Seven OWL Offseason Moves that will shape the 2021 Season
With less than a week until the OWL’s opening day, the dust has settled at last on the wildest offseason in the league’s history. With Philadelphia’s last-minute additions of Jinmo “Tobi” Yang and Hong-Jun “HOTBA” Choi, the final pieces have fallen into place, and the OWL is ready to get underway following an extended break since last year’s Grand Finals.
Before we get back to the action, we’re taking one last look at a transformative offseason. Once again, an influx of rookies from Contenders has upped the overall talent level across the OWL. Free agency has further shifted the balance of star power league-wide to create the most competitive iteration yet. Let’s examine some of the most impactful moves heading into the 2021 season.
The Shock Reload for the Threepeat Attempt
An oft-repeated cliche in the world of sports and esports alike is that it’s always easier to get to the top than to stay there. That becomes especially true when crucial pieces that helped get you there in the first place start peeling off, leaving for big paydays, new challenges, or greener pastures.
In Shock’s case, the losses started almost as soon as the team was done celebrating their second title. Within a week, assistant coaches Jaewon “Junkbuck” Choi and Ji-won “Arachne” Lee had both been poached for head coach positions in Houston and Guangzhou, respectively. The hits kept coming: within a month, cornerstones Grant “moth” Espe and DongJun “Rascal” Kim were out the door. Maybe the most impactful loss came at the outset of 2021. Rookie DPS sensation Seonchang “ANS” Lee stepped away from professional Overwatch before deciding to pursue VALORANT.
So how did the Shock respond to such massive holes in its roster? Of course, they snatched up three of the biggest names on the free-agent market. Brice “FDGod” Monscavoir, Gilseong “Glister” Lim, and Charlie “nero” Zwarg all enter the Shock ecosystem with the right combination of immense natural talent and room to improve under Dae-hee “Crusty” Park’s tutelage. They have huge shoes to fill, but they should be hungry to prove themselves on an elite team, and that fire could give the Shock the juice to make it three in a row.
NYXL Pulls the Trigger on a Rebuild
NYXL stands as a monument to just how hard staying at the top really is. After dominating the league’s first regular-season, it slowly deteriorated year over year. Small injections of fresh blood came in the form of players like Yeon-Gwan “Nenne” Jeong and Dong Wook “BiaNcA” Kim, but they weren’t enough. The team largely stayed the same but returned worse and worse results as the league improved around them.
Now, all that remains of the old guard is 2018 MVP SeongHyun “JJonak” Bang, the player who once defined what elite support play looked like in the nascent OWL. When he entered the league, he was the unknown on a team of established veterans. Now, he’s set to be the leader of a team of highly touted young guns.
A trio of hotshot DPS players is at the forefront of New York’s new talent. Seungwoo “FEATH5R” Lee, KwangWon “Gwangboong” Kim, and YongWoo “Flora” Yim all bring Rookie of the Year potential, and together with veteran presence SeungHyun “ivy” Lee, they’ll cover every DPS hero with ease.
Question marks start to emerge when you look at other roles, however. Both BiaNcA and Kyeongmu “Yakpung” Cho have never been more than middling in their time in the OWL. Like main support Min Jae “Friday” Cho, they have no backup should they disappoint this season. Still, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic, even if they aren’t world-beaters right away. They’ve done the difficult task of moving on from the past to make way for the future.
Dallas Charts a New Course
Where NYXL went for a classic team-building approach – putting young talent around a veteran centerpiece – Dallas is hoping it can skip the growing pains most new teams suffer by importing an established core. The Fuel is betting big on the success of last year’s Paris Eternal by bringing in Hanbeen ”Hanbin” Choi, Yeonghan “SP9RK1E” Kim, Gihyo “Xzi” Jung, and Kwon “Fielder” Jun.
They’re joined in Dallas by their Eternal head coach Hee-won “RUSH” Yun, who serves as the throughline for this team. He has coached every player on the roster at some point in their careers, with nearly all of them passing through his Element Mystic system in Korea. He was the architect of this current Fuel roster, and it will be his hand that guides a team with high expectations and undeniable talent.
