but right now we're just really focused on figuring out how to continue to evolve and improve the show throughout the year, and have all of that culminate in the awesome finals event. That's the focus right now, and it's really awesome that people are happy with it. Nothing is broken, so right now we're just focusing on making it better."
With Stage 2 set to begin on February 21, there's already some notable changes coming up that could potentially alter the dynamic for the 12 teams. In addition to ongoing gameplay balances and tweaks for the base game, which included some notable changes to one of the most useful healer characters in Mercy, the league will also see an influx of new talent coming in to shake up the current roster.
The Stage 1 finals, while engaging and dramatic, ended up being a perfect storm of scheduling and scoring issues that resulted in many players feeling the heat after extended periods of play--and the organizers agreed. Taking place over the course of 12 hours--making the show itself somewhat exhausting to sit through--it forced the London Spitfire into playing several consecutive matches during the semi-finals and finals. While the London Spitfire were able to secure the win for the finals after a total of 14 games during the day--a testament to their team coordination and composure--this still made for a rather exhausting experience for all involved.
Immediately after the end of Stage 1, League commissioner Nate Nanzer took to Twitter after the finals to state their plans for addressing how the Stage 2 finals will work. He stated, "Let me save you some time from tweeting @ me about the schedule: we are looking into playing Stage Finals games on Sunday starting Stage 2. That and other schedule news soon."
On February 14, the revised schedule was finalized on the Overwatch League blog. The finals for Stage 2 will now take place on Sunday March 25, with anyone purchasing a ticket for Saturday March 24 being given a free ticket for the finals match the next day.
For the teams that had a hard time during the month, Stage 2 represents a clean slate for many players, allowing them to change the narrative surrounding their group. The Shanghai Dragons, featuring some of China's top esports talent, have struggled throughout their games in Stage 1. While they had some successful matches, they ultimately placed last. However, things could be be looking up for the Dragons. Three new players are set to join the Shanghai Dragons in Stage 2, which includes Lee Eui-Seok from Element Mystic, MVP Space flex Cheon "Ado" Ki-hyun, and Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon--who will be the first female player for Overwatch League.
As one of the top Zarya players in the world, Geguri could prove to be an effective player to round out a team that's in need of stronger defensive and support play. Many fans of competitive Overwatch have been clamoring for Geguri to have a spot in the League, and her placement on the roster could just be the shot in the arm that a team like the Dragons need to make it out of the bottom tier.
One thing that's common for an online game is for the developers to roll out gradual updates and tweaks for the game. Recently, both Junkrat and Mercy, two of the most used characters in the League, received some tweaks that toned down some key abilities that the developers felt could be easily exploited by players. Mercy became the go-to healer for teams thanks to her ability to resurrect dead players, along with her speed and healing range. However, the upcoming nerf will make the time to revive players last a bit longer, lower the speed boost from her Guardian Angel buff by 50%, and remove the bonus buff from her Resurrect skill. In addition to Mercy, Junkrat--a popular character for quick offensive strikes thanks to his Ultimate ability--will also see a nerf for one of his support abilities.
During a post-game press conference after losing to the London Spitfire, Jacob "JAKE" Lyon of the Houston Outlaws spoke about the changes to Junkrat, who is his signature character.
"I think it's interesting, actually," said the Houston Outlaw's top assault player. "The character is way weaker against dive, because the 120 AoE was really especially powerful against characters like Genji and Tracer--dodging Genji's reflect and still doing 120 and obviously one-shotting Tracer with damage boost is still a very powerful ability--but I think you'll still see the character a ton if people are running Reinhardt because he's still the faster shield-breaker in the game. Junkrat's RipTire is still the best ultimate in the game, so I think we'll still see Junkrat as viable, but it will be more situational. And it'll be more map dependent."
While Stage 2 will still largely keep the same flow and dynamic of its previous phases, the organizers are already looking to the future of the league given its immediate success. Overwatch League has kept a steady audience over the last month, and with the finals earning solid viewership, the organizers are confident that their audience will only grow from here. During a recent Activision-Blizzard investor call, the company already confirmed that the League was a solid success, and that the buy-in cost for new sponsors for Season 2 will increase--which is expected to add new teams and additional players. For now, Stage 2 is already looking to show more growth for the league, and what players can expect for Blizzard's rapid increase in esports.
For more content on our coverage of Overwatch League, check out our additional interviews with Nate Nanzer and Game Director Jeff Kaplan about the making of the League, and how Overwatch can be the game to push esports into the mainstream.