Lines in the Sand

Rivalries are special; they draw deep lines in the sand, shaping the identity of rival teams and their fandoms. Fans are captivated by the struggle, triumph, and grief experienced by the players battling in these grudge matches, and every time a rival is in town, fans, players, and witnesses alike can look forward to reliving the same experiences and emotions that first earned their passion.

What separates the most compelling rivalries, those that command the most rabid fandoms, from the rest?

The best rivalries have a history of excellence. Outside of the rivalry, these teams often dominate their leagues, but their heated head-to-head battles span years to decades.

The best rivalries have competitiveness. Despite their impeccable skill and pedigrees, neither side can truly best the other repeatedly.

The best rivalries are equal parts respect and animosity. Rival teams and their fanbases loathe their opposites; every match is treated as if both sides are locked in a battle for their own existence. However, between the haymakers traded, lobs dunked, or—in the case of the Overwatch League—Earthshatters slammed down, rivals sense the same talent and drive to win in the very players they want to destroy.

Why do I care so much about what makes rivalries so compelling? It’s because I think we may be watching the best rivalry Overwatch has ever witnessed come into maturity before our eyes: the San Francisco Shock vs. the Vancouver Titans.

The newness of Overwatch esports means there has rarely ever been two teams at the very top of a region. In the earliest days, EnVyUs was the dominant team, winning both sides of nearly every weekly tournament. EnVy’s run, though interrupted by a surprise loss to Rogue in the first Atlantic Showdown, took them to South Korea, where they won the very first season of the APEX tournament, defeating the same Rogue squad along the way.

Support Jonathan “Harryhook” Tejedor Rua, one of the EnVy legacy players remaining with the Dallas Fuel, joined me to briefly reminisce about EnVy’s run. “It was an amazing feeling when you know you are on top and everyone pushed their hardest to win,” he told me. “You feel the best after winning [these] games, knowing you tried harder than them and still beat them.”

I asked him if playing against big rivals gave EnVy a different edge—like they had something to prove. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. “One [example] is APEX Season 1. Talespin left the team [before] playoffs and Rogue picked us, thinking we were the worst team, but we got Mickie and still clapped their faces.”

However, APEX and the Korean region would soon have a new EnVy-like king in Lunatic-Hai, who never had a single consistent challenger across their dominant back-to-back wins in Seasons 2 and 3. Even though teams like RunAway and Kongdoo Panthera captured the hearts of many fans with their blazing paths to the finals, Lunatic Hai always stood at the end of the bridge—the final boss of Korean Overwatch.

Rogue version 2: French Boogaloo eventually took up EnVyUs’ mantle in western Overwatch, ripping off a win streak spanning three months of monthly tournaments and culminating in a cross-regional major tournament win at TaKeOver 2. This Rogue roster faced a singular boogeyman: a young upstart team named Selfless Gaming. This was perhaps the only prolonged period of time in Overwatch history where two teams shared space at the top of a single region.

To capture the feeling of what it was like to be in the middle of it all, I talked to Benjamin “Unkoe” Chevasson and Dylan “aKm” Bignet—Dallas Fuel starters and former Rogue players—and Brad Rajani, current Atlanta Reign coach and ex-Selfless coach/owner. Unkoe and aKm were in agreement when I asked what it was like having an entire scene trying to defeat them.

“It definitely brought [out] the best in us every single game, as every team was trying to take us down,” they said. “We had to consistently play our best and practiced harder than everyone else just to stay on top. But it's also a great feeling… an accomplishment of having everybody against you and being the ‘big guys.’”

Even when two teams are evenly matched, rivalries can often have a sense of one team being the big brother of the relationship, forever being challenged by the little brother. Unkoe and aKm certainly felt that way about Selfless. “At the time I was playing for Rogue, the ‘little brother’ teams were eUnited and Selfless,” aKm said. “Both of those teams were really close to winning against us in tournaments. Most of the time the finals against them was very close, but we were still winning.”

These close matches against Selfless gave Rogue the only consistent challenge to their position at the top of western Overwatch, and in some ways helped them maintain their run by providing a truly worthy opponent. “They had very good players individually, and they were all playing their best character without playing the meta,” the pair said. “Every finals we won against them was 3-1 or 3-2! It's always cool to have a rival in competition. We were giving everything we had to win against everyone [and] to be sure we were still unbeaten at the end of the tournament.”

