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Five questions for the Overwatch League's return

Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

The Overwatch League is coming back with online play.

After cancelling homestands due to concerns over the coronavirus and postponing online play due to California's shelter-in-place order, the Overwatch League has a completely stacked schedule this weekend, with 10 games across two days. Many of the teams here will be playing for the first time this season, so if you've been missing the Dynasty or Dragons, now's the time to watch them in action.

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Here's a look what questions we want to see answered in the first weekend of online play.

What do you expect out of the first weekend of online-only games?

Emily Rand: If online LoL Pro League play has taught me anything it's that there will be pauses. Most of them won't be long or particularly obnoxious - nothing compared to the Great Dallas Homestand Pauses of 2019 - but a bit like moving to different venues for homestands, online play will occasionally have issues that don't happen in a controlled stage LAN environment.

As for gameplay, I won't say that this will happen definitively but what I'm hoping is for teams to play a bit looser. I don't want them to troll games, but in a more comfortable environment, I've seen time and again that certain players and teams will be a lot more decisive and take a few more risks. This could work out well or fail spectacularly, but whenever teams are playing looser I always find it entertaining.

Jacob Wolf: I expect the game quality to take a little bit of a hit, but I do anticipate some players to perform better off of stage. Overwatch League is still a very young league and a fair amount of its players haven't competed for a long amount of time, so being able to compete online, similar to how they do in scrims, is a much more comfortable environment, versus in stadiums. I agree with Emily that we could see a looser play style and I'm curious what risks teams are more willing to take, in terms of hero picks and the like, in a different environment.

I do expect a few broadcast hiccups because it's really hard to produce broadcasts this way, especially depending on how they bring in commentators -- either with a skeleton production crew in a central location or trying it via VoIP programs.

Arda Ocal: This weekend gets a full pass from me as far as possible technical issues are concerned. We are still in the honeymoon phase here, we are happy games are going to be played and OWL fans have something to watch at a competitive level like this. So whatever happens, support it. I'm giving Overwatch League (and all leagues that are trying this) a lot of credit. These are extraordinary circumstances, and everyone is coming together to still try and put together a product where in the end, the fans win. Yes there are other motivating factors like sponsorships and licensing deals and, more generally, money, but the fans benefit as a result. So I'm expecting a fun weekend of games that might have a hiccup or two but I won't care. The correct mathematical formula here is online play >>> no play at all.

Of the teams that haven't played yet, who's the best?

Rand: I've been yelling about this for weeks in my hero pool meta articles but let me see the Chengdu Hunters and the Shanghai Dragons. I don't expect the former to necessarily be the best, but they've always been committed to playing a style they're comfortable with so I'm curious to see them in hero pools. As for Shanghai, they have an insane amount of DPS talent that should be able to cover a wide variety of hero pool permutations.

Ocal: We have 5 teams we haven't seen yet: Chengdu, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Seoul. How will they adapt with hero pools? I'm with Emily on Shanghai, 0-42 is a past memory now, and might even be more distant once we see this wealth of DPS talent in play with hero pools in effect. We might see one of the best team turnarounds season to season in the history of anything competitive. From 42 straight losses to competing for a playoff spot and even a championship is pretty remarkable, even if Overwatch League (and esports in general) often move at a blistering pace. I'm also keeping an eye on Seoul, and seeing how the season 1 champs Profit, Gesture and BDosin adapt. So much has changed since they won their chip with London.

Wolf: My heart here lies with Seoul. I am fascinated by their roster changes made in the offseason and their ability to recruit many of the high-profile South Korean Overwatch players. Whether or not that combo of players will mesh well is unclear. On paper, this team should be one of the best teams in the Overwatch League. They're loaded with talent and while I've bet big on them before -- and sorely regretted it -- I think this may be the season it could pay off.

Are hero pools a boon or hindrance to the game?

Rand: The instant reaction to hero pools seems to be that they're generally good for the league and spectators enjoy them, but a nightmare for players and coaches (especially coaches).

For me, I'm always going to be someone who likes to watch things evolve without interference. While Week 5's games were undeniably exciting due to the bans, I would have loved to see another week or two before being subjected to the next set of hero pools rather than briefly seeing what teams came up with for a week, snapping our fingers, and moving on with different bans.

