Since the beginnings of Overwatch esports, we all saw it coming. While European teams danced on the ruins of the competition, a beast was awakening in the East. Squads from Europe may have historically dominated first-person shooters, but Overwatch was making waves in South Korean PC cafes, even knocking off League of Legends as the most-played game in the country.
It was only a matter of time until Korea caught up.
At Overwatch APEX Season 2, the Korean teams are sick and tired of getting knocked around by their EU counterparts. Whereas last season saw all but one European team advance past the group stages and two of the groups topped by Europe, the Korean teams aren’t going down so easily in Season 2.
After a few weeks of play, all four groups at APEX Season 2 have Korean rosters sitting atop their respective thrones. It’s been a scant few months, and the script has flipped almost entirely.
It’s only hubris if they fail
Until recently, the EU squads could simply overpower the competition through sheer mechanical skill and superior aim. Players like Team EnVyUs’ Timo “Taimou” Kettunen and NRG’s (formerly Fnatic’s) André “iddqd” Dahlström made themselves known through their immense DPS prowess and made their teams look unstoppable on the world stage.
As often happens with teams so far ahead of the competition in the early days of an esport, EnVyUs and their EU brethren have begun to struggle. During the first few weeks of the tournament, they were playing like they couldn’t lose, relying primarily on their skills to force wins.
But pride cometh before a fall, and they’re beginning to feel the effects of their hubris.
Thanks to months of dominance, the top Europeans have rarely been challenged in competitive play (outside of the World Cup). The result is a group of squads that are behind in the strategic fundamentals in comparison to teams that have had to find ways to win that aren’t simply “shoot them faster than they shoot us.”
Many EU teams are locked into a play style, with players immensely proficient on one or two heroes, but lacking on others. Their play lacks strategic depth, and when they are stumped by an opposing composition, they tend to forget their fundamentals, fumbling with everything from ult synergy to death synchronizations. In short, the EU teams have left their weaknesses exposed.
They had the advantage, but they’ve failed to hold it.
Catching up, creatively
The rise of Korean superstars Kongdoo sister teams, Lunatic Hai, and Meta Athena is no accident. While the European teams have been stuck in a rut since the first season of APEX, the four teams at the top of their respective groups demonstrate what a strong work ethic and expert coaching can do for a roster.
While Western teams have traditionally focused on getting really, really good at a single strategy (think Fnatic’s Reaper/Ana comp), Korean teams often find ways around playing precisely to the meta. Rather than defining the “correct” way to play Overwatch, they upend it and use their creativity to bring down teams full of players that may have the mechanical edge.
Kongdo Panthera is the epitome of this mentality. They currently have one of the highest spreads of heroes regularly played at APEX (13 heroes above 10% play time), and routinely pull out new strategies and picks to throw off their opponents. If that’s not enough to convince you of their willingness to break meta, they have one of the lowest Reinhardt play rates at the tournament at 68.6%.
While they benefit from having one of the most gifted DPS players in the world in Kim “Rascal” Dong-jun, their use of a wide variety of different heroes is a massive boon for the team. Rascal himself pulled out the oft-ignored Sombra in Kongdoo Panthera’s match against Flash Lux, proving that they could demolish opponents with even the least popular of heroes.
The future of Korean Overwatch looks to be based in exactly that sort of flexibility. Kongdoo Panthera can let Rascal run wild, while Meta Athena can utilize their sniper specialist Kim “Libero” Hye-sung to great effect. Lunatic Hai has the best Winston in the world in Gong “Miro” Jin Hyuk and knows how and when to unleash him.
These aren’t teams that are relying on a single player on a single hero to carry games. These are teams that know their strengths, know the meta, and know how to exploit it to win matches. They are our first glimpse of what Overwatch can become, and the West is going to have to catch up.
History repeats itself
Will the gap grow? Will South Korea do what they’ve done to every esport they’ve committed to? Will they dominate the scene for years to come?
Obviously, it’s too early to tell. But judging by how quickly teams coming out of Korea have improved and how the best teams from Europe have stagnated, the writing is certainly on the wall. Team EnVyUs may hold the current APEX crown, but they’re not looking like the best team at this iteration of the tournament. They’ve got the Kongdoo monster to deal with.
EnVy’s next test comes when Overwatch APEX Season 2 kicks off again on Friday, February 24 when they face off against their Group A co-leaders Meta Athena. Stay right here on Yahoo Esports to catch full coverage of APEX and all things Overwatch esports.
Stats provided by Winston’s Lab.
Miro is Taylor Cocke’s Winston idol. Follow Taylor on Twitter @taylorcocke.