It’s that time again. The time of year when we return to the hero select screen for the start of a new Overwatch League season. Season 3, however, is the true test. The time for the OWL, Blizzard, and competing teams to show what they’re really made of with the start of real home and away games.
In a way, this feels more like the start of a brand new league as opposed to the third season. Indeed, the challenges that teams will face with travel, fatigue and burnout have already been well-documented. But they also present a unique obstacle - a faceless antagonist of this supposedly "make-or-break" season.
With 27 weeks of games scheduled from February 8 to August 8, teams will have their hands full with travel, learning new metas (of which there promises to be many) and maintaining mental sanity.
Truthfully, I expect this season to be both feast and famine. The teams that succeed will soar higher than ever while the teams that burn will scorch the earth with little chance of redemption.
One of my major criticisms with this season's format has been the removal of stage playoffs. While past seasons had a mini playoff every seven games featuring the league’s top 8 teams competing and forming rivalries, stage playoffs are absent this year.
For me, this will greatly lower the enjoyment of matches past a certain point in the season. In seasons one and two, the worst teams in the league would get a bit of a standings reset every seven games. Yes, the overall standings would still matter, as they should, but for the Mayhems and Valiants of the league, a new stage meant a chance to undo their failures.
Had it not been for stage playoffs, we would never have seen the rivalry between Vancouver Titans and San Francisco Shock grow into the game's biggest feud. In fact, without stage playoffs, there wouldn’t have been rivalry to begin with.
Had it not been for stage playoffs, we would never have seen the Shanghai Dragons pull off the ultimate redemption arc after their abysmal 0-40 first season. It was even in the Dragons' own stage playoff win that the Shock nearly pulled off a 3-0 reverse sweep - a feat only done a handful of times in any sport.
Yes, there is still a “midseason tournament” featuring the four best teams in the league halfway through the season, and while it will undoubtedly be a major moment, the fact there is only one such event removes the “go agane” attitude that the stages provided.
Would you really care to watch a match between two teams with 3-15 records on Week 18? Probably not. But what if I told you they were 3-1 in stage 3 and whoever won was looking likely to qualify for stage playoffs? Oh how the tables would turn.
Perhaps it would have been too much trouble to have stage playoffs on top of all the travel teams will already have to do, but not having them and opting for a more traditional sports model just seems like an antiquated concept. Without the instant gratification of stage playoffs, this season could be as much of a drain on fans as it is players.
Despite my complaints, however, I am looking forward to league’s true season opener and I firmly believe that Dallas and New York were two of the best cities to open with. Not only was the Dallas homestand the best out of the three that were tested in Season 2, but the New York crowd has been eager to see their team in action - something they missed out on after an early playoff exit in Season 1.
Plus, with the meta in a state of flux, this could prove to be one of the wildest weekends of Overwatch in history.
This weekend will also give us our first look at last year’s two finalists: the San Fransisco Shock and the Vancouver Titans - two teams that I wouldn’t be surprised to see come the midseason tournament and postseason time in a re-re-re-rematch for the ages.
Speaking of which, like many, I too believe that this season is the Shock’s to lose once again. Many of my counterparts do as well, although probably for different reasons. The Shock are fresh off a championship win and as such, they may be able to play looser once teams have settled into a groove and Hero Pools kick in.
While some teams will be struggling to sleep in their economy seats dreaming of retirement, I expect the Shock to dominate nonstop. Overcoming them may prove to be equally as challenging as this season. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a wild ride.