Grav Bag: The Golden Stage

The orange rectangle sat there on the bridge, glowing like a beacon. It was, in fact, within shotput distance from the exact spot where the San Francisco Shock had their Stage 1 title dreams dashed by the Vancouver Titans just six weeks ago, but on Sunday afternoon that distance was easily breached, the payload slotting home with satisfying ease. Between then and now, the six players onstage have morphed into a machine—in my head I refer to them as “Shock and Awe”—good enough to sweep every single one of their opponents this stage.

A perfect 28-0 in maps, even better than Vancouver’s own superb 25-3-0 mark. What are titans to gods, anyway?

Yes, strength of schedule played a role; early matchups against bottom-half teams helped pad San Francisco’s considerably impressive stats, both individually and as a team. Still, in esports, not dropping a single map in a stage or split is a capital-letter Accomplishment, one that speaks to the determination and focus of the Shock players as well as the work done behind the scenes by the coaching staff.

Flawless stage aside, are the Shock currently the best team? They’ll get a chance to make their case in the Stage 2 Playoffs. Beyond that—well, the Titans are still eyeing an unthinkable 28-0 match record. How’s this for poetry? By the end of the regular season, 28 > 28 could be a true statement.

1. Shanghai was the last Infinity Stone—whichever one the red one was—preventing the Shock from completing their gauntlet. They were the best bet—one of two Stage 2 playoff teams San Francisco faced, and the one most willing to deviate from 3-3 compositions in order to test them. And it was indeed closer than the scoreline would indicate:

One unfortunate fat-fingered EMP from DPS Jin-Hyeok “Dding” Yang in the time-bank round of King’s Row means we’ll never know if Shanghai could’ve been the ones to spoil San Francisco’s total domination. They’ll get another chance soon enough—the two teams are back at it on Thursday, this time as quarterfinal opponents.

2. During the Uprising vs. Gladiators match on Friday, caster Mitch “Uber” Leslie started a sentence with “In an unexpected turn of events” to describe Boston’s unexpected 2-0 lead. Then, he paused and corrected himself: “In an entirely expected turn of events.” When it comes to Boston, anything is possible, and everything is to be expected. The Gladiators, sitting at 6-0 and favored by many to complete their own undefeated stage, should’ve known this. Both teams had an extra week to prepare, but the Uprising were the team that looked sharpest in a close 3-1 win (final map points: 9-7).

Boston did their homework, according to main tank Cameron “Fusions” Bosworth, spending their off week building counterstrats to LA’s more inventive comps. Their own flexibility came in handy, as new flex tank Richard “Rck” Kanerva has enabled the team to run a lot of DPS-heavy compositions, in addition to his notable Sombra play.

“The players—specifically Colourhex, Blasé, and Rck—are in their element in those sort of roles,” Fusions said. “It allows us to run cheesy stuff that people haven’t really practiced against, but overall we’re playing the comps because it suits our strengths—definitely a lot more than [3-3] does.”

3. I showed Fusions this appreciative tweet from LA Valiant support Scott “Custa” Kennedy, and he laughed when I asked him to rate his own lung capacity.

“Maybe quickest-recovering voice,” he conceded. “I lost my voice in practice yesterday; it’s still a bit rough around the edges. I woke up and it basically was still gone today, so I had a couple of throat soothers and was just like, ‘All right, let’s go into the match.’ And my voice is recovered, luckily.”

Fusions is a rare Brit that doesn’t drink tea, so he relies on a big bag of throat drops that were gifted to him by a fan after he blew out his voice box during Opening Week. He might need a refill soon.

4. So, about that entirely expected turn of events. Just two days after breaking the Gladiators’ winning streak, the Uprising found themselves on the receiving end of an upset, getting reverse-swept by the Washington Justice to snap their losing streak.

The players were even more jubilant onstage than after they won their first match of the season. For Yeon-Jun “Ark” Hong, one of two new veteran additions in Stage 2, these last few weeks have been about growth, and the emotion came from seeing their work finally pay off onstage.

“I think it means a lot, since I personally think that we’ve improved a lot in scrim blocks, but we couldn’t show up in the matches—we kind of choke sometimes,” he told me. “Today’s match, we did the breathing a lot… We stop talking for 10 seconds or something and just breathe.”

It’s a technique that Ark and his new support partner, Nikola “Sleepy” Andrews, have brought to the team. Everyone shuts up and simply takes deep breaths, which Ark demonstrated to me before adding, “We have people who are overexcited sometimes, so it helps.”

