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Esports Overwatch

What the End of Stage Playoffs Means for OWL

Stage Playoffs

The Overwatch League has unveiled its plan for the 2020 season, instituting a homestand model in which the league’s matches will take place at 52 events hosted by the teams around the world. Hidden in the blockbuster announcement was the removal of stages from the OWL calendar. That detail means the end of the Stage Playoffs that capped every stage. With the play-in tournament replacing them after Stage 4, that means that the Shanghai Dragons won the final Stage Championship on Sunday. 

Going Out on a High Note

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Could the last Stage Playoffs have been any better? Shanghai’s improbable run through the league’s three behemoths was something out of a classic sports movie. The only thing missing was a freeze-frame as the team triumphantly lifted Youngjin “Gamsu” Noh on their shoulders while the music swelled.

It felt like a high point on the Dragons’ season-long redemption arc. Even though almost all of the winless Shanghai squad from last season has gone, the buildup to their moment in the sun is among the best stories in Overwatch. They join the unique company of the London Spitfire, New York Excelsior, Los Angeles Valiant, Vancouver Titans and San Francisco Shock in league history as Stage Champions. 

The last hurrah for Stage playoffs delivered some of the highest quality Overwatch seen to date, with a clash of styles defining nearly every matchup. Shanghai rose to the top on the back of Gamsu’s Wrecking Ball and the triple DPS compositions it enabled. A carry performance on Pharah from Jinhyeok “DDing” Yang propelled them to upset wins over the current top three teams: NYXL, the Titans and the Shock. It was a legendary weekend of games and one that showcased beautifully how Overwatch can dazzle at the highest level.

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

What We’re Missing

Stage Playoffs, thus far, have served several purposes. First, they have been the high points of the long Overwatch League season. Without them, fans would have never known some of the game’s most iconic moments. Shanghai’s Cinderella run? Gone. The nailbiter between the Shock and Titans and the rematch? Gone. London’s 14-map marathon to win the first Stage Playoffs? Gone. 

Second, they gave a good snapshot of who was playing the best at any given time. When the landscape constantly shifts as it does in an esport with frequent balance changes, the Stage Playoffs were an opportunity to determine the best on any given version of the game. The Dragons’ regular-season performance would suggest they are a fun, above-average team rather than the giant-killers they proved to be. Without Stage Playoffs, their peak would have been lost forever with 2-2-2 role lock on the horizon.

Finally, the Stage Playoffs guaranteed that the season would be punctuated by the best product the league had to offer. When New York and Vancouver sit in opposite divisions, their Stage 2 semifinal meeting was vital. Without Stage Playoffs, the top two in the standings would play just once all year. Giving fans the chance to see the best go head to head will always produce the best outcomes.

These matches serve to build the hype and narrative of the season in a way that a regular-season alone cannot. The tension of an elimination match brings out the best in teams and gives them something bigger to play for. It drives players to their peaks and creates rivalries that can define a league. OWL needs these moments to pierce through a regular season that can feel like a slog at times, for fans and players both.

Courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.

All Hope Is Not Lost

The end of stages does not necessarily have to be the end of midseason competitions. We already know that the mid-year break will still happen in 2020 along with the All-Star game. There’s plenty of time there for a  tournament, perhaps resembling what League of Legends does with MSI. While Blizzard has yet to release any information regarding such an event, there are signs that it could be in the works. 

According to a report by Upcomer’s Sascha “Yiska” Heinisch, OWL staff went over the new schedule with players and team officials. Among the topics discussed was a midseason tournament to bring some real competition to the All-Star festivities. That would ease the pain of losing Stage Playoffs and give the league a nice centerpiece for the season.

No matter what the league decides, a lack of stage playoffs will leave a hole in the OWL schedule. There will be a burden on the homestands to deliver the same level of intensity that they have in 2019. That will be a tall order with 52 such events on the calendar and some markets hosting five homestands in 2020. 

If the league ever wants to reach the goal of full localization at some point down the road, sacrifices had to be made in the name of logistics and travel. Gathering teams between each stage for a tournament would have been tough, so Stage Playoffs were on the altar. Losing them will be a blow but one Blizzard hopes will benefit the game long-term.

Featured image courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.

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