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OWL Week 3: Knockouts Produce Unexpected Results

Bradley Long

What a week for the Overwatch League, and what a proof of concept for the 2021 format. After the final May Melee qualifier matches wrapped up, OWL Week 3 saw the first Regional Knockouts of the season. When the dust settled, four teams survived the single-elimination brackets to earn their spots in the May Melee semis. Chengdu and Shanghai emerged from the East while Florida and Dallas punched their tickets to Hawaii to represent the West.

Dongha “Doha” Kim

Doha and the Dallas Fuel delivered upset after upset on Knockout Sunday. Photo Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

Slow Starters Pick Up the Pace

Of all the teams who were 0-2 coming into Week 3, Hangzhou, Atlanta, and Boston were clearly the most disappointing. Their performance to start the season wasn’t good enough considering their expectations and the talent they are capable of fielding.

They followed the same pattern in OWL Week 3, bouncing back in an impressive fashion. Each claimed their first win of  2021, albeit over weaker opponents, and acquitted themselves nicely in losses to top competition.

The Spark especially can breathe a sigh of relief that it didn’t crumble after a tumultuous week that saw the team fire its Head Coach, Ji-sub “paJion” Hwang, following the team’s dismal start. Rookie DPS Zheng “shy” Yangjie was every bit the carry that many promised he would be. His emergence should give Hangzhou fans hope that it can still compete in the East.

Florida Finds It’s Groove

This wasn’t how this was meant to happen. After going undefeated in their qualifier matches, Houston and Washington looked poised to carry that momentum right into the May Melee tournament. They had strong grasps on the early meta, and their rookies were popping off on the big stage.

Or else it was going to be the San Francisco Shock, the perennial favorite stewing after losing to Houston in Week 1 and using that loss to fuel another title run. Instead, things like seeding and history meant little in the face of the Mayhem and Fuel. Two unlikely victors, but worthy ones after phenomenal showings on Sunday.

Starting with Florida, the team’s Knockout performance came somewhat out of nowhere. Not that this was a bad team, but they hadn’t shown the level of flexibility they brought to the Knockouts. Even in their other matches in OWL Week 3, they looked comfortable playing around Minseok “OGE” Son’s Winston, but their Reinhardt brawl comps weren’t really up to snuff. They were smacked around by the Shock on Friday, and Paris made things competitive on Saturday.

When Sunday rolled around, they were a different team. After quickly dispatching the Defiant to kick off the Knockouts, the Mayhem came into its series against Washington swinging, literally. They used Brawl comps to great effect, and OGE was a monster on Rein. They continued to look stellar on Winston-based comps and even outplayed the Justice on its bread and butter looks.

The Fuel Make Some Magic

After a tough schedule left it 2-2 to start the season, many wrote the Fuel off coming into the knockouts. After the loss of Gihyo “Xzi” Jung to injury, the young season has required Dallas to be flexible both individually to fill the gaps and as a team to work around the limitations of a roster without a traditional hitscan player.

Through two weeks, you could feel his absence in the way the team never fielded McCree or Ashe, two of the league’s DPS staples so far. You could feel it in the way Yeonghan “SP9RK1E” Kim and Dongha “Doha” Kim were being stretched so thin trying to cover everything the team needed. You could feel it in SP9RK1E’s 50+% pick rate on Tracer, a hero that hasn’t historically been in his wheelhouse.

That was the context for this team heading into Sunday. Then they proceeded to steal the show. First, a 3-0 sweep of the Shock proved that they meant business. Then they backed it by doing the same to Houston, avenging their opening week loss. Through it all, Dallas played in a way that no other team attempts to play or perhaps is even capable of playing.

The remarkable thing about the Fuel’s style right now is how its turned what could be a crippling weakness – Xzi’s departure – into something that gives it direction. Yes, the team has to play things that are suboptimal or incorporate some of SP9RK1E’s unconventional picks. But they’ve committed fully to making this style work. So while theoretically, it might be better to play McCree rather than Symmetra at times, Dallas can make it work because it has elevated its team play to the level that it can overcome the holes in the roster.

There were tons of little things to love about the Fuel’s Knockout performance. Jun “Fielder” Kwon was a joy to watch, both as he was hitting huge biotic grenades and as he was celebrating with teammates in person after playing alone from Korea last year with Paris. In those Symmetra comps the team ran often, their use of the teleporters was a step above the usual to the point that they were using it to up the tempo mid-fight. If it can keep up the innovation under Coach Rush, Dallas could lift the first trophy of the year.

Hunters and Dragons Step Up

Over in the East, both Knockout matchups ended in upsets according to seeding, but neither comes as a massive surprise. Chengdu was only behind Seoul on Map Differential. Realistically it was the favorite after a strong start to the season. For its part, the Dragons weren’t favorites against an undefeated Fusion squad, but its still basically the same team that dominated the region last year.

The team put that big-game experience on full display on Sunday. It pulled off an impressive comeback in a nail-biting six-map series. They got big contributions from ByungSun “Fleta” Kim, “Min chul “IZaYaKI” Kim, and Pan Seung “Fate” Koo down the stretch as they withstood some late heroics from JaeHyeok “carpe” Lee.

For the first time all year, the Dragons really looked like its old self. Gone was much of the indecision and miscoordination that plagued it for much of the season. Instead, it was back to the Shanghai we’ve come to expect. Unfortunately for Philly, that meant another painful loss in a playoff environment.

For its part, the Chengdu Hunters continued to show just how legit it isthis season. For most of the season, the team has simply outplayed their opponents, no longer relying on odd comps or pocket picks. Menghan “ameng” Ding did play his first map of the season on Sunday, but otherwise, the Hunters have played around its versatile rookie main tank Jiaxin “ga9A” Qiu.

Against Seoul on Sunday, it continued to do so as Yujia “Jimmy” Lei and Xin “Leave” Huang took full advantage of the space ga9A created on both Wrecking Ball and Winston. The team’s play was disciplined but explosive and it was clear they were a cut above the Dynasty, who is still trying to play its way into form.

Chengdu has been tested more than any other team in the East, with matches against Shanghai, Philadelphia, and now Seoul in the May Melee. the team has earned their place. Now they get the chance to prove that they’re more than a flash in the pan.

Tournament Storylines

Where to even start with this? Next week’s first match features Fate playing against his old team in the Mayhem. We could easily see Euiseok “FEARLESS” Lee and OGE do the same if Dallas crosses paths with Shanghai or Florida. What about Chengdu? The league’s only fully Chinese roster is about to face down three of the best Korean rosters around.

If that wasn’t enough, this is also a groundbreaking moment for the league and esports as a whole. International competition is about to happen online. After a season where teams were confined to their own regions, the OWL is moving back to its international mission. When the games start next week, it will have been 683 days since the Hunters and Fuel last played and over two full years for the Dragons and Mayhem. These teams will still be separated by an ocean, but through Overwatch, they can come together in competition.

The May Melee Tournament begins Thursday, May 6th at 10 PM ET as Shanghai and Florida start the double-elimination bracket. All games take place live on the OWL Youtube channel.