Rajani added, “When you're up against an even-matched or overpowered opponent, that’s when personality and character become a major factor in the game. It’s something that's really easy to overlook as a spectator, but if you ever listen to the players and their comms, start to finish, it becomes really obvious how contagious they are to each other. The more the team believes in each other, the stronger their emotional core, the more resistant they become to negativity and the faster they feast on positivity. Against the toughest opponents is when this aspect of your team is tested the most, and it’s where champions are born.”

This early rivalry obviously produced oodles of Overwatch League talent, but it also represented a turning point in how teams approached the game. Both Selfless and Rogue thrived on aggression—so much so that spawn-camping is still called “Selflessing” in certain team calls. Both teams uncovered the power of taking extra fights while sitting a single player on the payload, to snowball ultimates used into more ultimates charged. The very tempo of Overwatch would never be the same.

Sound familiar? Two stages deep into 2019, no one can match the Shock and the Titans besides each other. The Titans now hold the record for longest match win streak, and the Shock hold the record for longest map win streak. Not even the NYXL, at the height of their power last year, could reach this level of league destruction. NYXL had a 77% map win rate in Stages 2 and 3 last season; the Shock and Titans have maintained a 79% map win rate and 84% map win rate, respectively, in the first two stages this year.

It feels like the Shock and Titans are playing a completely different game than the rest of the league—and they’re actively changing the way teams approach strategy, just like Selfless and Rogue did in the past. Even if the meta were to change tomorrow, the lessons learned by teams preparing to face these two giants would remain. Overwatch doesn’t have the decades of existence of traditional sports, and no team has remained dominant for more than a year, but instead of one team faltering over time, the Shock and Titans seem to have only made each other stronger.

Perhaps it’s because the individual elements of these teams have more history than meets the eye. The Titans are the RunAway of old combined with talented new supports and what’s turned out to be one of the league’s best Zarya players—between them, their experience spans multiple seasons of APEX and Contenders Korea. The Shock have head coach Da-Hee “Crusty” Park, who seems to have coached half the league at one point or the other, Jay “Sinatraa” Won, who headlined the Selfless rivalry, and Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim, whose experience with Kongdoo Panthera in APEX Season 3 mirrors the RunAway core’s heartbreaking Season 2 loss to Lunatic-Hai.

These aren’t ordinary players and staff—these teams were made for this. Rajani agreed, and supplied more evidence to Sinatraa’s competitiveness. “Sinatraa has always been mature for his age when it comes to being a teammate,” he shared. “In the highest pressure moments against Rogue back in 2016 he would often shotcall, and even when he wasn't, he was hyper-engaged and hungry for the win, and it always rubbed off on everyone around him. He's just a beast on match days—I don’t know how else to put it.”

Even across roles, each player on these two teams was made to face each other, with clashing playstyles. Sang-Beom “Bumper” Park is a brash, brawling Reinhardt, while Matthew “Super” DeLisi is an intellectual counter-puncher. Grant “Moth” Espe directs his team like a general from high above, surgically dropping to make Boop plays; Seong-Jun “Slime” Kim’s Lúcio moves like the wind itself, causing maximum disruption at all times. And so on; only the D.Va players look similar on paper: Hyo-Bin “Choihyobin” Choi and Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi’s rivalry swirls around negating ultimates, where they rank second and third in the league, respectively.

On a team and an individual level, this rivalry is real, and it shows no sign of slowing down. But don’t just take my word for it. I also asked the veterans of rivalries past what they thought of the Titans vs. Shock rivalry of the present.

“Amazing—it’s like a reminder of EnVyUs vs. Rogue,” Harryhook said. “Top teams with really really close games, it’s what everyone likes to watch.”

“The devastated look on Shock players faces after their Stage 1 loss reminded me so much of our rollercoaster of emotions we had in Selfless each time we lost to Rogue, often after a grueling all-day run through the losers bracket,” Rajani said. “If these two teams really do slug it out the entire season at the top... man, that would be so insane.”

The reigning stage champion San Francisco Shock kick off Stage 3 at 4 p.m. PDT against Rajani’s Atlanta Reign. 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.