Of last night’s three Overwatch League matches, two were complete blowouts that left no doubt as to which team was leaps, bounds, and jetpack boosts ahead of the other.
The evening’s first match was a showdown between my dear orange-clad boys in SF Shock and the also-orange (but a worse orange) Philadelphia Fusion. The match was a solid start to Overwatch League’s second week—competitive if anticlimactic—but it also turned out to be the night’s high point. In the second match, Seoul Dynasty crushed the Florida Mayhem en route to a four-maps-to-none victory. The night’s third and final match was similar, with Houston Outlaws riding roughshod over Shanghai Dragons, a team so far behind the rest of the pack that they’ve taken to practicing from 10:30 am to midnight every day in order to catch up. With each successive match, viewer numbers dropped, going from around 150,000 concurrent viewers during the first match to the low 100,000s by the end of the night—a far cry from opening week’s 400,000+.
Some skill discrepancy is natural, and there’s an appeal to occasional blowouts in sports and esports. One-sided dominance can be a spectacle unto itself, provided that the winning team or player is Just That Good. In the UFC, for example, there’s Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, who, amidst the longest title run in UFC history, continues to turn heads with otherworldly speed and submissions. Similarly, you’ve gotta sit back and marvel when, in Overwatch, Seoul’s Fleta paints a masterpiece with Widowmaker’s sniper rifle and seems bored while doing it.
Too much dominance, however, sucks all the unpredictability out of any competition. With teams still trying out lineups and learning how to communicate, it’s too soon to say whether or not this is something that will plague Overwatch League in the long run. But right now, the skill gaps between the upper and lower echelons of teams are clear. Of the 15 Overwatch League season one matches that have been played so far, seven—nearly half—have ended in 4-0 sweeps. Now, numbers don’t tell the full story, and some of the 4-0 matches were more competitive than others. But there are clear haves and have-nots in the OWL right now. Teams like Seoul and London shelled out for top-tier, battle-tested lineups while teams like Shanghai picked up players of far less renown and, thus far, have demonstrated a general lack of team cohesion and decision-making that even strong mechanical players like Chao “Undead” Fang can’t make up for.
With months of matches left before the playoffs even begin, there’s plenty of room for change. The Dallas Fuel, a legitimate superteam, will not stay near the bottom of the rankings for long. But there’s also room for a nightmare scenario in which teams like Seoul Dynasty, Los Angeles Valiant, and London Spitfire continue to trounce most of the competition, only being forced to really play a fraction of the time—when they face each other. Even that wouldn’t be all bad: each match between any of the four-ish best teams would stand out compared to the dull desert around it. At least we’ll know which matches we absolutely have to watch.
Still, with just 12 teams in OWL (compared to, say, the NBA’s 30 or the NFL’s 32), it’s already tough enough to create compelling match-ups week in and week out over the course of a whole season. Skill gulfs that make matches between many teams a foregone conclusion don’t help. Why tune in, after all, if nearly half of matches turn out to be perfunctory? How do you build rivalries between teams who aren’t even on the same level? The Overwatch League needs these things just to keep its audience coming back—much less growing its fanbase.
Ideally, things will shake out such that there’ll be at least occasional fluidity between the League’s top, middle, and bottom tiers. Teams will be able to progress, rise through the ranks by punching every so slightly above their weight instead of getting repeatedly trounced by giants. On the upside, we’ve already seen Houston Outlaws demonstrate potential to leap from the middle to the top in regards to the competition they’re facing and beating. Hopefully other teams will experience similar growth spurts as the season goes on.
In a few weeks or months, I may look back on this observation and thank my lucky stars that, actually, everything worked out in the end. Perhaps teams like Shanghai Dragons, Florida Mayhem, and, loathe as I am to admit it, my sweet, sweet Shock will rise to the occasion and start giving the big boys a run for their money. If that happens, it’ll be a fantastic story, a sporting tale for the ages. For now, though, they’ve got a long way to climb.