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Overwatch League: The History of Overwatch Esports

Bradley Long

Since its launch in 2018, the Overwatch League has been a lightning rod for esports fans. With a format mimicking traditional sports and massive franchising fees, many have felt that the league is trying to do too much and could give esports a bad name. Still, its lofty goals and big-time investors have made OWL one of the most talked-about esports in the world.

Overwatch League

The London Spitfire reign triumphant as the 2018 Overwatch League Champions. (Patrick Dodson for Blizzard Entertainment)

The Beginning

Before the Overwatch League was even announced, the game itself was released in May of 2016, becoming an instant success with critics and fans. Because of its unique, engaging multiplayer gameplay and diverse cast of heroes, it went on to win numerous “Game of the Year” awards. Incredibly team-based, the first-person shooter had the promise of being a solid esport for Blizzard hoping to capitalize on its critical and commercial success.

It was during Blizzard’s annual convention in 2016 – BlizzCon – that the Overwatch League was announced. Blizzard sought to make waves in the esports industry with a format similar to traditional sports. With its city-based franchising, the league was a major departure from what esports fans were used to. The vision was a league that could finally thrust esports into the mainstream. The $20 million buy-in for a franchise was a large investment, but investors from traditional sports, esports, and beyond lined up to secure their spots.

The first seven cities announced for the Overwatch League were Seoul, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Shanghai, and Florida. The league would start its inaugural season with a total of twelve teams, as London, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, and another Los Angeles team joined the fray.

With the 12 locations set, the league was taking shape, and the start of the inaugural season was soon to come. The Overwatch League matches would take place in the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California for the first season and the vast majority of the second season while the league found its footing.

2018 – The Inaugural Season

The inaugural season of the Overwatch League would be played across four stages with “Stage Playoffs” acting as a buffer between each of the phases, with bragging rights and prize money up for grabs. Each team would play 40 matches throughout the season, with their overall records deciding which six teams would compete for the title.

Wednesday, January 10th saw the League open its season with the Dallas Fuel and Seoul Dynasty providing the marquee matchup. Both teams featured storied rosters (Dallas with the former Team Envy squad and Seoul bringing most of the Lunatic-Hai roster), and the match saw a peak of over 400k viewers on Twitch.

Stage 1 would prove to be one of the most exciting in Overwatch League history. With only three teams making the stage playoff, the competition was extremely tight. After a strong start, the London Spitfire squeaked into the playoffs despite losing their final two matches. Their opponents in the playoffs would be Houston and New York, the two teams that had beaten them in the final week of Stage 1. In a gutsy performance, London won three best of five series in a single day to lift the first trophy in OWL history.

Making History

The rest of the season was marked by the rise of NYXL, the most dominant team Overwatch had seen at the time. Fueled by the emergence of Sung-hyeon “JJoNak” Bang as the best player in the league, the Excelsior would go on to reach every Stage Final, taking home two titles in the process. Their league-best 34-6 record propelled JJoNak to the league’s first MVP award in a landslide, and made NYXL the favorites heading into the playoffs.

Despite their dominance all season, the Excelsior found themselves coming up short of the Grand Finals. They were on the receiving end of an upset defeat by Jae-hyeok “Carpe” Lee and the Philadelphia Fusion in the semifinals. There they would meet another unlikely underdog, the fifth-place London Spitfire, who were surging after a midseason slump.

The Grand Finals, held over the course of two days in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, were a spectacle on par with the lofty goals Blizzard had for the league. 22,000 fans filled the arena, and Blizzard reported 10.8 million viewers across its global platforms, including primetime coverage on ABC and ESPN.

london grand finals

The Grand Finals saw the London Spitfire lift the trophy. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Ultimately, the Spitfire reclaimed their championship form and dominated the Grand Finals. They defeated the Fusion 3-1 and 3-0 in consecutive matches to claim the best-of-three series in convincing fashion. Star DPS player Joon-yeong “Profit” Park took home Grand Finals MVP honors, and the Spitfire cemented their legacy as the first Grand Finals champion in OWL history.

2019 – The Expansion

After a successful 2018 inaugural season, Blizzard was ready to take the Overwatch League even further. Eight new expansion teams were announced for the 2019 season. These teams were Atlanta, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Toronto, Paris, Washington, Vancouver, and Chengdu. The league’s franchise reach expanded to cover even more of the globe, including a second EU team alongside London and three additional Chinese franchises to tap into the country’s ever-growing esports market.

