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How the Overwatch League’s newest teams built their rosters from scratch

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From Toronto to Paris, a range of different strategies

Overwatch League Photo courtesy Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.

When Overwatch League expansion team Toronto Defiant played its first exhibition matches during a bootcamp in Korea, it didn’t go so well. The team, which included a mix of OWL veterans and up-and-coming players, struggled in early scrimmages, with few positives to draw from the performances. “It was a lot rougher than I had expected,” says Defiant head coach Beom-joon “Bishop” Lee. But there was still hope for the young squad. While the matches weren’t going well, the group still showed a positive attitude, particularly during the video review sessions after each round of practice.

“Typically with most teams, when you’re sitting down and talking about the game you just played for six hours, most of them are just going to be half-asleep, it’s not the most fun process,” explains Bishop. “But the first VOD review we had everyone was joking around, and the two hours flew by. That’s every coach’s dream.”

Season 2 of OWL kicks off this evening, and it’s going to include a lot of new faces. One of the biggest storylines for Blizzard’s ambitious e-sports league is how much bigger it is, growing from 12 clubs last year to the current slate of 20. That means many more players, and for the expansion teams, it means figuring out how exactly to build a competitive squad. And different teams are taking very different approaches.

Some are looking for unknowns that can surprise people, while others are angling for proven winners. One of the early favorites, for instance, is the Vancouver Titans. Instead of building a team from nothing, Vancouver went ahead and signed the entirety of Korean team RunAway, widely regarded as the best club outside of OWL.

Overwatch Contenders Photo courtesy Blizzard Entertainment.

For the Defiant, Bishop wanted to start with a solid core to build around. The team’s first signings were captain Kang-jae “envy” Lee, who previously played for the Los Angeles Valiant in OWL, and former Boston Uprising player Se-hyeon “Neko” Park. After that, Bishop and his staff began running in-person trials for potential players. “Online trials have a lot of limitations,” he explains. “You can’t really meet the players in person — you’re not going to see how they interact with each other, how they fight, how they resolve conflict. Once the offline bootcamp started and Envy was on board, it was all a matter of trialling different players. A lot of it was just observing the players, and letting them be their natural selves.”

While there are individual star players in OWL, as a six-on-six game with specific objectives, there’s a major focus on cooperation. Because of this, a big part of assembling a roster involves finding players who are not only talented, but who can also work together. “Our philosophy was to always focus on the team,” says Paris Eternal general manager Michael De Wit. “Building together a solid unit that can always overcome obstacles and correct mistakes, while applying a set framework that requires discipline, organization, respect, dependability, and most importantly maintaining a strong work ethic. Aside from corresponding to my personal values, these prerequisites help create the environment you need to develop within your team, to have a chance of reaching the top of the Overwatch League.”

Players based in Korea tend to dominate the league; the top two teams in season 1 were the New York Excelsior and London Spitfire, both of which featured all-Korean rosters. But the Eternal have the rare distinction of having players all hailing from Europe. Part of this came down to logistics; the competition to sign the best players out of Korea was incredibly fierce, not only from expansion teams, but also existing OWL squads looking to improve. But it also ties into De Wit’s philosophy of developing younger players. “I always believed that, if you invest time in talented rookies, you can bet on them instead of getting accomplished players,” he says.

Overwatch League Photo courtesy of the Guangzhou Charge

The trial process for the Eternal involved looking at dozens of players from different regions, and then narrowing the list down based on play. Once the team identified promising candidates, they then spent hours interviewing them. “We needed to know everything about them,” says De Wit. What drives their lives, whether they have worked before, or done competitive sports — anything that would give me hints about their mentality and their ability to improve, by being coached and by following a very strict framework.”

This emphasis on teamwork means that communication is particularly important. And that can be a challenge when you have players who speak different languages. Expansion side Guangzhou Charge might have the biggest challenge in this regard, with players hailing from China, Korea, the UK, and America. “To be honest, I had my concerns around the challenges that a mixed roster with four nationalities and three native languages would bring,” says Charge team manager Brenda Suh. “But when I first met the team in person, I couldn’t have been further off the mark because our team naturally rallies around one another and I think that is something amazing to see this early on.”

These teams will be put to the test during the early matches this week, but the process of building a roster doesn’t end there. If there’s one thing teams learned from the late collapse of the NYXL, it’s that OWL clubs need to be flexible; as Overwatch changes with updates and new characters and maps, teams need to be able to adjust alongside it. “We have intentionally left room in our roster to be able to make minor adjustments throughout the season as needed,” says Charge GM Ethan Liu, “but we believe we have identified the pieces needed to compete at a high level this season.”

And while there are plenty of different ways to build a roster, for the newest teams in the Overwatch League, assembling a squad goes far beyond just finding the best Overwatch players. “Some people think you just have to be good at the game,” says Defiant coach Bishop. “It doesn’t just happen like that.”