2020 is going to be a watershed year in Overwatch’s competitive history. Not only is this the third season of its franchised league, the Overwatch League, but it’s also the first time the league is fully being taken on the road with global travel. With new variables in play along with new patches coming in left and right, the Overwatch League could take a page out of other esports title’s play-books. And at the top of the list sits a scrappy Chinese team from League of Legends that just shocked the world; FunPlus Phoenix.
Understanding the Phoenix
FunPlus Phoenix are your 2019 League of Legends World Champions and are a shining example of what a stylized team looks like. From their hero picks to their aggressive tendencies, this plucky Chinese team knows exactly how they want to play League of Legends--and they do it well. Their star mid laner, Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang defied the metagame at the 2019 World Championship with unorthodox tank picks and quick map movements which were a huge factor in their championship title run. Doinb was featured on champions like Sion, Nautilus, and even Renekton and they were utilized alongside carry top laners like Gangplank and Camile. However, it would be reductive to say that their style is just unorthodox champion picks.FunPlus Phoenix are aggressive as they come.In Game 1 and Game 2 in their semifinal against Invictus Gaming, FunPlus Phoenix showed a tendency to draft low economy based mid laners which assisted them in early invades on the bottom half of the map. This gave bot lane priority which they use to shift resources up towards mid to either set up tower dives or surgical ganks to set Doinb up for success.FunPlus Phoenix takes this concept to the next level in the grand final against Europe’s G2 Esports, but transitions it towards the top half of the map. It’s crucial to note that this also played into FunPlus Phoenix’s wheelhouse due to how strong G2’s mid laner, Rasmus "Caps"Borregaard Winther, was--and still is. Doinb would have a difficult time matching one of the world’s best in the one-on-one, so, FunPlus Phoenix adapted. Instead of having their support rotate mid, they have their mid laner rotate top to set up a tower dive andscore first blood at 3:11 into the game.Now, this isn’t an argument to say that the Overwatch League needs to be more aggressive or unorthodox, but if that is what your team excels at then don’t fight against it. I’m arguing that each team needs to lean into their viewpoint and their strengths in the coming 2020 season.Doinb wasn’t considered a great mid laner nor a particularly mechanically skilled one, but he used his unorthodox picks to influence other sides of the map. This dichotomy is succinctly discussed on the broadcast in Game 2 between longtime League of Legends commentators Trevor "Quickshot" Henry and Martin “Deficio” Lynge. FunPlus Phoenix and even G2 Esports, to the same extent, are great examples from other esports that show you that, with proper planning, your style of play can work. The Overwatch League, as a whole, could use a fresh coat of paint in this regard.
Your Game Isn’t Solved
A “solved game” is a term coined in game theory where, no matter the state of the game, you’d be able to correctly predict the outcome of the game if we’re assuming both players play perfectly. And if we’re to agree that Overwatch, as a game, isn’t solved--much like League of Legends isn’t solved, then why are teams so hesitant to attempt to show their own looks?Sure, in any game with this number of variables there will be a consensus as to what is considered viable or good, but it should be much more malleable than what we’ve seen so far. With enough preparation, you can play your style and still find success.And competitive Overwatch isn’t removed from these stylized examples as well.A beautiful recent example of this lies with the Chinese team the Chengdu Hunters. All season-long legendary coach Xingrui "RUI" Wang lead this team to a play-in berth and did so all the whileplaying by their own set of rules. Whether it was playing Wrecking Ball over Reinhardt in GOATS or creating Symmetra strategies or relying on Yi "JinMu" Hu’s raw mechanical skill on Pharah and Doomfist, Chengdu played their style. Even the New York Excelsiors’ more defensive nature could be sighted as a fairly successful style.Going back to APEX Season 2 you’ve got a rookie team like Meta Athena, who almost stole the show and became royal roaders. They not only played around their star Zarya player, Choi "Hoon" Jae-hoon, but they also pioneered creative ways to abuse and traverse different maps using Mei’s Ice Wall ability.We can go even further back into Overwatch history and draw up the Finish team SG-1, who later became Ninjas in Pyjamas. They played against the grain and pioneered a very heavy tank style when everyone at the time was playing more pick oriented heroes. Early on in the inaugural season, I pegged the Overwatch League to be the more varied system when it came to compositional diversity and stylistic matchups. This ended up not being the case and its semi-professional academy league, Overwatch Contenders, was infinitely more creative. Showcasing diverse casts of tank compositions like GOATS and going all the way to piecemeal compositions like Clockwork Vendetta shows that this can work at varying levels of play.
Creativity is Key
The Overwatch League now sits in a system that is going to, for the foreseeable future, facilitate less effective practice. This will force teams into making the best of their given situations all with their own level of variance. You’ve got a team like the Washington Justice who boasts a laughable travel schedule compared to a team like the London Spitfire who will end up being one of the most traveled teams in the league by the end of the 2020 season. Even with the restrictions on how effective your practice becomes with the new variable of jetlag and travel fatigue, this also limits how much time you can even spend practicing. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing, it’s something new that teams and players are going to have to adapt to. This year, many Overwatch League franchises will spend a good portion of the year in the air and teams are going to have to find proper accommodation as they travel. In 2020 teams will be forced to--at a foundational level--be more creative and it starts with their practice but can permeate into the actual game as well. Traveling to different regions causes more exposure to many different teams across the globe. Overwatch League teams will enjoy practice amongst themselves when they can, but I’d wager a good majority of their time will be spent playing the best semi-professional teams in whatever region they currently reside in. Most of the major esports titles have their own regional metagames all across the globe and Overwatch will--in some sense--return to that dynamic for its third season. This hypothetically will cause more ideas and strategies to circulate throughout the league rather then all practice be centralized in Los Angeles. These are all cornerstones in this chain reaction that will give us more creativity moving forward in 2020 and it couldn’t come at a better time. With the new year comes the first actual launch of what was promised in 2016. Competition all across the globe means that each team is actively fighting for the attention of the fans. No longer is everything just based out of Los Angeles, the team’s need to give the fans a reason to tune in each week regardless of the time.And one way to do that is to have a very stylized team.The composition and picks that are dominant right now will wash out with the tide, that’s just how the game works. It’s high time we find what your team wants to do and build gameplans around your point of view and your tool kit.And with the new year approaching, there has never been a better time to try.Listen, if FunPlus Phoenix can win a League of Legends World Championship playing tanks in the mid lane, then the Overwatch League doesn’t need permission to have a style all their own.Joseph “Volamel” Franco has followed esports since the MLGs of 2006. He started out primarily following Starcraft 2, Halo 3, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. He has transitioned from viewer to journalist and writes freelance primarily about Overwatch and League of Legends. If you would like to know more or follow his thoughts on esports you can follow him at@Volamel.Images courtesy of Colin Young-Wolff/LoL Esports and Blizzard Entertainment.