Ark says he and Sleepy have “really, really matched a lot this stage,” as the two of them share ult-tracking and shotcalling duties. Then there’s an additional benefit of bringing in their individual experience from being a part of winning teams: “Since Sleepy and I can give some insights on how Shock and NYXL is playing, it [also] helps a lot with personal gameplay.”

Of course, the make-good on the promise of ice cream doesn’t hurt. Well-played, Sleepy.

5. Atlanta showed some real mettle by completing their double upset of the NYXL in a tiebreaker on Saturday, ending Stage 2 on a high note. There was a bit of rigidity to New York’s playstyle; they weren’t able to adapt to the Reign’s Hanzo-Pharmercy comps, sticking stubbornly to 3-3 throughout the five maps. It’ll be interesting to see whether the NYXL can make those adjustments in the playoffs against a Gladiators team that loves their fromage. Both teams are coming off deflating losses in which they looked a bit lost, so this series will be a true test of character.

The last word on Atlanta in Stage 2 fittingly came from new DPS Andrej “Babybay” Francisty. This postgame interview was classic unfiltered Babybay, earnest yet spicy. It’s good to see him back and thriving.

6. Superlatives!

First, Vancouver flex tank Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi died just four times against Toronto on Friday, tying the mark for second-fewest deaths in a match. NYXL support Tae-Sung “Anamo” Jung holds the record, dying just four times in two separate matches.

Second, we had some real teamfight doozies. The first was this apocalyptic clash on Oasis Gardens between the Gladiators and Uprising, which weighed in with a hype rating of 103.3, lasted just over two minutes and featured a total of 13 ultimates used and 24 final blows—all of them in overtime. Here’s the time-stamped link, for your viewing pleasure and/or terror.

The second one was this Lijiang Garden rumble between Hangzhou and Seoul, an 84.7 marathon that lasted more than two-and-a-half minutes, required 24 combined ultimates, and resulted in 19 total final blows, 18 of them in overtime. Here’s the time-stamped link.

Lastly, the story-within-a-story of San Francisco vs. Shanghai was the tug-of-war over the Paris speedrun record (map VOD link). Shanghai entered the match having set a 1:58 time earlier in the week. On their first attack round, the Shock broke that time by one second, then bested their own time by 21 seconds on their second attack round to end with an absurd 1:36 mark that should last awhile—or at least until the next time the Shock step foot in Paris.

The funny thing is, the Dragons had a chance to sneak in another speedrun on their own initial attack round, reaching 92.3% at the 1:52 mark before the Shock could contest Point B. Nutty.

7. It was a big weekend for China, as Shanghai and Hangzhou became the first two teams from the region to make the stage playoffs. The Dragons were guaranteed a spot following the Valiant’s win over the Hunters—ah, the delicious smell of a simmering rivalry—while the Spark won their berth after a close 3-1 win over the Dynasty to close out Week 5.

The win over Seoul was doubly sweet for support Ho-Jin “IDK” Park, who defeated two of his former teammates who are now with Seoul, Min-Seo “Marve1” Hwang and Min-Hyuk “Michelle” Choi, with whom he won two Contenders China titles in 2018.

“Even before the season started, I told all of my teammates that I had four former teammates—Marve1 and Michelle with Seoul, Erster with Atlanta, and Diem with Shanghai—and I didn’t want to lose to them,” he said on the Watchpoint desk. “I beat three of them, so we just have Atlanta left.”

In Stage 1, I interviewed Michelle and asked him about the added motivation of playing against a former teammate. His answer was simple, but elegant:

“In sports, you have to be cold-hearted.”

8. All of the first-round matchups should be fantastic, but I’m especially looking forward to Hangzhou vs. London. To keep it brief, I’ll just say that the main tank matchup between Qiulin “Guxue” Xu and Jae-Hui “Gesture” Hong is going to be so, so good. Give us all the Winston slap fights, please.

9. With the 2019 season half over, it’s not too early to start looking at the overall season playoff picture. Vancouver and New York both have healthy leads in their respective divisions, and it’s hard to see San Francisco slipping too much after the stage they just put together. I look at any team with a double-digit map deficit as being in danger already, and there are six teams that fall into that category. That leaves 11 teams—ranging from the 9-5 defending champion London Spitfire to the 6-8 meta-defying Chengdu Hunters—that are still in a decent position to make the postseason.

Remember: all you have to do is finish in the top 12 to have a chance at the playoffs. The 7th through 12th seeds will battle it out for two final slots, and if never-say-die teams like Chengdu, Atlanta, or Boston, are in the picture, how many teams can say they feel totally comfortable going against them in a play-in tournament?

The Stage 2 Playoffs begin on Thursday, May 9, at 6 p.m. PDT, when the Dragons (7-7) take on the Shock (11-3). 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.