I want to give an additional shoutout to the Overwatch League coaches who are all working tirelessly to try and prepare these teams. One thing that always occurs whenever we have drastic meta upheaval in any esport or simply just international events where teams with highly-varied playstyles meet, is a push-pull between how much you prepare your team internally and how much you outwardly look at what other teams' playstyles are. I've generally been a proponent of focusing more on the former (although some of the latter is always necessary). This is going to become even more important with the quickness of hero pool adaptations.

Erzberger: I enjoy the hero pools. Although I agree with Emily that one of the best parts of esports is watching teams evolve around a meta and implement workarounds to defeat what is considered unbeatable, it's been shown time and time again in Overwatch that teams, for whatever reason, just aren't doing that. Be it the breakneck pace of the season or the fact that they're not in regional leagues and don't develop differing styles, we've seen time and time again Overwatch franchises mirroring what they see is working without much resistance.

To combat that, the developers invented hero pools, knowing that personalized hero bans would ultimately bring us back to a majority of the teams mirroring each other. With little prep time and the teams segmented due to how schedule works, there is little chance a singular composition will be played by everyone during the weekend's games. We saw that this past weekend in Washington, where teams had to trust what they started playing in the middle of the week and had to hope they stuck the landing when performing it on-stage.

It's a different kind of game we're playing. Before, Overwatch League rewarded teams that knew how to perfect and master a composition along with its variations. While some of them weren't the best at the beginning, they diligently chipped away until their iron was as sharp as any team in the world. That's not the landscape we have now with hero pools, which awards teams and coaches who are quick on their feet, have depth at all positions, and can try to find the opening needed in that lone weekend to run away with some victories.

Both systems have their pros and cons, but for now, I'll say I'm a fan of hero pools. Get back to me in a few weeks to see if this improvisation continues or if things begin to normalize, bringing us to a point where we're not seeing teams play their best nor excite us with differing styles.

Ocal: in my opinion, boon. It's a great addition. At the end of the day, this league is for our entertainment. The more people watch, the more money the league can make. So, why not make it as entertaining as possible. Hero Pools keeps it fresh, exciting, and there's always an extra hook to make you want to come back next week. That's important. It's also unique to Overwatch -- in season 3, experiment and see what works. I like that there are already tweaks made, like how percentages are now weighted and not every hero has an equal chance of being banned, even if one hero had say 10.1% usage and another had 99% usage. I bet we see more tweaks like that. VP of Overwatch esports Jon Spector mentioned on Watchpoint that they are continuously listening to pros, staff and fans on how to best balance this process. One reason they didn't auto ban the highest-used heroes is they wanted to avoid two metas flip flopping week after week. I appreciate that, it preserves the aura of mystery. So, while I completely understand the desire by many to have a pure competitive landscape, remember that Overwatch has had that and it was boring. So bring on the fun! .... so long as people are watching.

Wolf: I very much dislike hero pools. I feel like Overwatch, as a game, is in a pretty good spot right now. The meta felt pretty fluid and I enjoyed it in the first few weeks of the league. I don't anticipate the Overwatch League to make any changes to how matches operate but I do wish we got to see the game as it is. Alter the game if you have problems, not the ban system!

Assuming Mei ever gets banned, does she need a rework?

Rand: When considering Mei I think the first question that needs to be asked is, "What makes her so powerful?" The simplest answer is remarkably strong area of effect damage and zone control that naturally lends itself to every map type. She freezes people in place so that snipers (and other heroes but preferably snipers) can mow down frozen targets. I actually don't mind how much Mei is being played since I think she unlocks a lot of potential from heroes that spectators generally love (in other words, all the hitscan heroes). We also did see less of her last week, although she didn't disappear entirely. I do think we're at a point where teams are so comfortable using her that it will take some sort of adjustment on Blizzard's part to make her less flexible and viable.

Ocal: I think Echo will be such a nice counter to Mei. The alternate ability, Focus, normally hits for 50 DPS, but when the target is below half health, it jumps up to 200 DPS. That includes enemies, barriers, shields... and ice walls.