These expansions came at a hefty price, though. Gone were the days of a mere $20 million franchise buy-in. Instead, rumors indicated a price range of $30-60 million. The 2018 season proved successful and more companies, organizations, and investors wanted in.

The 2019 season would play out much like 2018 with four stages, and Stage Finals continuing to act as a buffer between. Unlike the previous year, the Stage Four Finals were bypassed for a play-in tournament system, in which the teams ranked 7-12 in the standings would compete for two spots in double-elimination playoffs. Alongside the change in the playoff format, the teams would lighten their match load from 40 matches to only 28 in hopes of reducing burnout and making each match more important.

New Kings

2019 saw a massive shakeup in the hierarchy of the league. While NYXL remained a strong team, they were supplanted at the very top by two new rivals. First, it was the Vancouver Titans, an expansion team who signed the entirety of Runaway, one of the most beloved teams in Overwatch history. Thanks to their mastery of the GOATs meta that dominated most of 2019, the Titans quickly established themselves as the team to beat with a Stage 1 title.

Despite finishing with an incredible record of 25-3 in the regular season, the Titans were not the true kings of the 2019 season. That title goes to the San Francisco Shock. After losing to Vancouver in the Stage 1 Final, the Shock were out for blood. They blitzed through Stage 2 without dropping a single map, a feat that hadn’t been done before. Their revenge over the Titans was complete with an epic 4-2 win in the Stage Final.

Stage 3 proved to be one of the most dramatic in OWL history. As the GOATs meta continued to drag on, teams started to look for out-of-the-box solutions. The breakthrough would come from an unlikely place. After going 0-40 in the inaugural season, the Shanghai Dragons righted the ship in 2019, making the playoffs in Stages 2 and 3. In Stage 3, they struck gold with a variety of unorthodox compositions, including several triple-DPS locks. In an unforgettable Final, the Dragons took down the Shock in seven maps to complete the fairytale run.

Changing the Game

Stage 4 brought a massive change to OWL, and Overwatch as a whole. After months and months of the 3-tank/3-support GOATs meta, the game moved to 2-2-2 Role Lock. Teams would now have to field two characters in each role at all times. What ultimately emerged was a playoff meta that favored slower comps with more shielding.

Despite the shakeup, the playoffs still came down to the three top regular-season teams. Despite some stumbles, Vancouver took care of business in the upper bracket, taking down the Dynasty, Gladiators, and NYXL on their way to the Grand Finals. There they would meet their greatest rival, the San Francisco Shock, who were in the middle of a legendary run. After losing unexpectedly to the Atlanta Reign in the first round, the Shock dropped into the lower bracket and proceeded to win 16 straight maps on their way to the Grand Finals.

For the third time in 2019, the Shock and Titans met with a title on the line. This time they clashed on stage at the sold-out Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. In something of an anticlimax, San Francisco continued their dominant ways with a 4-0 thrashing of the Titans. The Shock were the defining team of 2019. Finals MVP Hyo-bin “ChoiHyoBin” Choi and company left no doubt about that.

2020 – A Year of Turmoil

2020 was supposed to be the year that the vision of the Overwatch League truly came to fruition. After a few successful Homestand weekends during the previous season, the plan was for all regular season matches to be played live in different cities every weekend. The Stage format was scrapped in favor of live events and a massive Midseason Tournament.

For the first several weeks of the season, the Homestands seemed to be a rousing success. Finally, the league was capable of delivering the value of city-based franchising. For the first time, fans across the U.S. were getting the chance to see their teams play live. The Overwatch League was putting on great events and filling venues.

Obviously, that didn’t last. After five weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to all Homestands, and the league was forced to move to online play for safety reasons. With the entire format of the season scuttled, the league was in a tricky spot. Seven of its teams were based in Asia at the time, so the league was split into two regions for online matches.

A number of issues plagued OWL over the next few months. The production quality suffered as the team behind the scenes scrambled to adjust to their new reality.  Online play was a predictable downgrade from live events. Because the league had removed Stages from the format, there was just an endless string of regular-season games with nothing to break them up or add excitement. 

On top of that, the game was trying hard to stay fresh amidst a growing sense that metas moved too slowly. Hero pools were implemented, periodically banning a selection of often-played heroes from competitive queue and professional play. There were a number of iterations on the concept, but none of them really worked. The league saw meta variety, but quality of play suffered and teams struggled with overworking in an effort to keep up with the weekly changes. The system was eventually scrapped for the game at large, and only used in a scaled-down version during the 2021 season.

