One narrative has persisted in competitive Overwatch for the past year: Koreans will win everything, forever and ever. Ever since Team EnVyUs ran away with the inaugural OGN APEX title, South Korea has been on the rise to the point of winning both Overwatch World Cups and consistently outperforming the west in international competition. In the conversation of which players are the best in each role, the East was convincingly in the lead, with certain players like Ryu "Ryujehong" Je-hong so far ahead they were practically untouchable.
The narrative didn’t change or wither as Overwatch League was announced. On the contrary: it only grew stronger, as multi-million franchises hustled to sign as many Koreans as possible, to the point where the NA-owned London slot fields an all-Korean amalgam of two APEX championship contenders.
The Korean domination rhetoric quickly translated into the main one for OWL — besides the recurring “will it fail” skepticism — where fans’ eyes were fixated on three franchises: Seoul Dynasty, made of ex-Lunatic-Hai players; New York Excelsior, or the former LW Blue roster; and the aforementioned London Spitfire, a mix between KongDoo Panthera and APEX latest champions of GC Busan. One of them, without doubt, was going to win the championship, it was just a matter of question who.
Fans didn’t watch OGN APEX because it was the pinnacle of Overwatch competition.
What further made these three teams exciting is that they remain, by far, the most storylined of all OWL franchises. As Lunatic-Hai, SEO have been together since the dawn of Korean Overwatch and have multiple titles on their shelf. At the same time, LDN’s core of KongDoo Panthera has been Lunatic-Hai’s primary rival in APEX, while the GC Busan half took the championship in Season 4, beating Lunatic-Hai twice along the way. The least proven of the bunch, NYXL’s LW Blue core has still competed in APEX since the start, took bronze in Season 2 and propelled their DPS players Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-yeol and Hwang "Fl0w3R" Yeon-oh to superstar status.
These were the rivalries that were to define the early stages of OWL, until the new franchises could develop their own ones, but in believing this I almost missed spotting another — one that would truly fire up the crowds and make them involved. One that I re-discovered as I browsed the matches for the OWL opening week.
You see, in esports, as in sports, ability plays second fiddle to the storyline. Take CS:GO as an example, where a match-up between SK Gaming and FaZe Clan would mean a face-off between the #1 and #2 teams in the world. It literally doesn’t get better than this, but do you know why that rivalry is even more exciting? It’s because SK’s leader Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo has never lost to FaZe’s leader Finn "karrigan" Andersen in the history of all their teams. It’s because it represents a family discovered and nurtured by a single Godfather going against a cherry-picked superstar line-up. It’s because there are individual rivalries within the overarching team one, such as between Marcelo "coldzera" David and Nikola "NiKo" Kovač in content for the best in the world, which layer up the storyline further. SK and FaZe could’ve been #5 and #6 in the world, and their matches could’ve easily attracted more attention than a match between #1 and #2, because if their loaded background.
The community has to be thankful that nV survived the ruthless establishment period of OWL.
Where I’m going with this is that fans didn’t watch OGN APEX because it was the pinnacle of Overwatch competition. They watched because up until the final season, there were foreign teams playing. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t hold a candle to the already superior hosts: the tournament brought back the decade-old storyline of Koreans vs. “white dudes”, as legendary WarCraft III player Jang “Moon” Jae-ho once so eloquently put it, which in turn has developed through multiple titles and scenes and spawned several mutations, like China vs. the West in Hearthstone and Dota 2. In Overwatch, the thrill of this storyline was further proliferated by nV winning APEX Season 1 and remaining the top western team in Overwatch. Because it’s not enough to have an East vs. West el clásico — it needs to be an actually competitive el clásico as well.
The community has to be thankful that nV survived the ruthless establishment period of OWL, which forced a slew of endemics to disband, including nV's biggest rivals in the west, Rogue. Amidst the mash of international rosters in OWL, nV have retained their image and wholeness as Dallas Fuel, becoming an important anchor point for the whole league moving forward. Before OWL develops, it’s unlikely that fans will tune in with trepidation for a Philadelphia vs. Houston match, or that they’ll find enjoyment watching some of the weaker western teams dismembered by the Koreans. Even the Korean match-ups, I wager, will come second to where the best of both worlds collide.
Today, this exact place is the crossing of Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty, and they are playing on the very first day of the league in a pinnacle of narrative. Not only did Lunatic-Hai were the only ones to take a match off nV in APEX Season 1, but they contributed to their elimination in Season 2 as well. The match-up features the best Ana in the world in Ryujehong vs. the closest you get to that in the West in Sebastian "chipshajen" Widlund. It pits the original Tracer god Chae "Bunny" Joon-hyuk against a youngster who’s taking the hero to new levels in Hwang "EFFECT" Hyeon, and re-hash the Winston version of this armwrestle between Gong "Miro" Jin-hyuk and Félix "xQc" Lengyel.
The game’s most popular streamer Brandon "Seagull" Larned will take on the game’s most successful team to ever compete, and it all starts tonight. For all the millions invested, all the sports franchises attracted and all the social media campaigns, OWL could not have asked for a better promo.
With Rogue gone and only nV standing tall in the West, let's hope OWL produces worthy giant killers to carry on the banner.