This team’s greatest strength should be the tank duo of Hanbin and Euiseok “FEARLESS” Lee, whom Dallas lured away from Shanghai in one of the biggest coups of the offseason. Both players were at the forefront of their teams’ success in 2020, and together they’ll be among the league’s top frontlines.
Still, questions remain about the team’s ability to find consistency across metas, which plagued Paris last season. If they can hit their peak, this team could easily win a stage tournament or even the entire league if the stars align.
The Valiant Blow It Up
In the most bizarre story of the OWL offseason, the LA Valiant went for a different sort of rebuild. First, it announced that the team would be playing out of China in 2021. After rumors emerged that Immortals Gaming Club was selling the team to a Chinese org, the Valiant responded with a carefully worded rebuttal that raised eyebrows across the league.
Its next move was to drop its entire roster citing “COVID-relate visa issues.” At best, it was a flimsy excuse for the team to abandon their players and fanbase. At worst, it was insultingly dishonest, a slap in the face from an org that simply did not care about bad PR anymore. The Valiant players have since scattered to the wind, some finding new homes for 2021, but many losing out on their place in the league entirely.
Since then, control of the team’s competitive operation has been ceded to LinGan e-Sports, a Chinese org that had previously served as the academy team for the Chengdu Hunters. It recently announced an all-Chinese roster that has been largely panned by both the Chinese community and analysts within the scene.
It’s hard to argue that the sum total of the Valiant’s offseason was anything other than a complete disaster. It kneecapped itself both competitively and by alienating fans across the world.
Paris and London Vie to Represent Europe
This OWL offseason, both the Paris Eternal and London Spitfire have made attempts to better define themselves as the standard-bearers for European Overwatch. Some fans might be disappointed to see the end of ambitious team-building efforts from both franchises, but the result is two teams that feature some of the best available European talent.
London’s rebuild approach was to promote its academy team, British Hurricane, to the big leagues as a unit. A couple of OWL veterans in Jeffrey “blase” Tsang and Johannes “Shax” Nielsen deepen the DPS core and round out the roster, but otherwise, the Spitfire will be the first team to go from EU Contenders to the OWL since the 2018 Florida Mayhem. The teams’ road will be tough, but success would go a long way towards validating an oft-overlooked region.
Paris is going for a similar approach but has opted to build a new roster from scratch. A mix of experienced veterans and fresh faces leaves room for the Eternal to grow throughout the season with guidance from experienced players like Alberto “nepuNo” Gonzalez Milinillo and Stefan “Onigod” Fiskerstrand. Keep an eye on newcomers Emir “Kaan” Okumus and Daniel “Daan” Scheltema. Their performance will determine much of this team’s ceiling.
Washington Gives Decay a Stellar Supporting Cast
After its unlikely playoff run last season, it would have been easy for the Justice to be content with the roster that had just gotten third place in North America. Many teams would have made minimal changes following the first serious success in the franchise’s history. Given their poor history and the way the team was constructed midseason, that likely would have been a mistake.
Instead, the team made the tough call to move on from popular players like Chunghee “Stitch” Lee and HyunWoo “JJANU” Choi. From the ashes of the old Justice comes a team that can conceivably compete at the Overwatch League’s highest level. Washington came into the OWL offseason ready to build around the superstar who fell in their lap at the end of 2020. Gui-woon “Decay” Jang is a transformative player, and now he might have the best teammates of his career.
First and foremost is the Justice tank duo of Taeseong “MAG” Kim and Junho “Fury” Kim. An early Rookie of the Year candidate and a legend with a championship pedigree, they should instantly be among the league’s elite frontlines. At the very least, they’ll be the most talented tanks Decay has ever had, making space for him.
After two years of wallowing at the bottom of the standings, the Justice finally has a clear direction and a team to get excited about. Perhaps more than any other team, it can claim to be the winners of an offseason that will shape the league for years to come.
The Overwatch League returns to action on Friday, April 16th. Starting with the Outlaws vs. the Fuel, all matches can be found on the OWL’s Youtube channel.