A New Way Forward

By mid-April, it was clear that something needed to change. Online play was simply not going to cut it if players felt they had little to work towards besides playoffs months down the line. With that in mind, the league instituted the first version of the playoff system it now employs. Beginning with the May Melee, regular-season matches would be used to seed teams into a tournament bracket in each region. Prize money and regular-season wins would be on the line for the top teams.

With a plan in place, the league started to find its footing. Every team, even the lowest in the standings, suddenly had something to play for every week. Iterations on hero pools made them less burdensome for players, and the level of play rose dramatically. The first tournament of the year, the May Melee, saw the Shock and Dragons add to their trophy cases. Shanghai’s reverse sweep over Seoul established them as the team to beat in Asia.


Lead by MVP Byung-sun “Fleta” Kim, the Dragons soared in 2020. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Moving into June, the Summer Showdown would deliver one of the more memorable tournaments in OWL history. The meta was exciting, with Genji becoming an important pick for the first time in ages, and the matches did not disappoint. In Asia, the underdog Guangzhou Charge pulled off the unlikely upset over Shanghai to claim their first and only title. Meanwhile, the Paris Eternal finally unlocked their full power with Yeong-han “SP9RK1E” Kim on Genji, taking dramatic wins against the Shock and Fusion to win it all.

Cementing the Dynasty

From then on, the Shock would once again find another gear and leave their competition in the dust. Their Countdown Cup win over Philadelphia left no doubt about the best team in North America. Meanwhile, the Dragons picked up another title as they dominated the Asian region.

Going into the playoffs, the Overwatch developers dropped a massive patch that changed everything. Suddenly, Roadhog was a viable pick at main tank. Dive was difficult to pull off and double-shield was dead. Snipers had free reign – great news for the Shock and their otherworldly sharpshooter Seonchang “ANS” Lee.

Despite the issues with travel during the pandemic, the league was able to hold the Grand Finals on LAN in South Korea. Regional playoffs determined the top two teams from each region who then went head to head in a double-elimination bracket for the title. Philadelphia and San Francisco represented North America, while Seoul and Shanghai emerged from Asia.

Despite the strange meta shift, the playoffs were truly exciting. The Fusion, unfortunately, settled on an incorrect read of the meta and bombed out without winning a map. The remaining teams, however, were evenly matched. The Shock went to five maps against both Seoul and Shanghai to secure the first spot in the Grand Finals. Despite a relatively lackluster season, the Dynasty found their form at the right time and were able to take down the Dragons in another five-map affair in the lower bracket.


Back-to-back championships made the Shock the greatest team in OWL history. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Ultimately, the Shock proved too much for Seoul to overcome. Their ability to swap between Matthew “super” DeLisi and Myeong-hwan “smurf” Yoo on main tank made them extremely flexible, and helped secure their second championship in a row. They claimed a tense 4-2 win as Nam-joo “Striker” Kwon lifted the Finals MVP award after an incredible performance on Tracer. With the win, the Shock became the first team to win two titles, and established the first Overwatch League dynasty.

2021 – The Year of the Dragon

Following the great reaction to 2020’s tournaments, the Overwatch League doubled down on the format for future seasons. This time, however, they came with an innovative plan to bridge the gap between the two regions separated by the Pacific Ocean.

Four tournaments would dot the calendar with teams playing four qualification matches prior to each. The top half of teams in each region (six for the West and four in the East) would then play a single-elimination bracket to determine the top two teams. The two teams from the West would then fly to Hawaii in order to play online matches against the two in Asia.

By using servers in Japan, the teams were able to play with an acceptable level of latency – equal for both sides – and compete across regions. The technology and effort that went into this solution was impressive, and helped make the league feel somewhat whole again. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it allowed the two regions to meet and truly decide the best team in the league for a given tournament.

Kicking off with the season was the May Melee, which saw two teams rise above the rest. In North America, it was the Dallas Fuel who overcame an 0-2 start to squeak into the tournament. From then on, they were unstoppable, sweeping their two matches in the West bracket. Their one test came against Shanghai, who picked up where they left off the previous year as the best team in Asia. Led by former Dragons main tank Eui-Seok “Fearless” Lee, the Fuel took down Shanghai in the Winner’s Final and Grand Final as they claimed their first OWL tournament win.

The Rise of Wrecking Ball

The June Joust saw a number of important developments. For starters, the Hangzhou Spark hosted the Overwatch League’s first Asian Homestand. Only the Chinese teams were able to attend, but they played their Week 8 and Knockout matches on stage in front of an audience, a first for the league since March of 2020.

