When the Overwatch League began in 2018, professional Overwatch was never the same again.
However, even though it was the biggest thing to ever happen to the professional scene, the Overwatch League didn’t lay the foundation that it was built on. For many people, pro Overwatch truly began in 2016, in a South Korean tournament operated by legendary esports broadcaster OGN. This tournament was called APEX.
“It was the start of the biggest Overwatch competition,” Korean caster Hwang “YongBongTang” Kyu-hyung said. “From the moment it began to when it folded, every moment of casting APEX, every minute of meeting the players in person and communicating with fans, all of it was such a meaningful memory.”
Currently, YongBongTang is a popular and experienced caster. But, back in 2016, he still considered himself to be “a total newbie.” He had mainly been casting Heroes of the Storm before he moved to Overwatch. APEX was one of his first big tournaments.
Time is a funny thing. APEX ran for four seasons, all jam-packed into one calendar year. Those seasons seemed too fast and fleeting even then. They hurtled forward at a breakneck pace and barely gave fans a second to catch their breath. And yet, along with the breathlessness came exhilaration; the thrilling knowledge that a whole new esports scene was taking shape right before our eyes. At times, it felt as though it would never end.
“It was the best,” YongBongTang said.
When asked about the tournament and where he got his start, Kim “Birdring” Ji-hyeok said, “I don’t remember much.”
Birdring, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Gladiators, was just 17 when he began playing professionally on KongDoo Uncia. His time in APEX made him a star damage player coming into the Overwatch League. He was best known for hitscan heroes like Tracer and Widowmaker.
“Everyone was really inexperienced then,” said Birdring. “It was the beginning stages of Overwatch. It was more enjoyable for me, personally, because there was a lot more to learn. Being in the Overwatch League now feels… heavier.”
Birdring was one of many Overwatch pros who began playing in APEX at a young age, back when the game was relatively new and people were still figuring it out. Now, there are plenty of players, just like him, in the league who made their names in APEX before they ever signed with an Overwatch League team. There’s Tracer extraordinaire Park “Profit” Jun-young, two-time champion Choi “Choihyobin” Hyo-bin — hell, everyone on the Philadelphia Fusion’s starting roster at the beginning of the 2021 season passed through APEX at some point. It’s incredible to see just how many current league players have their roots in this tournament that ended four years ago.
“So many players from APEX transitioned into being top OWL players,” former APEX caster Wolf “Wolf” Schröder said. “It just feels like it’s impossible to avoid talking about APEX when you’re talking about the history of the game. You can’t delete where pro Overwatch got its real competitive start.”
Foreign players and teams were invited to compete in APEX in its earlier stages as well. They weren’t as embedded in the fabric of the tournament but they still got a taste of the prestige. Team Envy, then known as EnVyUs, even won the first season. They became one of the few foreign teams to win a Korean title.
“At the start of Season 1, I don’t think I realized the gravitas of what APEX would become,” said Jonathan “Reinforce” Larsson, who formerly played for teams like Rogue and Misfits and is now broadcast talent for the Overwatch League. “I don’t think anyone did. It wasn’t until Season 2 that it became the premier esports competition we know and love. It really felt like a privilege to get to compete with the best in the world.”
Most of the Korean teams improved massively after Season 1 and soon the top ones were outpacing the foreign teams that came to challenge them. APEX improved with every season, both in competition and production quality. It was the biggest stage in Overwatch at the time. It was, according to Reinforce, “the place to be.”
YongBongTang looks back on APEX fondly for the “strong narratives” that it introduced; some of which still talked about today. When APEX shuttered after four seasons, to make way for the Overwatch League at the end of 2017, all those narratives were cut short. Some ended before they even began.
Element Mystic was a much-hyped new team whose roster included fifteen-year-old Genji prodigy Kim “SP9RK1E” Yeong-han. They had just recently qualified to APEX when the news broke that the tournament was ending.
“The goal of Element Mystic was always to make it to APEX but then it got cancelled,” SP9RK1E said, reflecting on it three years later. “There was a lot of disappointment.”
A lot of current Overwatch fans know of APEX, even if they’ve never watched a game. Just listen to any match casted by Wolf and you’ll probably catch at least one tidbit that stems back to 2017 in some way. The impact that APEX has had on the pro Overwatch scene is far-reaching and indisputable.
Even the Overwatch League itself has begun to pay tribute to the tournament that made Overwatch what it is. A hype video the league produced for a match between the Philadelphia Fusion and New York Excelsior has all the hallmarks of an OGN video: the teams facing one another, individual player spotlights and light-hearted trash talk.
