Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center pulsed with anticipation and excitement Sunday afternoon. A cascade of fan-worn LED bracelets generated waves of light as the promise of joyful entertainment exuded from a domineering stage. The building known for housing storied sports franchises like the 76ers and Flyers found itself filled to capacity for a sporting event so different yet increasingly similar to traditional sports.
In short, the Overwatch League Grand Finals were lit.
The event as an experience felt like the fulfillment of the Overwatch League’s original mission: to bring esports into the mainstream in a palatable fashion for traditional sports consumers. The setting felt big-time, complete with compelling hype packages that could generate excitement within fans who have never touched Blizzard’s celebrated shooter. Friday’s media day carried a similar weight and whimsy as the buildup to the Super Bowl. Sunday’s Fan Fest drew thousands of people, all ripe for the afternoon’s crowning clash.
The live entertainment within during the pre-game got a bump in audience relatability as well. The 2018 Grand Finals’ meme-worthy DJ Khaled performance was shelved in favor of Gen-Z favorite Zedd.
The heightened status extended beyond the arena as well with the event’s live TV broadcast moving from Disney XD to ABC, drastically increasing its potential audience.
The presentation felt like a near complete package, bringing a large, passionate community together for a viewing experience the Overwatch League is surely hoping becomes less rare. The only thing missing was a competitive match.
The championship match pitted the dominant expansion Vancouver Titans against the even more dominant San Francisco Shock. The showdown represented the rubber match between the league’s two most unstoppable forces. Vancouver took the first two, including a victory over the Shock in the Stage 1 Finals. The Shock took the next two, including a Stage 2 Finals victory that capped off the OWL’s first perfect stage.
The two teams built up the Overwatch League’s first full-fledged rivalry over the course of the league’s second season, making their fight for the OWL championship the most anticipated match in league history. The build paled in comparison to that of last year’s Grand Finals between the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion. But, unfortunately, reality took on an appearance closer to that match than the titanic early season battles between 2019’s finalists.
San Francisco swept the Titans, making OWL MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won’s 4-0 prediction a reality.
The match itself wasn’t without intrigue and moments of pure disbelief. The heavily promoted Doomfist v. Doomfist battle between Sinatraa and OWL Rookie of the Year Kim “Haksal” Hyo-jong didn’t disappoint. Shock DPS player Minho “Architect” Park pulled off a hire-wire act more impressive than anything seen in the game when he used Bastion’s tank shells to launch himself onto the Eichenwalde map’s chandelier. What he claimed was an “instant decision” during the post-game press conference made the audience erupt as he fought off the last of the Titans and secured the map.
But the match as a whole felt disappointing in its decisiveness. The Titans showed competitive glimpses, securing a small collection of victories, but they couldn’t translate them into the momentum swings needed to win games. It was hard to watch at times as the Shock completely out-strategized and outplayed their division rival. It was even harder to see the Titans visibly angry at their performance and unable to come up with answers for the shellacking after the match.
The initial, uncomfortable silence of the brooding squad when asked if there were any moments they were proud of during the match spoke more than any statement could. And, in some way, it spoke to how the “ultimate rivalry” storyline surrounding the match fell so flat. There were plenty of moments from the Titans that deserved recognition, but none of that matters when looking at the whole.
They lost. They lost big.
Underwhelming championship matches obviously aren’t foreign to sports. Too many of the most guaranteed memory making matchups end with one team tripping over their own feet. But a young league such as the OWL isn’t done any favors when their championships are won with such a heavy fist.
It’s not the league’s fault. Everything fell right for them this year. The PR nightmares diminished heavily. Its homestead weekends proved that fan support for live events exists far beyond just the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. Records were set, superstars were created and the league got the kind of worst-to-first story that sports fans devour—its first, in fact. The Overwatch League is in a very healthy place as it expands to a home and away schedule next year, but league officials have to hope for a more competitive final in whatever arena it takes over next Fall.
Fans will still be willing to come. The pomp will still be overblown and pleasing to the senses. The cosplayers will still be an impressive spark of joy. But the league needs a championship match that lives up to that level of celebration. It needs its own Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath drove the Jets to victory over the heavily favored Colts. Until then, congratulations to the San Francisco Shock or, as team owner Andy Miller dubbed them, the “baby-faced killers.”
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Co-host of the Mr. Videogames Super Show podcast. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.