Over the course of its inaugural season, Overwatch League has shown solid growth throughout the 200+ games played since its debut. While Blizzard's esport experiment has seen its fair share of ups and downs--resulting in some unexpected roster shakeups, changes to the flow of the schedule, and some controversies surrounding players--the league's success with turning the hero shooter Overwatch into an event game has been a sight to behold. The tournament will culminate in a battle between fan-favorite teams the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion. And with plans to expand further in the next season, including two new teams in Paris and Guangzhou, along with a substantial distribution deal with ESPN, the future looks bright for Overwatch League.
Spanning July 27-28, the Grand Finals will see the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion compete in several games, with the champion crowned after a best two of three matches contest. While the first day will only have one match, the second day of the Grand Finals will decide the winner.
While both teams are fan-favorites and the best the season had to offer, they each faced many challenges that nearly kept them out of the finals. The 2017 pre-season provided ample opportunity for the teams to get their footing ahead of the official start in Season 1. However, the Fusion unfortunately missed out due to issues with scheduling and visa clearance for its roster. When they debuted at the open of Season 1 in January, they had a particularly poor showing during Stage 1 and 2. Eventually, the Fusion found their footing thanks to a roster change and solid performance from key players Georgii "Shadowburn" Gushcha, Josue "Eqo" Corona, and Alberto "Nepturo" Gonzalez Molinillo. Currently, the Fusion have a 24 win and 16 loss match record under their belt.
In the latter half of the season, the London Spitfire have become one of the league's most popular teams. With a strong start in Stage 1, they quickly made themselves known as the team to watch out for. But they struggled to maintain momentum, resulting in several disappointing games in Stages 2 and 3. After an unsuccessful start in the first week of Stage 4, the team management made the surprising move to remove four players from its active roster--Hyeon-woo "HaGoPeun" Jo, Jang-hyeon "TiZi" Hwang, Seung-hyun "WooHyaL" Sung, and Seong Dong-eun "Hooreg" Lee. The reason for they stated in a press release was to craft a smaller, "championship-caliber" team. Amazingly enough, this allowed the team to regain the same buzz they had in the pre-season, leading to some memorable matches against the Fusion, and the Spitfire's rivals, the Los Angeles Gladiators--whom they were able to knock out in the playoffs. Much like the Fusion, the Spitfire also has an identical match record of 24 wins and 16 losses.
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London Spitfire owner Jack Etienne was candid about the team's challenges over the course of the season, including their important decision to make changes to the roster.
"For me personally, the biggest challenge this season was for me to understand that you can't just put the best 12 players on a team and expect things to go well," he said. "The thing is, when you have only six of those players be on the stage, the other six are not gonna be happy being backup. I've always believed that the teams that win at playoffs are the teams that are peaking at the right time. When we were down and out, like after Stage 3 and not doing well, and then going into Stage 4 and not doing well, and sending players home after--my players were miserable. We talked about it, and I told them that, 'Hey, this slump hurts, it sucks to be here right now, but this is the time, the best time, to figure out what is wrong with us, and come back strong.' Other teams that have those slumps later on didn't have time to fix it; we actually had time to fix what's going wrong."
"The Fusion in particular have played strong against us, they're a really solid team," he continued. "And through our [earlier games], they're by far the best--we're the best two teams in the league. I have a huge amount of respect for them, and it's really good that things ended up the way they did in the bracketing, because it would've been a real shame if we had to play each other in quarter-finals or semi-finals, and one of us just lost from the other teams, it would've sucked. That would've been a bad finals. But the way things ended up, with the brackets, [the League] ended up with the two best teams, peaking at the right times, to be here."
With the Grand Finals, Overwatch League will up the scale of the event. Along with the change in venue from the Blizzard Arena in Burbank to the Barclays Center, the increased reach that Blizzard has planned for its final games will give viewers more ways to view the deciding matches between the Spitfire and Fusion. In addition to its online audience on Twitch and other streaming platforms, the league will also be broadcast on ESPN and the Disney Channel in North America. The exposure these last games of the season are getting show a clear payoff in the gamble Blizzard has taken with the making of its own esports league, and this will likely set tone for how it expands in the seasons to come.
Jon Spector, OWL director of franchises and competition, spoke about what he wanted to do with the league's reach, and the goal to expand the OWL audience even further.
"We've always wanted our content to be as accessible as possible to fans," said Spector. "That meant you can watch Overwatch League on Twitch, you can watch it on our website, you can watch it on the app, we're making it now with the ESPN partnership, you can watch it on TV in parts of the world. So I think if you look at what we're most excited about, for the ESPN/Disney relationship, it is that ability to bring Overwatch League to a new group of fans that maybe hadn't watched us on Twitch before, and hadn't even checked out our website. This is a chance when we're on for the finals and prime time on ESPN to introduce the league to some new fans. So I'm really excited about that but I think it mirrors our core strategy of making the content as widely accessible for fans. However they want to consume it, we want Overwatch league to be there."
Season 1 of Overwatch League has already a been solid start for Blizzard's venture into esports territory. As more teams are drafted, and with additional arenas being added into the mix, there's a greater sense that the league is just getting started. For Blizzard, what makes the Overwatch League work is not only the design of the hero shooter itself, which focuses on a diverse and skilled group of people that come together to form a team, but also the passionate community that has become drawn to its hopeful and optimistic view of what the future could be, where people of all ages and backgrounds come together to find joy in something great. This is something that people are naturally attracted to and constantly seeking out, and it's what will be the driving force behind Overwatch League's growth.
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