The Overwatch League's inaugural season has been filled with experimentation. Blizzard has looked at the structures of traditional sports seasons, as well as those of other esports, and went into this opening Overwatch League season with the goal of putting some new ideas to work. As the regular season starts to inch towards its conclusion, Overwatch League play remains at a high level and much of it should be credited to the League's multi-stage format.
Multiple stage of regular season games are not uncommon in competitive gaming. Those who follow multiple esports will see elements of League of Legends' multiple seasonal splits in place. But Blizzard piqued some interest when the Overwatch League introduced multiple stage playoffs, which would reward teams with a substantial $125,000 bonus prize pool. The addition of these playoffs has proven to be a key feature of the League's opening season, giving both hardcore and casual fans something to look forward to every six weeks. But the benefit of these playoffs and the extra prize pool incentive has only truly started to sink in over these past few weeks.
Let's look at the current Stage 4 standings heading into Wednesday's third week:
- 1. New York Excelsior 4-0 (+13)
- 2. Los Angeles Gladiators 4-0 (+12)
- 3. Los Angeles Valiant 4-0 (+6)
- 4. Philadelphia Fusion 3-1 (+8)
- 5. DALLAS FUEL 3-1 (+3)
The Dallas Fuel's sudden surge was touched on during Tuesday's standings recap. However, it's worth repeating, this is the Dallas Fuel. It's the Dallas Fuel that went into Stage 4 with a 6-24 record and, by all rights, should have nothing to play for.
But then there's the carrot of the individual Stage 4 playoffs. That's where the Overwatch League's format starts to stand out above not only its esports contemporaries, but also over traditional sports. In traditional sports, the last month of the regular season is a throwaway time for about 2/3 of the leagues. Unless it's playoff teams jockeying for position or teams just on the cusp, there's nothing to play for in the final weeks.
By contrast, the Dallas Fuel are already mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Nobody would blame them for packing it in, especially with the tumultuous season they've had. But even at 6-24, there's still something to play for. That $125,000 prize pool is nothing to sneeze at for these young players. That's still a good incentive to keep playing, keep trying new things, and persevere to the end.
And guess what? The Fuel's comeback looks to be very real. They've already knocked off the 22-12 Boston Uprising and the 21-13 Philadelphia Fusion. Their only loss in Stage 4 has come to the red hot Los Angeles Gladiators, but aside from that, Dallas has looked dominant, sporting the best Brigitte player in the world in the form of Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangchod. Team morale, thought to be in the toilet following the dismissal of Felix "xQc" Lengyel and suspension of Minseok "OGE" Son, is now higher than ever.
Lastly, it cannot be understated how important the one-week break in-between Stages truly matters, both to players and fans. For players, it allows them to charge their batteries, get some valuable practice in, regroup and reflect on what's gone right and wrong, and even take some time to bond with each other. One of the big takeaways from the post-game playoff press conferences I've attended is that teams are looking for ways to conquer fatigue, but they also look to return home, unwind, and also meet local fans, who help those players remember how much they mean to an entire fanbase. This goes for more than the Dallas Fuel, but it also applies to the rest of the Overwatch League. Blizzard recognizes the importance of avoiding fatigue. It's something Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer discussed with Shacknews back during our Stage 1 Playoff interview.
Stage 4 is showing a level of competitiveness that I argue wouldn't be present without the incentive of the Stage playoffs. It's a testament to how well Blizzard's format is working. There's no end-of-season malaise on display. It continues to be the best competitive Overwatch in the world and a good reason to keep tuning in every week.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Opinion: The Dallas Fuel's Revival Shows the Success of the Overwatch League Stage Format
That sentence about the Fuel's morale is kind of awkward. It implies that xQc's dismissal and OGE's 4 game suspension were key factors, but that wasn't the case.