Who are the three teams you expect to get out of the play-ins?
Michael Czarnowski: From the west, it makes the most sense to see the San Francisco Shock make it for the first spot. They have the choice of whichever two teams win in the quarterfinals, and they have a good track record against each of them. Especially with star player Lee “ANS” Seon-chang returning and popping off, they are a team to fear.
However, the other side of the play-ins doesn’t look so cut and dry to me. I think that the Houston Outlaws should be the other team making it in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a team like the Toronto Defiant or Washington Justice gets a meta that suits them. I’m still choosing Houston.
Lastly, in the Eastern Division, it’s hard to bet against the Seoul Dynasty. They’ve been a good team all season long, and both the Philadelphia Fusion and Hangzhou Spark have had as many lows as they’ve had good peaks. Seoul’s consistency within their division gives me confidence that they’ll make it to the postseason yet again.
Aron Garst: My money is on Charlie “nero” Zwarg and the San Francisco Shock. I think they can handle a warmed-up assault from either Paris or Washington and that’s all they need to do in order to make it to the playoffs. They’ve been up and down all year (mostly down), so I see them putting it all on the line in order to extend their season just a little bit.
They might be able to beat someone once they’re out of the play-ins, but I don’t think they’ll get much further than that. I’m just praying that Taiyo “ta1yo” Henderson makes an in-game appearance before the end of the year.
Houston is my other choice from the Western Division, but not because of their play-in seeding. Houston put together this “dream team” before the season and hasn’t accomplished anything with them. The least Jacob “Jake” Lyon could do is give the squad an amazing speech before the game to help pump them up.
The Eastern Division? Philadelphia. The region is a roulette wheel filled with outcomes and I think Seoul’s time is up. Philly handled the Spark the last time they played but lost to Seoul twice. Third time’s the charm, right?
Jason Krell: Is there really a world where the San Francisco Shock and the Houston Outlaws don’t make it out from the West Division? Both the Paris Eternal and the Toronto Defiant could give these teams some trouble on their best days, but after all this time to practice and with so much on the line, I can’t imagine a scenario where either slip. Also, notice how I didn’t include the Boston Uprising and Washington Justice above.
Sometimes it feels like people have forgotten that both the San Francisco Shock and the Houston Outlaws had wonderful regular-season records simply because they never qualified for Hawaii. The Shock are still stacked at every position, even if the team hasn’t come together as a whole yet this season. They can almost get through on the individual performances of their damage players alone, at least compared to their competition. Plus, many of these players have been in the highest pressure situation there is in the Overwatch League, so I don’t expect nerves to be a factor. The Outlaws are more vulnerable, but the team that went 4-0 during the opening tournament qualifiers of the season is still in there somewhere. They have to bring that potential out now or go home embarrassed again.
The East Division is less clear-cut because the Seoul Dynasty did not look inspiring during the Countdown Cup. The Philadelphia Fusion are nipping at their heels and the Hangzhou Spark are certainly not stopping them. Plus, don’t forget, the Fusion aren’t so shabby when playoffs are on the line. At the same time, I can’t shake this feeling that Park “Profit” Joon-yeong won’t let this shot pass them by. There’s a lot of talent on this team and I think they’ll find a way to put it to use when it really counts.
Bonnie Qu: The West Division is really hard to predict for me. All the teams currently in play-in contention are capable of extreme highs and extreme lows. Frankly, it’ll probably come down to who’s feeling themselves that day and who’s hit a wall. My first choice – just like everyone else’s – would probably be our defending champions, the Shock. If not for the LA Gladiators’ triumphant Countdown Cup run, the Shock would be sitting pretty in playoffs already. As it is, though, they now have to fight their way there like the rest of them – and they have what it takes to make it through.
As for the second spot from the west, I’m split between the Justice and the Outlaws. The Outlaws are much more proven but have a habit of stumbling during the most crucial moments. They finished with the same match record as the three current playoff teams, but never made it to Hawaii and therefore never attained those all-important league points. Conversely, the Justice have had an extremely rocky regular season, but when they’re good, they’re good. If I have to choose, I’ll say the Outlaws, but I also think it’ll depend on which Outlaws and which Justice we see during the play-ins.
The East Division teams still in play-in contention have all been good at varying times this season, and it makes me kind of wish that there was more than one spot up for grabs. As it stands, though, I think the Dynasty will make it through. They have a habit of turning it on during playoffs – or, should I say, Profit does.
Which team could be a surprise winner in the play-ins?
Czarnowski: Honestly, I would guess the Toronto Defiant. They performed above expectations in the Countdown Cup, almost securing a spot in Hawaii, and seem to be peaking when it matters most: at the end of the season. Plus, with the Washington Justice picking the Paris Eternal, Toronto has to beat the Boston Uprising and either the Shock or Houston to get in.
On top of all that, I’m pretty confident that the Shock will pick the winner from Justice/Eternal, and Houston looks shakier than expected coming into the end of the season. The Defiant’s path to Hawaii seems winnable.
Garst: I don’t see a way the Boston Uprising take this tournament, but it would be a pleasant surprise if it did happen. They’ve beaten Toronto and Houston recently and if the meta is as open as it will be in the play-ins then they could pull off wins against both squads.
They won’t go far if they make it out, though. Maybe the promise of the Hawaiian sun will help propel them to make a historic run.
