(Note: To experience the full effect of this piece, your author humbly suggests that it be soundtracked with the Roots’ edition of ‘My Shot’ from the Hamilton Mixtape, available on YouTube and Spotify.)
I will acknowledge that, on a surface level, it’s patently ridiculous to call them ‘underdogs’.
After all, Team USA’s 2018 starting roster for the Overwatch World Cup is the stuff of an opposing backline’s worst nightmares. They’ve got both proven performers and insane upcoming talent, with a wealth of high-pressure LAN experience from OWL’s grueling first season. With battle-tested supports, dominant DPS, and a tank line for which ‘godlike’ feels like damning with faint praise, calling them underdogs should be laughable.
But at the end of the day, this is esports. And in almost any esports competition broken down by national borders, anyone who isn’t South Korea is, by definition, an underdog. Historically, the OWWC has been a scrappy battle for one half of the bracket to find out who’ll come in second, while the other half dutifully line up to be steamrolled on Korea’s march to the top, like junker cars at a monster truck show.
This year might be different.
Yes, yes, I know. “This year” is always different. But no team competes in a vacuum. There are dozens of other factors, both related and unrelated to raw skill and talent, that influence performance. And this year, the two biggest ones swing heavily in Team USA’s favor: externally, the state of the competition, and internally, a cohesion of mindset and determination to win.
Patiently Waiting for This Moment
Let’s start with the former. While Team UK has nothing to be ashamed of, there’s little to suggest they’ll be a major stumbling block in Team USA’s path, which means their first real challenge will be likely be against South Korea in the semifinals. It’s also likely to be their last real challenge. Of their possible grand final opponents, only Finland and Canada are near their level, and it’s hard to imagine them losing to either while still riding the high of defeating the reigning champions.
It’s been said by more skilled analysts than me that South Korea has never looked more beatable. Their starting lineup, announced on July 6th, drew heavily from the New York Excelsior roster. Two weeks later, the Excelsior were unceremoniously ejected from the OWL playoffs by the Philadelphia Fusion – who would then go on to lose the Grand Finals to the London Spitfire, comprised entirely of South Korean players who weren’t selected for the World Cup team.
Seemingly cognizant of this, and in the wake of their narrow 3-2 victory over Finland in Incheon, Team South Korea quietly swapped the Spitfire’s Fury and Seoul Dynasty’s Fleta into the BlizzCon lineup in place of NYXL’s MekO and Saebyeolbe, respectively (as well as swapping ArK for New York’s other healer, Anamo). But with three members of the starting seven and the same head coach, the team still feels a lot like Excelsior Lite.
Most notable about this is not just the fact that they lost, but the way that they lost. NYXL had been accused of ‘sandbagging,’ dialing it in, for most of the latter part of the season once they locked in their playoff spot. It was assumed that, even after losing some ground, they’d be able to rally in the end when it mattered most, as they usually did. But this time, it didn’t happen that way – and if the same thing happens against Team USA, it may very well be their downfall.
Rise Up Again, That’s The Way I Was Molded
Which leads us to the most important part of the equation, the single factor that may make this year the year: the mindset. At first glance, the common thread of Team USA’s starters is that they come from OWL teams that notably didn’t blow anyone out of the water this season. The Gladiators and Valiant both fell to eventual champs London in the playoffs, with the Valiant only taking a single map, while Houston and San Francisco didn’t make the postseason at all.
Team USA’s players all have the individual skills to compete on the world stage. But unlike South Korea, whose members dominated the OWL season, they either haven’t managed to turn their raw talent into team victories, or in ZachaREEE’s case, haven’t gotten to play at the highest competitive level yet at all. This gives them one specific, vital trait in common: every single one of them has something to prove.
Muma: Unquestioned, But Unproven. Muma’s Overwatch career has been a steady upward trajectory. Almost every result listed on his Liquipedia page is third place or higher… with the glaring exception of the Houston Outlaws’ 7th-place finish in the first OWL season. However, many fans would argue that his play is one of the main reasons that number isn’t even lower. You’d be hard pressed to find an analyst who won’t call him the best main tank in the world outside Korea. Hell, even Ryujehong called him the most impressive non-Korean player in OWL, period. Are you gonna argue with Ryujehong? Cause I’m not.
The man’s performance is unimpeachable, and his skill undebatable. The only feather he doesn’t have in his cap is a major T1-level victory. What better punctuation mark on the ascension of a legend than dethroning the kings?
SPACE: The New Kid on the Block. Like some of the other members of Team USA, Space wasn’t old enough to play in the OWL by the time it began. Unlike most of them, he had little high-level experience, playing mostly on small teams with mediocre results. This didn’t stop the LA Valiant from picking him up for their inaugural roster. The Valiant would go on to have a tumultuous season, but they went from a 9-11 record in the first half of the season to 16-4 in the second.
While Space hitting the stage wasn’t the only change that happened between those two numbers, it’s hard to deny the impact he had. His flexibility in play made him hard to stop in-game: from dive to peel, any comp, any strat, any off-tank hero, he always seemed to have it locked down. Analysts and casters have called him one of the best North American players and a standout for Team USA — high praise on a roster this stacked. After the Valiant’s graceless exit from the OWL playoffs, this is his chance to secure his name among the best of the best.
