Esports update: recapping the Overwatch League playoffs
The Overwatch League playoffs concluded Sunday in Toronto as the Florida Mayhem claimed what could be the final championship ever.
The four-day playoff event was full of surprises and upsets, excitement and disappointment, and an overall aura of bittersweetness.
MVP – Someone – Florida Mayhem
Coach of the Year – Gunba – Florida Mayhem
Dennis Hawelka Award – Someone – Florida Mayhem
Rookie of the Year – Donghak – Atlanta Reign
Bracket 1 – Hangzhou Spark 3-2 Atlanta Reign
Bracket 1 – Boston Uprising 3-1 London Spitfire
Bracket 2 – Dallas Fuel 3-0 Seoul Infernal
Bracket 2 – Florida Mayhem 3-1 Houston Outlaws
The biggest story from the opening day of the playoffs was the match between the crowd-favorite Hangzhou Spark and the top-seeded Atlanta Reign. As many expected, the Spark relied heavily on Winston-centric dive compositions with which the Reign chose to mirror the entire series. Though the Reign took an early 2-0 lead in the set, Hangzhou rallied and pulled off a reverse sweep to win 3-2 and sent the Reign to the lower bracket in the group. The other three matches on Day 1 went largely as expected, as the Boston Uprising, Dallas Fuel, and Florida Mayhem dispatched their opponents down to the lower brackets and moved into their respective upper finals.
The first day also showed that Zarya compositions, the style that was widely thought would dominate the entirety of the playoffs, might not be as prominent as was previously thought and was only played by the Dallas Fuel, with every other team playing various different team makeups. In their game against the Houston Outlaws, the Florida Mayhem showed that the new top comp on the block might be a style more focused around Sigma, rather than Zarya as was thought coming into the week.
Bracket 1 Lowers – London Spitfire 3-0 Atlanta Reign
Bracket 2 Lowers – Houston Outlaws 3-0 Seoul Infernal
Bracket 1 Finals – Hangzhou Spark 3-2 Boston Uprising
Bracket 2 Finals – Florida Mayhem 3-0 Dallas Fuel
On Day 2, the London Spitfire delivered the largest upset in recent Overwatch League memory as they dominated the Atlanta Reign and made them the first team eliminated from the playoffs. Touted as favorites to win the whole thing, the Reign found themselves unable to answer the Spitfire’s Reinhardt-rush compositions and were left struggling the entirety of the series. The whole arena went ballistic when London delivered the final blow.
The second day also saw a continuation of the Hangzhou Spark’s Cinderella run as they once again pulled out a reverse sweep in their match against the Boston Uprising. Similarly to their match against the Reign, Hangzhou leaned heavily on dive compositions, incorporating Doomfist comps alongside their Winston styles. And, just as the Reign did, Boston chose to play the Spark’s own game and mirror the dive comps. Though they pulled ahead with a 2-0 lead, Hangzhou was not going to go down easily and once again came roaring back to win 3-2.
Bracket 1 Lower Finals – Boston Uprising 3-1 London Spitfire
Bracket 2 Lower Finals – Houston Outlaws 3-0 Dallas Fuel
Day 3 saw the elimination of both the Spitfire and the Fuel as they were swiftly dealt with by the Uprising and Outlaws. The Boston Uprising were one of the only teams to have found a genuine counter-strategy to London’s Reinhardt style by using Orisa and were able to best them for the second time in the playoffs and sent the crowd favorite home. The potentially final Battle for Texas also took place as the Houston Outlaws were able to exploit the inflexible and inexperienced nature of the Dallas Fuel on what was quickly becoming the dominant composition based around Sigma thanks to their recent pickup, Bernar.
Playoffs Game 1 – Houston Outlaws 3-0 Hangzhou Spark
Playoffs Game 2 – Florida Mayhem 3-1 Boston Uprising
Third Place Match – Hangzhou Spark 3-0 Boston Uprising
Grand Finals – Florida Mayhem 4-0 Houston Outlaws
Day 4 played host to the entirety of the finals bracket where, ultimately, a champion was crowned. At the start of the day, the Houston Outlaws made quick work of the Hangzhou Spark and put an end to their miracle run by showcasing the dominance of the Sigma team compositions and exposing Spark’s inability to mirror it with Guxue, who could only try to force Doomfist to no avail. The Florida Mayhem similarly dispatched the Uprising, though they didn’t go down without a fight as they tried to make use of their signature Orisa-based and Junkerqueen compositions to try and beat the Mayhem. They unfortunately fell short in a nail-biter of a series and were relegated to the third-place match to face the Spark.
