OWL is now in off-season, and that means team owners and players are weighing their options and preparing for the upcoming signing window that begins in a few days for new teams and next month for everybody else.
For teams that have been around since the halcyon days of [checks calendar] eight months ago, the first season was something of an experiment. Now, those teams are in a better place to nail down exactly what they want, and for most teams, this means trimming perceived fat from their rosters.
In the past week, nearly every team in the league has released at least a few pros; in Shanghai’s case, a whopping eight players won’t return.
Some releases have been expected. San Francisco Shock, for example, released three players, including Andre “iddqd” Dahlstrom, who never got to play in a single match all season.
The Houston Outlaws roster removed Lucas “Mendokusaii” Håkansson, who also hadn’t played a match all season, but Houston is keeping him on as an official team content creator.
Even Shanghai’s tribute to The Purge—which beat the television series premiere by two days—makes sense. The Dragons went 0-40 over the course of the season, solidifying their reputation as one of the worst teams in recent sporting history.
The ever-present dream of a come-from-behind underdog victory – just one win – made those players’ trials and tribulations instantly compelling, but it’s blindingly clear in hindsight that their team did not have a winning formula. As of now, Shanghai’s roster contains just three players: Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim, Weida “Diya” Lu, and Eui-Seok “Fearless” Lee.
Other releases have taken fans by surprise. It’s a shame to see Boston Uprising drop Stanislav “Mistakes” Danilov. He helped carry the team to a dominant undefeated stage after replacing Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez, who got booted in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations from two underage women.
The team had been trending in a good direction prior to DreamKazper’s firing, but nobody expected Uprising to keep rising upward after that. Mistakes played a large part in proving everybody wrong. Now he’s out.
New York Excelsior, the league’s top team for most of the season, parted ways with both coach Hyeong-seok “WizardHyeong” Kim and tank player Joon-hwa “Janus” Song. Both seemed, at various points, to be instrumental to the team’s incredible success for most of the season. Fans are sad to see them go:
Still never going to forget how he took the time to actually have conversations with his fans. He was one of my favourite players in OWL and I’m excited to see what the future holds for him! pic.twitter.com/yFvc3RWxJ4
— GameSmartt (@GameSmartt) September 1, 2018
Janus has gotten an especially tearful farewell, not just because of his skillful (and sometimes quirky) playstyle, but because he communicated with fans via Discord.
Many diehard Overwatch League fans seem to love their favourite teams not because of whichever city they represent, but because of a connection to individual players and their personalities.
Some player departures are even more surprising, given the history behind them. Seoul Dynasty, Philadelphia Fusion, and Dallas Fuel let go of big names from the competitive Overwatch scene’s pre-OWL days in Jin-hyuk “Miro” Gong, Georgii “ShadowBurn” Gushcha, and Brandon “Seagull” Larned (who retired), respectively. Fans are reminiscing and fearing that pro Overwatch’s best days are already behind it.
“My interest in pro Overwatch began because of Miro, Seagull, and Shadowburn,” wrote one fan on the Competitive Overwatch subreddit. “Miro impressed me the most however. I’ve never seen anyone be so powerful on Winston. He inspired me to main tanks. I guess it’s thanks to him Winston is my best character up to date.”
Teammates who used to seem inseparable are getting broken up by these changes, too. Before Philadelphia Fusion even existed, Shadowburn and Jae-hyeok “Carpe” Lee were one of pro Overwatch’s premier DPS duos. Now, Shadowburn is teamless, and the duo is no more.
In other franchised sports, trades and releases are a normal occurrence, as is the retirements of longtime pros. These roster changes can be sad or frustrating, but tsports fans are used to seeing contracts run their course. For Overwatch fans, though, this is a first. It’s the beginning of a cycle that disturbs a status quo they’d grown to love.
Compared to other sports with decades- or centuries-long dynasties, pro Overwatch’s storied history barely registers as a blip on the radar. Overwatch is even young compared to its peers in esports; League of Legends came out in 2009. But because that history is so short, a large contingent of hardcore fans can say they were there for all of it.
It’s practical for teams to reshuffle their decks after an experimental first OWL season full of ups and downs, but in so doing, they’re tampering with the pantheons that fans have been worshipping.
The fact that so many fans have been present for the entire run of Overwatch League’s short history, combined with streams and Discord channels hosted by the game’s most popular players, creates an environment in which fans feel extremely connected to individual players.
But franchised sports leagues are big games of musical chairs. Players have to get released and traded and, eventually, retire. And let’s not forget that Overwatch League teams are trying to recoup the millions of dollars they each spent on league slots by winning games, and also by selling merch and creating personality-driven web content.
You can question the wisdom of teams’ recent decisions—and a handful of the recent releases are definitely questionable—but in the grand sporting pursuit of victory and cash, nothing is sacred except victory and cash.