Just a couple days away from the start of the 2019 Overwatch League season, all 20 teams are making their final preparations. We caught up with them last week to get the scoop on where they stand as Opening Day approaches. Here’s a look at 10 of the teams:
1. Shanghai's recent announcement that Eui-Seok "Fearless" Lee would need to spend some time recuperating his health has left the Dragons without their starting main tank to start the 2019 season. Head coach Seong-Hwan "BlueHas" We confirmed that it'll be Young-Jin "Youngjin" Jin who'll take Fearless' place until he returns. Although the timing was unfortunate, BlueHas remains optimistic that his team will be able to make the temporary swap work. "Because it happened so suddenly, there were some problems with the team's stability at first, but it won't be a big problem in the end," he said.
Youngjin—Shanghai's captain this year—began his career as a main tank with Chinese organization wNv.KR before switching to DPS and becoming a Brigitte specialist for Kongdoo Panthera, and he says he's very confident that he can return to his old role to help Shanghai get their first win. The team has a tough slate in Week 1, facing highly rated expansion teams in Hangzhou and Vancouver, so Youngjin and the rest of the Dragons certainly have their work cut out for them.
2. Chengdu is another team dealing with roster absences to start the season. Main tank Yansong "Jiqiren" Wei was a late signing and has yet to receive his visa, while DPS Zhihao "Yangxiaolong" Zhang had his visa initially rejected, which has thrown a wrench into the team's preparations. "We've been dealing with this for the last couple of months and had to start over on some of our game plans," head coach Xingrui "Rui" Wang said. "It's been difficult, but we do have confidence."
Even without Jiqiren and Yangxiaolong, the Hunters are starting the season with eight players who all speak Mandarin, meaning they shouldn't have any in-game communication problems. Against their first opponent, Guangzhou—a team that's trying to synthesize three languages—that could be a big factor. For that match, they say that dealing with the Charge's talented DPS players will be the biggest test.
Another strength for Chengdu is that they're willing to try out unorthodox strategies, making them hard for opponents to prepare for. San Francisco head coach Da-Hee "Crusty" Park singled them out on this front, explaining, "They're using really different kinds of comps, and against them, if teams don't have a strategy to counter that, then they're going to suffer a hard time."
3. So, about Guangzhou's in-game comms: they're primarily using English, as it's easier for everyone to pick up than Chinese or Korean, but support Jeong-Yeon "Chara" Kim said there are some situations that require quick comms between the Korean players first. Whether in or out of game, though, building those team bonds has been a work in progress ever since the team was first put together.
"I was a little bit shy at the beginning and didn't want to talk to anyone," DPS Yiliang "Eileen" Ou said. "But as time went on, I learned more English and could interact with my teammates more. As we got closer we also had our first match together [against the Seoul Dynasty] and ate a lot of good meals together. After coming to LA and getting closer while practicing, I feel really excited."
"We're trying to build friendships and really trying to get to know each other," Chara added. "We've gotten to the point where we're able to read each other's expressions." As Guangzhou's team captain this year, he's embraced the challenge of being on a multicultural squad. "Every player and coach has different experiences because they come from different backgrounds. As a person, I can learn a lot from them."
4. Atlanta, another team that sourced its players from all over the world, is bonding through activities like go-karting and just hanging out together at the team house. In addition to the language and cultural differences, the lack of Overwatch League experience is also a potential hurdle for the Reign.
Head coach Brad “Sephy” Rajani, who was with the Shock for most of last season, is trying to be the veteran voice. "I can't be it during the middle of the match, but I can teach them everything—what to expect, and also show them why they have nothing to fear from the veterans, that they are here for a reason," he said.
There was an adjustment period for the players, of course. Hyeon-Jun "Pokpo" Park named jet lag and food as his two biggest issues so far. "For me, the hardest part was basically to just leave everything behind," support Petja "Masaa" Kantanen said. "I had my own apartment, I went to school, stuff like that. But you had to drop everything and move to LA. But as soon as I got here, everything was pretty smooth."
Both players are coming from Contenders—Pokpo from Element Mystic in Korea, Masaa from Team Gigantti in Europe—and while there were occasional doubts of getting to this point, they're here now. That's what matters, even if it hasn't quite sunk in yet. "It still doesn't feel real that it's only a week away," Pokpo said. "I'm kind of nervous about it—I want to do well, and I want to pop off onstage!"
5. Rajani said the Reign are simplifying in-game comms by adopting keywords as shorthand for larger concepts. This tactic is also being used by Washington, and they disclosed some of their goofier code words.
"One of our comms is 'I'm sexy,'" assistant coach Kyoung-Ey Molly "Avalla" Kim disclosed. "We also use a lot of Korean foods."
"Our comms clips on the broadcast are going to be incomprehensible and very entertaining," general manager Kate Mitchell added.
Keeping things loose and fun has been a top priority for the Justice, who have embraced their underdog status, using early power rankings as "bulletin-board material," in Mitchell's words. Even if the team falters in the early days—and they very well might, with their first three matches scheduled against New York, London, and Philadelphia—the focus remains on long-term improvement.
"We're not just looking at Stage 1, we're looking at the whole [season]," support Riley "Fahzix" Taylor said. "I think it's really unhealthy to constantly think about whether an opponent's better than you or not. It's more healthy to look at yourself and build yourself up to be better."
"The main thing we're all looking forward to is surprising people," DPS Ethan "Stratus" Yankel said. "We're very underrated, I feel, but we have a lot of chances coming up to surprise a lot of people."