Krell: The Paris Eternal have been a surprise thorn in the side of many top-tier teams in the West Division at points during the season and they seem to pop off when least expected. It would be incredibly unlikely for them to beat either of the Shock or the Outlaws, but Paris have only played each team one time.
Who is to say Stefan “Onigod” Fiskerstrand doesn’t go off? Who is to say something fun can’t happen? It’s not as if either of their scariest opponents have been perfect, so those chickens could still come home to roost. And if they do, you can bet these roosters will strut their way to the playoffs.
Qu: I’ve already said that I think the Justice could clinch the second spot of west play-ins if they’re at their best (yes, I still have a shred of optimism about the Justice, sorry about it). But since everyone else talked about the West Division teams, I’ll shake it up a bit.
We could very well see the Fusion coming out of the East. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise, to be frank, because this team is filled with veteran players. They just don’t have… It. I can’t really articulate it. All the players on the Fusion are good, but this year it seems they’re missing a crucial star quality, a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s especially puzzling because the star-making individual plays from the likes of Lee “Carpe” Jae-hyeok and Kim “Alarm” Kyeong-bo are what used to define them. I hope they find it again in time. If they do, they stand a real chance in the postseason.
Who would do the best if they progressed out the play-ins?
Czarnowski: The Shock, for sure. Their entire season they’ve struggled in getting to Hawaii despite still being one of the best teams in the Western Division. They’re looking for a three-peat, and also look like they’ll peak at the end of the season. I feel that if they get this playoff spot here, their confidence will increase just because that third championship is closer than it’s ever been this season. Plus, finally getting to Hawaii has to be a boost after all their attempts in the regular season.
Garst: Grant “Moth” Espe told me that the Shock would always be a strong team as long as they had coach Park “Crusty” Dae-hee. The only problem with that is that Dallas, Shanghai, Atlanta, Chengdu and even the Gladiators are equally as strong now.
It turns out that losing several mainstays on your roster will knock you down a few pegs, but I still have faith in Crusty and company to have an impact during the final stretch of 2021.
Krell: I imagine everyone will say the Shock, but did we forget that the Seoul Dynasty finished second at the 2020 grand final with a very similar roster to the one they’re running today? Yes, the golden state squad has even more history with high stakes (and the Dynasty have a bigger history of falling short), but I’m betting on black and gold this time.
I don’t think any play-ins team is competing at the same level as those already qualified for the playoffs, but I think Seoul are the most likely to make something happen.
Qu: I’m gonna have to say the Shock as well. Sorry, Jason – normally I’d agree with you that Profit and the Dynasty are capable of pulling miracles out of thin air, but the competition at the top is just so stiff right now. The Dynasty really seem to have run out of tricks; even if they make it out, I don’t foresee them going very far.
The Shock, on the other hand, most recently played the Gladiators extremely close in Countdown Cup qualifiers. Plus, they’re the Shock. It’s important to remember that they finished with the best regular-season record in the league, tied with the Shanghai Dragons. They’re still an exceptionally strong team and can hardly be written off just because they’re in play-ins.
Which teams do you see having the biggest issues in the tournament?
Czarnowski: Recency bias is a problem in answering this question, especially since these play-ins and playoffs won’t have any hero bans. But, the team that’s clearly been the most volatile is the Hangzhou Spark. Their stages have been erratic in terms of results, from 1-3 in the May Melee, to 4-0 in the June Joust, 2-2 in the Summer Showdown and 0-4 in the Countdown Cup.
They’re coming off their worst stage, their worst form and they also lost one of their starting supports players in Lee “MCD” Jeong-ho. The only way that the Spark can beat the Philadelphia Fusion is if the stars align and Zheng “Shy” Yangjie pops off.
Garst: I agree with Mike about the Spark. In a region as inconsistent as the Eastern Division, I don’t see the Spark beating either Philadelphia or Seoul. If they do make it out of that first round against the Fusion then they will most certainly fall to Seoul.
There are seven other teams in their division and the Spark have lost to five of them in their last five games. Their most recent victories come against the Excelsior and Valiant and they won’t have those charitable opponents in the play-ins.
Krell: It’s too easy to look at the worst teams in the tournament and single them out as having the biggest issues, but I also think it’s more fun to stir the pot. Point being, the bad teams know they’re worse, which means there’s not as much pressure on them to perform. Hangzhou could bust out some insane strats because what else do they have to lose? Washington could show up because it’s their last shot to do so.
So, take a team like the Houston Outlaws. By all rights, they should advance to the playoffs — but are their nerves always the best? If they start off in a slump during their match against whichever of the two remaining teams are strongest (the Shock will take the weaker one), it’s not hard to imagine Houston defeating themselves. It would be heartbreaking for Jake and his posse to mess things up, but they also seem uniquely positioned to do it.
Qu: I’m pretty skeptical about the Boston Uprising. I’m not counting them out completely – they have a bevy of talented players, of course, and it’s not too late for them to live up to their fullest potential. But it’s going to be tough for them. None of their players has seriously contended to be the very best in their role, other than maybe Seo “Myunb0ng” Sang-min, and they just barely eked into play-ins.
And I know it’s mean to pick on a team that’s already an underdog, so I’ll also say again that I think the Outlaws could easily disappoint here. They haven’t proven themselves capable of winning during the high-stakes matches that actually matter in the past, so it’s not unreasonable to think that they’d fumble it again here.