Hydration: Waiting In The Wings. Gladiators teammate Surefour once compared Hydration to Widowmaker: “emotionless; a cold, silent killer.” That intensity serves him well in his role as a Swiss army knife of niche heroes. He first made a name for himself in Los Angeles as a skilled Pharah with a penchant for absurd environmental kills. Now, in the age of Doomfist, he’s known as the master of the second-most-frustrating DPS in the game.
On a team that made the playoffs but lost in the first round, with personalities as big as Surefour and Fissure, it was easy for a quiet, efficient DPS to fall out of the spotlight. Few people will deny he’s an excellent player, but his name doesn’t come up in discussion of the greats. The World Cup is the perfect opportunity to change that.
Sinatraa: The $150,000 Man. Most of the rumors indicate that Sinatraa’s contract isn’t actually the highest in the League. But it’s the highest that’s been publicly confirmed, and it’s become a meme that he’s leaned into with gusto. The implication is clear: you get what you pay for, and San Francisco is paying for the best.
He’s one of the two returning members of Team USA 2017, the squad best known for drawing first blood against South Korea last year. Once he became eligible for OWL play in March, he quickly became a centerpiece of the San Francisco Shock. But for all his youth, skill, and unrelenting swagger, the team ended the season in 9th place, one of only four with a losing record. Now he’s back on the same stage that put him on the map, looking to prove what he can do with a clean slate and an insane roster backing him up.
ZachaREEE: The Ascendant Prodigy. The story of Contenders North America in 2018, with little question, has been the story of Fusion University. Philly has already called up their healer Elk (who made the extended Team USA roster) to the big leagues. But with the likes of Carpe, Eqo and Snillo aboard, it seems unlikely they’ll do the same for FU’s firecracker DPS.
That means he’s on the market, and what a market it’s likely to be. With eight shiny new expansion teams in need of players, every Contenders player is trying to maximize their chances of signing an offer. Two dominant seasons and two championships are enough to make ZachaREEE an attractive prospect already. But to be the only non-OWL player on a roster that makes history? That could start a bidding war that would make Sinatraa’s meme-spawning paycheck look like chump change.
Moth: The Dark Horse Rising. It’s kind of tough to find much information on Moth. Turns out that’s mostly because, in 2017, he was still balancing semi-pro Overwatch play with a summer internship. He went from collegiate play to semi-pro to Toronto Esports’ Contenders roster in under a year. Then, before he could even play his first Contenders match, he was scooped up by the Shock during the OWL’s midseason signing window.
What launches a player into the big leagues that quickly? Equal parts insight and drive, according to Aidan “Cable” O’Keefe. “He’s such an analytical and thoughtful player,” said Cable, Moth’s teammate in college and manager on his first semi-pro team. “I think what makes him a great player is his completely unflappable attitude, his detail-oriented mindset, and his drive to practice even beyond team hours. … It was insane how driven he was to get better.”
He’s been active in the Overwatch League for about as long as Space and Sinatraa, but overall, he’s had far less time to prove himself at the highest level. On a team full of big personalities, Moth has a chance to make his first impression on the world an unforgettable one.
Rawkus: The Phoenix Reignited. The other Team USA veteran, with an impressive record before joining OWL, Rawkus is the only starter on the roster who didn’t have a breakout 2018. The Outlaws reached dizzying heights in Stage 1, including an 18-map win streak. But that was before the long-awaited Mercy nerf hit the League client… and Houston’s support line. During that same break week, he also suffered the sudden loss of his father, and while he hasn’t spoken extensively about it, that’s not something that most people could shake off lightly. It’s hard to imagine anyone being back at their best a week later, especially under the grueling demands of OWL play.
Whatever the causes ultimately were, the team’s performance suffered, and the peanut gallery laid the blame squarely at the backline’s feet. Doubters were spitballing possible replacements for Rawkus and teammate Bani before the season even ended. Few people were surprised he made the initial roster of 12 for the USA this year, but his starting position garnered criticism — enough so that head coach Aero extensively defended the choice on social media.
But so far, the evidence is in Aero’s corner. Rawkus has played out of his mind for Team USA so far, flourishing in a support meta far more flexible than that of the first OWL season. It’s been a rough year, but he’s finally back on his game, back on his main, and ready to rise from the ashes.
The Last Ones Standing As The Rest Of ’Em Folding
American Overwatch talent is at an astronomical peak right now. The committee truly had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when assembling this team, and it shows. They probably could have created a dozen different rosters with the high-level game skills needed to make a legendary showing at BlizzCon.
But this might be the only iteration of that roster that has more than just skill. These are seven of the most passionate and driven players in esports. Every one of them has a point to make, a legacy to claim, or a reputation to defend. There are no realistically tempered expectations here. They can win, they know they can win, and they believe they will win. These guys aren’t underdogs — they’re sharks, and there is blood in the water.
The stars are aligned. The timing is perfect. The tide is rising, and the enemy falters. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And with the perfect storm of skill, focus, and sheer tenacity, you can count on Team USA to take the shot.