Overwatch League’s first Grand Finals provide a crucial esports lesson: Adapt or die

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NEW YORK — Malik Forté’s eyes widened and he clapped his hands while thinking about how someone unfamiliar with esports might react to learning that, after completing the majority of its inaugural regular season, the Overwatch League introduced a significant change to the game during the final stretch. Ultimately it was a change that completely reshaped the playoff picture and set the stage for a surprise matchup in the league’s Grand Finals, set for Friday and Saturday in Brooklyn, with a $1 million prize on the line.

“It’d be mind-boggling,” said Forté, an analyst on broadcasts of Overwatch, Blizzard’s hero-based, six-on-six, first-person shooter video game. “But, for [esports players], this wasn’t any different than a lot of the other updates. … Flexibility is everything in Overwatch.”

That will be a lasting and costly lesson for a regular season Goliath that missed out on a potentially huge payday after the team proved all too inflexible when the playoffs began. The New York Excelsior, winner of 34 of 40 regular season matches, tore through the schedule and appeared destined to provide a glorious ending to the league’s first season — claiming the first title on its home turf in sold-out Barclays Center. Instead, the team watched its lethal, speed-based strategy short-circuit in the wake of a tweak to the game. And now the Philadelphia Fusion, which toppled the Excelsior, will battle the London Spitfire in the finals.

The OWL Grand Finals — which will be broadcast live on ESPN’s family of networks and re-air on ABC — are a stark example of what happens when an update, or “patch,” changes the “meta,” what gamers call the competitive conditions. For most of the season, the Excelsior mastered a quick-strike strategy for which opponents had no answer — until the game itself provided one. When Blizzard introduced a new playable character, the Excelsior’s foes had a counter that could check its quick-strike strategy. It was rapidly embraced by many of the league’s teams, leveling the field down the stretch.

In comparison to the traditional sports world, the dynamic would have been similar to the Golden State Warriors squeezing the life from teams all season with their vaunted “death lineup,” but then, in the playoffs, the league made Stephen Curry wear a weighted vest while giving the Warriors’ opponents a defensive specialist to help shut down Kevin Durant. Or, it would be like golf “Tiger-proofing” its courses by adding yardage to counteract long-drivers like Tiger Woods … but making the change after the third round of a major.

To a traditional audience, such a change would be staggering. In the context of esports, patches are common as circuits like the OWL try to prevent stale scenarios or too much dominance by one or a few of the in-game characters. Players expect meta variation, and OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer said it attracts some fans because patches prevent humdrum gameplay.

“You’ve seen one baseball game, you’ve seen them all,” Philadelphia team president Tucker Roberts said. “One of the exciting things about esports is that they change the game and it gives you a reason to always keep watching, because it evolves.”

The OWL gave players nearly a month off between the last regular season match and the start of the playoffs to practice and formulate new strategies. Yet the decision, Forté said, still had a “tremendous, tremendous” impact on the Grand Finals matchup.

This is, in a large way, indicative of the rapidly changing digital culture in which Overwatch exists. Every professional sports league considers rule changes as it attempts to improve its product, but most officials wait until after the season to address concerns because they agreed to a governance before the year and want to avoid upheaval. Metas must change because, as one gaming executive put it, “we are always in beta.” In gaming, upheaval is the normal form of governance.

So, after the last patch, teams rushed to “scrim” — esports shorthand for scrimmage — and solve the puzzle of how to best adapt. Philadelphia watched the Los Angeles Valiant’s flexibility in switching between characters and adopted similar principles, Coach Yann “Kirby” Luu said. Then the Fusion put them into practice against its scrim partner, London, and as a new roster composition emerged as a reliable base tactic, both began to employ it heavily. Those maneuvers are the main reason both teams are in the Grand Finals, said London’s Jae-Hui “Gesture” Hong. It certainly helped Philadelphia upset New York, 3-0, 3-2, in the semifinals, when Excelsior seemed either unable or unwilling to adapt.

“The patch has favored us, for sure,” Philadelphia’s Simon “Snillo” Ekstrom said. “Especially going into the match against New York Excelsior. On the old patch, it would’ve been really difficult for us [to win], even though we were still very good. But now, with the new meta … our team is super strong.”

When the lights go up in Brooklyn on Friday night, the teams will present a poetic beginning of the end of a landmark season for esports.

“This meta, the way we read it, is pretty much like rock, paper, scissors,” said Josue “Eqo” Corona of Philadelphia, one of the league’s most versatile players. “A lot of strategy is way more involved now. If you don’t dedicate enough time and thought to understanding it, then you’re never going to succeed in it; a good example is New York. … You always have to counter, and you can’t just pick a [composition] and become the best at it.

“You can’t play rock versus everything.”

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