Additionally, Hero Pools were in place for the entire tournament including qualifiers. Tracer, Sombra, and Zenayatta were banned, but it was the removal of Reinhardt that dramatically changed the meta. Dallas had won its title in large part on the back of Brawl comps. Fearless looked like the best Rein in the league, and no one really had an answer at the time. 

Once again Shanghai and Dallas met in the Grand Finals, but this time, the Dragons had a new approach. They played heavily around Pan-seung “Fate” Koo’s Wrecking Ball and the mobility he brought to the table. By playing Reaper, they were able to shut down Fearless’s Winston and at times force the Fuel to match the Wrecking Ball. For the fourth time in their history, the Dragons were on top of the league.

Their dominance continued into the Summer Showdown even as the Hero Pool was lifted. Wrecking Ball continued to be the most effective main tank on many maps, and the Dragons were better than anyone at playing around it. They faced some competition from the Chengdu Hunters and Wrecking Ball extraordinaire Qiu “GA9A” Jiaxin, but the team play from the Dragons was too much as they claimed yet another title. 

As the season came to a close, both the Dragons and Fuel took their feet off the gas a little during the Countdown Cup. Neither team made it past the regional Knockouts, and the league was guaranteed to have a new champion. The LA Gladiators ultimately bested the Hunters and League MVP Huang “leave” Xin to lift the last trophy before the postseason.

Playoff Brilliance

With an 8-team double-elimination bracket, the 2021 playoffs brought several new faces to the table for international competition. From the West, Washington and San Francisco emerged from the Play-In to make it to Hawaii for the first time alongside returning favorites in Dallas, Atlanta, and LA. In the East, the Philadelphia Fusion joined Chengdu and Shanghai to represent Asia.

In the playoffs, the Dragons returned to their winning ways, breezing through the upper bracket without much trouble. They dropped one map to both the Gladiators and Fuel, but it was apparent that they were a step above the competition. Over four years of Overwatch League competition, this was the team that reached the highest heights. With impeccable coordination and immense individual skill, they dismantled the strongest teams in the league.

In the Lower Bracket, everyone expected the Fuel to bounce back and set up a third Grand Finals meeting between the two teams that had defined 2021. Instead, it would be the Atlanta Reign who rose to the occasion. Where most of the league was trying to match Shanghai and their Wrecking Ball compositions, the Reign went in the opposite direction. They settled on Brawl comps and played around the strengths of their roster, making an incredible run through the entire Lower Bracket in the process.

dragons final

The Dragons captured the final title before Overwatch 2. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

In the Grand Finals, however, they ran out of steam against a superior opponent. The Dragons ran circles around the Brawl comps with their flexibility and mobility. They thrashed the Reign in a 4-0 sweep and crowned themselves kings after two years of leading the pack. Jae-won “LIP” Lee was named Finals MVP after one of the best DPS performances the league has ever seen.

The Grand Finals also featured a taste of the future with a 5v5 showmatch in Overwatch 2. We didn’t know it at the time, but that Grand Finals would be the last OWL match played on the original Overwatch. After losing their first 42 matches, the Shanghai Dragons went out on top of the Overwatch world.

2022 – A New Beginning

The most recent OWL season was a mixed bag for the league. In many ways, Overwatch 2 is a strict upgrade over its predecessor. The gameplay is fast and loose with one fewer tank, and DPS players have the ability to make huge, explosive plays. The game seems well-suited to pro play, and it was exciting to watch teams figure out the game over time.

At the same time, the rollout of Overwatch 2 left a lot to be desired. Limited beta periods meant the general public didn’t have reliable access to the same game as the pros. Alongside the storm of bad PR Blizzard has seen over the last couple of years, that disconnect generated disinterest and exasperation. In the time between betas, the pros weren’t even able to play the game to practice outside of scrims.

fuel homestand

Homestands returned to North America in 2022. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

One silver lining to a difficult season was the revival of Homestands in North America. The playoffs for the Kickoff Clash had a live audience in Dallas, and the Summer Showdown took the show to Toronto. The season playoffs even brought teams from the East into the picture for the league’s biggest LAN bracket ever. Crowds made these some of the most memorable events in years, so hopefully, the league is planning more live events for 2023.

A Year of Parity

Playing the 2022 season on a new game was always going to throw the league into chaos when it comes to its hierarchy. It’s always tough to stay on top for long, but Overwatch 2 really made for a topsy-turvy season.