Echo's ult is also to morph into an enemy hero (which sounds amazing and very Shang Tsung), which will be cool to see and give a team Mei for 15 seconds as well.

But that's still a ways off because Echo is only in PTS at the moment. Mei has 75.9% usage in Overwatch League this season. The other thing that will affect her selection is hero pools. She might fit into the meta of the week and there might be better comps. And if she is, she will have a higher potential to be banned. So I'm not too concerned about Mei for the regular season.

Who's gonna be played with Winston, Soldier 76, Sombra, and Lucio being banned?

Rand: While everyone else is mad about Legs being banned after one week my issue is with Winston. Bring back the gorilla and the dive! The league has so many amazing Winston players and I want to see him return to the league as a tank regular (whenever he's not banned). With no Mei ban and Windowmaker/McCree returning, we may return to the Mei/hitscan setups of the first few weeks. The big ban here is definitely Lúcio, who has had tremendous impact in the league in February and is one of the most-played heroes (third most-played at 74.9 percent) in the league thus far. Here's what I hope to see: more Pharmercy, especially on some of these control maps.

Erzberger: We're going back to a few weeks ago where we got a heaping dose of Mei, Reinhardt and the sharpshooter of your choice. Winston being locked up in the hero pool dungeon means we're not going to get any dive (unless Wrecking Ball suddenly becomes viable for non-Chengdu teams) and that's only strengthened by Lucio being benched as well. While I think this is going to be a pretty ho-hum week in terms of experimental compositions, I do hope that Pharah gets some playing time, as its always fun to see teams maneuver around the added stress of an air attack.

Oh, and can someone please save Ashe? Even without McCree and Widowmaker, she was only played 0.6% of the time during last week's games. While heroes like Roadhog and Bastion weren't touched at all, at least they've had points during their existence where they've been useful. Ashe has been in the game for almost two years at this point and has had as many memorable moments as the Shanghai Dragons did in their first year as a franchise.

Ocal: I was with some of the pros in DC when the selections were made on Watchpoint, and the reactions I heard ranged from "McCree Mei", "Ana Brig", "Rein D.Va or maybe Orisa D.Va".

One things for sure, not everyone is happy with the bans. "They banned all the fun heroes" and "It's going to be a boring week". Let's hope not!

To play off Tyler's point about Ashe, she has a 0.1% league usage rate since her inception. She probably has as much of a chance playing this week as Echo.

Picks

Saturday

Charge vs. Dragons
Rand: Dragons 3-1
Ocal: Dragons 3-2
Wolf: Dragons 3-1
Erzberger: Dragons 3-1

Hunters vs. Spark
Rand: Spark 3-1
Ocal: Hunters 3-2
Wolf: Spark 3-1
Erzberger: Spark 3-2

Defiant vs. Uprising
Rand: Defiant 3-1
Ocal: Defiant 88-0
Wolf: Defiant 3-0
Erzberger: Defiant 3-0

Valiant vs. Dynasty
Rand: Dynasty 3-1
Ocal: Dynasty 3-2
Wolf: Dynasty 3-1
Erzberger: 3-0

Shock vs. Gladiators
Rand: Shock 3-1
Ocal: Shock 3-0
Wolf: Shock 3-0
Erzberger: Shock 3-1

Sunday

Hunters vs. Dragons
Rand: Dragons 3-2
Ocal: Dragons 3-1
Wolf: Dragons 3-1
Erzberger: Dragons 3-0

Charge vs. Spark
Rand: Spark 3-1
Ocal: Spark 3-2
Wolf: Spark 3-1
Erzberger: Spark 3-1

Mayhem vs. Reign
Rand: Reign 3-1
Ocal: Reign 3-0
Wolf: Reign 3-0
Erzberger: Reign 3-0

Valiant vs. Shock
Rand: Shock 3-1
Ocal: Shock 3-0
Wolf: Shock 3-0
Erzberger: Shock 3-0

Dynasty vs. Gladiators
Rand: Dynasty 3-2
Ocal: Dynasty 3-2
Wolf: Dynasty 3-2
Erzberger: Gladiators 3-2