Photo by Ben Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment
I remember an early conversation I had with my peers about what it would take for the first esports athlete to truly transcend the gaming world and become iconic like traditional sports stars such as Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders or Tiger Woods. Who would become the first star esports player to be featured on a box of Wheaties? Some of them thought it would take the ability to jump from one game to another and be just as dominant and that may still end up being true. When we look at what makes the great names in sports as unforgettable, it’s not jumping from one sport to another. In fact, most people would argue they’d love to forget Jordan’s stint in the MLB. But my co-hosts were correct about one thing, versatility is going to be key.
We’re seeing a major shift in the way Overwatch League teams stack their rosters this off-season. We can look back at the 2019 season with certain teams to see the effects already. The 2019 OWL Champions, the San Francisco Shock, had a dominant season that saw them finishing the regular season as the 2nd seed. They achieved the league’s first and only golden stage, going an entire stage without dropping a single map and also winning the stage 2 championship. They did this through three different meta shifts. One of the biggest contributing factors to that ability was in the 2019 MVP Jay “sinatraa” Won. Sinatraa is one of the most versatile players in the entire league, making a name for himself on Tracer, the last thing I ever expected to see in 2019 was him taking charge on an off-tank hero like Zarya and demolishing all in has path. Then at the end of the last season defining what it’s like to play Doomfist. Sinatraa has come a long way since he was first picked up by the San Francisco Shock in 2018, under the age limit at the start of the season and a proclaimed Tracer specialist.
In 2018 one-tricks and specialists dominated the scene during the Dive meta, a composition that focused heavily on mobility and being able to infiltrate the back line and focus fire specific targets down very quickly. Characters like Tracer and Genji excelled at this strategy and players like Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park (Tracer) and Brady “Agilities” Girardi (Genji) dominated on these heroes. Near the end of the inaugural 2018 season, the Houston Outlaws drew immense criticism from fans for not having a Tracer specialist. Jake “JAKE” Lyons beared the brunt of that ire as he filled that position on most occasions. As we neared the end of the season and the support hero Brigitte was added to the game effectively killing the dive meta, Jake was still playing whether it was the Junkrat, the occasional Pharah or the new hero Brigitte, because he had versatility. Saebyeolbe and Agilities on the other hand started to appear less and less on the stage. As we went through the 2019 season, Saebyeolbe who had become one of the most recognizable names (and hair styles) of the New York Excelsior and Team Captain was almost nowhere to be seen. He started to pop back up as Sombra became a popular counter for the triple tank\triple support meta because his skills on Tracer as backline skirmisher had some crossover with Sombra. The overall issue with the first two seasons of the Overwatch League was the high dependance on whatever the established meta was. Moving around even a single hero was sometimes enough to throw a strategy or composition off balance. Which means you wanted the best of the best on whatever heroes you were running, there was no room for error.
In a recent interview with Houston Outlaws general manager Matt “Flame” Rodrigeuz, I had asked him about Houston’s recent player acquisitions. So far, they’ve picked up Harsha Bandi, former assistant coach for the Vancouver Titans and assistant coach for the 2019 gold medal Team USA at the Overwatch World Cup as well as Jeffrey “blasé” Tsang and João Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles. The last two are primarily DPS players that came from the Boston Uprising and the Los Angeles Gladiators respectively. I asked was what was the thinking behind picking up blasé and Hydration which gave the team a very deep roster of talented DPS players. He said it was versatility. Flame pointed out that Hydration was a talented tank player as well and the blasé played a good portion of Brigitte on support in the 2019 season. Flame also pointed out that a lot of skills can overlap between certain heroes regardless of their role, citing the newest support hero Baptiste as an example who wields a biotic launcher with a primary fire that rivals Soldier 76 if you’re landing the hits. Flame said the importance of versatility in a player is going to be as important as it’s ever been with the league moving to home and away games. You’re going to need players who have the ability to switch not just to new heroes, but to new roles as the teams face the challenges that will come with constant weekly travel.
Does this mean that the days of the one-trick or the specialist are over? Of course not. If you give Do-hyeon “Pine” Kim of the New York Excelsior a chance to run wild on Ilios with Mcree, heads are going to be clicked. But when was the last time we saw Pine play? As the Overwatch League continues to succeed and increase its influence the players with the versatility to play any hero, any role to do whatever is needed of them are the ones who are going to gain the most star power, your JAKE’s and your Sinatraa’s, those are the ones who are going to make it onto the Wheaties box.