6. One team that realistically should not catch anyone by surprise this season is Philadelphia, who went from preseason absentees to the Grand Finals on the back of a hyper-aggressive playstyle. This year, they're definitely a known quantity, but that won't change the Fusion's mindset.
"I think it doesn't really matter if we're underdogs or people expect us [to do well], we're still going to play our game and prepare to win," flex-tank Gael "Poko" Gouzerch said.
After getting so close to the pinnacle, the Fusion decided not to make significant changes to the roster, a vote of confidence for the existing core. "I think having team chemistry from last year is an advantage," support Isaac "Boombox" Charles said. "A lot of teams struggle to adapt with new players, whereas we won't have that issue this year because we're used to playing with each other. We've already overcome that."
When asked about new teams that could take people by surprise like Philly did last season, there were a couple of oft-repeated choices. DPS Jae-Hyeok "Carpe" Lee named Vancouver and Hangzhou. Poko's choice was maybe expected as well—the Paris Eternal. "They're going to surprise people," he said. "They have a unique style of play."
7. Poko wouldn't give specifics on what exactly is unique about the Eternal's playstyle, but many around the league believe they are one of the strongest teams in the current triple-tank, triple-support meta. But according to Paris head coach Julien "Daemon" Ducros, that's not all his team's good at.
"When we picked this team, the idea was to be meta-proof," he explained. "We're going to Stage 1 with this specific meta. Stage 2 may be different; Stages 3 and 4 may be different. But we're ready for that, we have the talent for that, and I'm not scared, because it was planned right at the beginning."
Daemon joined the Eternal from the Los Angeles Valiant, bringing over a season's worth of Overwatch League coaching experience. "Managing a new group of people coming from Contenders and the fact that the team wasn't really established, we really needed to build everything from ground zero," he said. "I think everyone on the coaching staff, the management, the players, they're doing their very best to create the team. Everyone is performing, everyone is competent, everyone is motivated to go forward, because we know we have a lot to prove."
That mentality is also driving DPS duo Terence "Soon" Tarlier and Georgii "Shadowburn" Gushcha, who are both joining Paris from other inaugural-season teams. "My goal is to show my fans that I can still perform the same way, and I didn't step down or give up," Shadowburn said.
Soon's motivations are even more personal: "I'm more concerned about fans. I really, really want to show them that European players [shouldn't be] underestimated, European players are really good. Having a new European team, and especially a team that's new, it's a new adventure. We have to prove again our talent and our teamwork, and I'm pretty happy with that."
8. Toronto is in a similar boat as Paris, having built around a head coach with Overwatch League experience and a core of players from existing teams, and the veteran Defiant players are eager to impart their knowledge to the players who are fresh from Contenders.
"Korean players tend to never rest, so they can have problems with burnout," former Boston support Se-Hyun "Neko" Park said. "I want to teach them, since it's a long league, to pace their practice time."
"On match days, people get really nervous or tense, but there's no reason for that," added DPS Jun-Sung "Asher" Choi, who spent last season with the Los Angeles Gladiators.
For head coach Beoum-Jun "Bishop" Lee, getting a second chance to helm a team after parting ways with London is a welcome challenge. "It's going to be a lot of fun bringing players together who haven't had experience in the league," he said. "The goal is to make it to the playoffs and to grow with the team and figure out what works, what doesn't work, and to look at the long-term plan."
9. It's rare in sports for a championship-winning team to make changes at both the coaching and management level, but that's what London's situation is entering the 2019 season. Despite retaining the six core players who lifted the Overwatch League trophy at Barclays Center, new coach Kwang-Bok "Coach815" Kim doesn't exactly have an easy job ahead of him.
"From my perspective, since I'm new to a team that just won everything, if I come in and we finish anywhere below that, that's going to seem like I had a negative impact on the team," he admitted. "That's why I feel a lot of pressure, but I'm trying to shed that because my primary goal isn't to produce a team that just gets results, but rather a team where each player has a lot of trust in each other. If that goal is achieved, the results will follow."
Expectations are high for the players as well, but so far, the question of whether the team is equipped to defend their championship isn't weighing too much on their minds. Team captain Jae-Hui "Gesture" Hong mused, "Of course it's possible, but at the same time, it might be impossible—but we'll be trying our best to make it possible."
Newly appointed GM Robin Lee, formerly the team manager, added, "Becoming number one and maintaining number one are very different things, and the latter is generally much harder across anything you do."
Just a day into his new role, Lee could already identify one big change in his day-to-day routine. "I'm mostly swimming in emails," he said. "I get up at 7 a.m. every day and I have like seven emails by the time I get up."
Former GM Susie Kim, sitting next to him, laughed. "I just forward him everything."
10. So which team has more pressure on them entering the 2019 season—London, the champion who everyone wants to topple, or New York, who fell dismally short of a title many expected them to win?
“Probably us,” NYXL support Seong-Hyun “Jjonak” Bang said, “because we couldn't win last season, so we're all thinking we need to get there no matter what. That's our thought process.” Last season’s Overwatch League and Overwatch World Cup MVP has his eyes set on the playoffs MVP this year, and there’s a general sense of unfinished business that that team is using as motivation.
The main thing that doomed the NYXL in last season’s playoffs was their inability to adapt to the meta, a pothole they’ve tried to patch over by bringing in two more DPS players to create a ridiculous wealth of options for any meta. “If we utilize our five DPS players well and find the right lineup, we'll have a good season,” Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park said.
Click here to read about the other 10 teams. And don’t miss a moment of Opening Week, as the 2019 Overwatch League season kicks off on Thursday, February 14, at 4 p.m. PST. Watch all 2019 season matches live and on demand on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, our Twitch channel, MLG.com, and the MLG app.