“I thought it was a great new approach,” said YongBongTang. “This is how storylines get started.”
APEX set a new standard with its production. The production staff had an astounding ability to make each of the players seem larger than life while also showcasing their individual personalities.
“I don’t think any Overwatch production will ever match what APEX did,” Wolf said. “People will always remember it.”
The Overwatch League was first announced in 2016, and more details about it began to come into focus through 2017 while APEX was still going strong. Even though it seemed like APEX was the only thing, the league was always there, looming in the distance. Birdring says that many players were very aware of the Overwatch League while they were still competing in APEX, which affected the way they saw the tournament that they were currently competing in.
“Overwatch League teams were contacting me and my teammates, and everyone was talking about how they wanted to play overseas, and which team they would play for,” Birdring said. “We tried our best in APEX, of course, but it was harder for us to focus on it because of that.”
For the fans, the end of APEX came as a huge loss, though most would agree that it was inevitable. The tournament’s production staff were experiencing a similar sense of dismay.
Daniel “Gclef” Na acted as APEX’s main translator throughout its run. He helped foreign teams acclimate to the tournament and did English translations for the tournament’s Korean-language content. According to him, it became clear to the production crew in Season 4 that the start of the Overwatch League would mean the end of APEX.
“The production side and all the staff that I worked with — they were unhappy about it,” said Gclef. “But at the same time, they wanted to make it better because it was going to be the last season of APEX. It was probably different for the players because they had to think about their futures. But from the production side, they knew the end of the road was coming. So they gave everything they had until the very end.”
It’s easy to look at APEX through rose-colored glasses. The year it was around went by so quickly and, when 2018 began, everything was different. It’s natural to be nostalgic; we lost something that we loved, after all.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, things were a little more complicated. One of the biggest draws of APEX was just how much every single match mattered. A single loss could mean a failure to qualify for playoffs. However, these constant high stakes were also unsustainable. Plenty of teams were operating with scarce resources and an early exit from the tournament could very well be a step closer to disbandment.
“Before Overwatch League was announced, I didn’t think that I would be playing professionally for a long time,” Birdring admitted. “My monthly pay was around $500. And a lot of players on other teams didn’t even get paid at all.”
Overwatch League content editor Emerald Gao spoke to some APEX veterans at the Contenders Gauntlet in 2019. Several talked about how the lack of financial stability brought them and their teammates closer together in their shared determination to win, but it also created a perpetual sense of doom.
“You had to be in the top teams to get any attention,” said Gclef. “There are teams that we don’t even remember the names of now, who also struggled hard, and also gave everything on every single map.”
When RunAway played against KongDoo Uncia in APEX Season 3, their playoff hopes were on the line. RunAway barely eked out a 3-2 win and fans breathed a sigh of relief that the team might still stand a chance of playoff qualification. RunAway was a team perpetually close to disbandment, and they needed every win they could get.
Then the open mic for the match came out. During the third map, KongDoo Uncia’s Lee “Panker” Byung-ho apologized to his team, “I’m so sorry, my hands are shaking so much.”
And the camera showed that his hands really were shaking. It was never more clear that everything mattered, to all players, in this tournament. Even if a team won, there was still a team of six people on the other side who had fought just as hard, and lost.
Maybe it was good that APEX ended where it did. It wasn’t perfect; it never was. But we’re able to appreciate what it left us with, rather than having our memories soured by later struggles born of an unsustainable scene. And we’re lucky that we still get to watch so many of the players that APEX made famous, many of them still reaching for the stars.
In the end, it’s impossible to pin down exactly what made APEX magical. The tournament series meant something different to everyone.
“It was everything,” said Gclef. “It was everything. Everyone had passion. Everyone loved what they were doing. You can’t describe it in words.”
“I was never satisfied with my casting during that time,” said Wolf. “Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it all over again. I just wanted it to be as perfect as the tournament was.”
“Looking back now, all the matches in APEX feel meaningful,” said YongBongTang. “Lunatic-Hai’s indomitable popularity and skill. Their performances and their stories. The teams that challenged Lunatic-Hai to pull them off their throne. I feel so electric just thinking of those matches, even now.”
It’s utterly remarkable that so many people still have such stark memories of a tournament that, by all logic, should have faded into history by now. How many of us remember the inaugural season of the Overwatch League with such aching fondness? How many of us can honestly say that we’ll remember 2021 in such blinding clarity four years from now?
Perhaps that was just APEX’s effect. The mark it left on this scene will likely never fade. Even if the exact details of what happened back then elude us, we’ll never forget the way it made us feel.