The top teams were some of the usual suspects, but this year was different in that no one team really separated themselves from the pack. Across five regular season tournaments in 2022, there were four different champions. The LA Gladiators picked up the Kickoff Clash in the West and the international Midseason Madness title. They slumped a bit in the Summer Showdown, where Dallas claimed the title in the West. For the East, Seoul took the Kickoff Clash while Shanghai won the Summer Showdown.

Those four teams, along with the San Francisco Shock, all finished within three league points of each other. A late-season flub from the Dragons was the only reason the standings weren’t even closer.

Even beyond the upper crust of the league, there was a great deal of parity across the league. Teams like Atlanta and Philadelphia managed to punch above their weight to make deep tournament runs. London and Florida defied expectations and put together impressive campaigns with undervalued talent and great coaching. When it came time for the playoffs, Houston and Hangzhou both went further than anyone could have expected.

While Overwatch 2 certainly introduced some chaos, 2022 was also a great indication of the rising level of talent in the league. Individual player skill has improved drastically over the last five years, and teams continue to evolve their understanding of the game. Overwatch 2 should only continue that trend with a wave of new players entering the scene for the first time.

New Heroes Make Their Mark

2022 saw the introduction of three new heroes to the game as Overwatch 2 moved through its beta periods and eventually launched on October 4th. Three additions to the Overwatch roster made their debuts this year – Sojourn, Junker Queen, and Kiriko. All three had an immediate impact on the OWL meta and the game as a whole.

Of the three, Junker Queen probably had the most obvious influence. Upon release, her Commanding Shout ability was pretty overtuned, giving a huge amount of temporary health to an entire team and providing a speed boost on top. The result was an entire stage dominated by Junker Queen as teams brawled it out in the Summer Showdown. Blizzard was fairly quick to nerf Junker Queen so she fell out of the meta as fast as she entered it.

Sojourn definitely had a more lasting impact. She was in the mix for most of the season and, along with Kiriko, defined the playoff meta. Thanks to her one-shot potential with the Rail Gun, Sojourn became a must-pick at the highest level. Many of the most important matches of the year came down to which team’s Sojourn was hitting their shots.

Ultimately, the playoff meta favored two teams more than any others. San Francisco and Dallas were a cut above when it came to coordinating aggressive dive plays and giving their star Sojourns room to operate. Kim “Proper” Dong-hyun and Kim “Edison” Tae-hoon gave us an incredible duel down the stretch, but it was Edison and the Fuel who came out on top after an epic seven-map series.

fuel grand finals

The Dallas Fuel claimed their first Grand Finals title after an all-time great series. (Photo Credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

After coming so close last year and suffering for years before that, it was a triumphant victory for Dallas. Lee “Fearless” Eui-Seok earned Finals MVP honors and finished his redemption arc after his disastrous inaugural season with Shanghai. It was likely the best series the league has ever seen. The phenomenal match, the catharsis of the moment, and the roaring crowd combined to make something truly magical.

2023 is likely to completely change the OWL landscape. Free agents are plentiful, but the league’s financial future remains uncertain. The release of Overwatch 2 has rejuvenated interest in the game, with nearly 400k viewers tuning in for the Grand Finals. If Blizzard can build on that success, the Overwatch League could see a second life after years of disappointment.

How to Earn Overwatch League Tokens

Overwatch League Tokens are an in-game currency used to purchase exclusive OWL cosmetic items in-game. Team skins are available for all heroes as well as limited-time skins to commemorate certain events, such as team championship skins. 

Overwatch League tokens can be purchased in-game under the Overwatch League tab. They can also be earned by watching live broadcasts of Overwatch League events. To earn tokens, first, you must connect your YouTube account with your account. This can be done by going to the “Settings” section under your account. Then, click on “Connected apps” and to link the two accounts. 

Once you link your accounts, you will receive OWL Tokens anytime you watch live or encore showings of OWL matches. Tokens are earned at a rate of 5 for every hour you watch. In order to purchase a single OWL team skin, you will need to watch 20 hours of Overwatch League matches. Special edition skins cost 200 tokens or 40 hours of live viewing. All matches can be viewed on the OWL YouTube page.

Bradley Long

Bradley Long

Bradley is a freelance writer who started his esports journey with Overwatch’s launch in 2016. Since then, he’s thrown himself headfirst into the competitive scene at all levels. When he’s not writing about the Overwatch League, he’s probably casting Tier 3 tournaments or playing with his cats.

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