In their third-place match, the Uprising looked rather lifeless against the Spark as they were quickly defeated 3-0. It was clear that Boston no longer had much will to play left compared to the Spark who were hungry to take a larger slice of the prize money.
The pinnacle of the final day was the Grand Finals between the Houston Outlaws and the Florida Mayhem. The story of the series was the Outlaws trying all kinds of different approaches to break the Mayhem’s Rein and Sigma compositions, but it was ultimately not enough. The Outlaws were bested at every turn, and though most of the maps were close, they were never able to pull out a win and were left defeated by a 4-0 scoreline. The Florida Mayhem showed the world just how dominant they were and their deep understanding of the developing meta-game that had unfolded over the prior weeks leading into the playoffs. At the helm of their championship team was their MVP-caliber tank, Someone. His flexibility to move between historically main and flex tanks allowed the Mayhem to switch their playstyles at will to counter opposing teams, something no other team in the playoffs could match. Anytime another team would try to make a move, the Mayhem were already one step ahead of them.
Coming out of the playoffs, the biggest takeaway was how vastly the supposed dominant playstyle had changed. Leading up to the playoffs, it was anticipated that most teams would trend towards playing Zarya and Genji, leading teams like the Outlaws and Mayhem to make last-minute player signings to adapt. However, it was seen early on that something had changed during the final week of practice once the teams had arrived in Toronto that shifted the power balance in favor of Sigma and Rein-based comps that the Florida Mayhem would come to perfect.
Additionally, the playoffs also showcased the importance of having a tank player like Someone. Since the shift to 5v5 in Overwatch 2, teams have been trying to figure out the best way to approach the tank role now that there is only one rather than two. Most teams either opted for a single main or flex tank while others signed one of each and would alternate them depending on which play-style they wanted to do. However, as the playoffs quickly exposed, teams such as that found themselves unable to adapt properly in key matchups. The Florida Mayhem, however, did not struggle with this as Someone was able to play every tank they needed and allowed the team the ability to swap to any kind of counter-comp that the situation called for. Someone embodies what an Overwatch 2 tank should be: one that can play every rank hero to a high level. At the end of the day, that was a major reason why the Mayhem were the team to hoist the trophy.
A Bittersweet Conclusion
As the dust settled on the end of Day 4, the Overwatch League community faced the reality that everything may be coming to an end. Prior to the conclusion of the final day, the desk and casting talent of the League left the crowd with a heartfelt thank you and what seemed like a goodbye accompanied by a bittersweet montage of some of the best moments of the League over the last 6 years.
For the last few seasons, the financial stability and future of the League seemed bleak. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the deathly Blizzard lawsuit, the League found itself with practically no sponsorships, and the teams involved were reportedly hemorrhaging money. Though as of currently a large number of the teams are in better places financially, the League itself is still in dire straights. In its 2023 second quarterly report, Blizzard stated that “following the conclusion of the current Overwatch League season, the teams will vote on an updated operating agreement”. In addition, Blizzard stated that “if the teams do not vote to continue under an updated operating agreement, a termination fee of $6 million will be payable to each participating team.” The community has been left uncertain and worried as to what the future may hold. As of writing, the Overwatch League has only put out a post on X about how it will be focussing on a new vision for an Overwatch esports program.
To say there were tears during the final moments of the playoffs would be an understatement. Everyone in the venue felt like they were witnessing the end of something they held dear. I am no different. To say the Overwatch League has had an impact on my life would be selling it short. Despite its many flaws, overambitious vision, poor execution, and the all-around fumbling of itself, the Overwatch League has been a staple in my life since its inception at the end of 2017. For the last six years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people and sharing memorable experiences because of this League.
Being there in person, in Toronto, was one of the best experiences of my life. The atmosphere, the shared passion, the cheers and the screams, the clutch plays, and shattered expectations, that’s what makes it all worth it. There’s nothing else in the world that I would have chosen to spend so much money and time on than the Overwatch League. Just as football or basketball are to some, Overwatch is to me. If this truly was the final chapter in the Overwatch League, what a story it was.