Early last August, the second Overwatch World Cup came to Santa Monica, California. In a packed Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport, Team USA surprised its fan base with an exceptional performance. This was before most major Overwatch League announcements, when players and organizations were still grappling with the future landscape of the league and its effect on the Overwatch esports ecosystem.
A year later, last weekend's World Cup Los Angeles qualifier marked a similarly transient point in competitive Overwatch history. Recent announcements of eight new Overwatch League teams and the opening of an exclusive free-agent signing window loomed over the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California, making this stage more of a scouting report for future Overwatch League stars.
Yet much like in the Incheon qualifier in Incheon, South Korea, in which Team South Korea and Team Finland triumphed over their peers as expected, Team USA and Team Canada were the pre-stage favorites, and they emerged well ahead of Brazil, Norway, Switzerland and Austria. In both Incheon and Santa Monica, the teams with the largest percentage of Overwatch League players won. The qualifier stage also featured the Season 2 North American Contenders finals match between Fusion University and XL2. Both teams had players on World Cup teams.
At Incheon, a handful of star amateur or Contenders talents impressed alongside current Overwatch League players and Overwatch League substitutes such as former Florida Mayhem flex player Joonas "zappis" Alakurtti or former Philadelphia Fusion DPS player George "ShaDowBurn" Gushcha. Los Angeles seemed to have many more individuals to scout and evaluate. The physical closeness of NA Contenders, including the finals match during the World Cup event, offered a more well-known landscape for analysts and coaches, who generally agree that after Korean Contenders, NA Contenders is the second-best tournament to scout.
"If somebody wins Contenders Korea, they are unquestionably a star team, but even the star players on a team in a weaker region often don't get the respect that they might deserve," Dallas Fuel and Team Canada coach Justin "Jayne" Conroy said. "The World Cup stage puts a lot of these players against people who are known factors, and they have known strength within a certain numbers of degrees."
Team Canada and XL2 Academy DPS player Liam "Mangachu" Campbell is already on a figurative short list due to a previous World Cup appearance and his more recent time with XL2 Academy. Also already on the scouting radar from NA Contenders are Mangachu's Team Canada teammate and Contenders opponent, Envy support player William "Crimzo" Hernandez, and Team USA/Fusion University DPS Zachary "ZachaREEE" Lombardo.
"I'm going to have my own bias because Crimzo plays for Team Canada, and I worked with him when he was on Envy, which is Dallas Fuel's academy team, but he is unquestionably Overwatch League," Jayne said. "I think he's easily top half of flex support players if he was in the Overwatch League. So he's going to be a big pickup for some team, whether it's Dallas Fuel or not."
Mangachu described both NA Contenders and the World Cup as different ways to showcase one's talents for prospective Overwatch League teams.
"One of the main reasons why we had rotations through every map [in Contenders] was to showcase our talent on XL2," Mangachu said. "If you don't know many players and you want to scout for Overwatch talent, that's mainly the place to go. I think World Cup is a great way to showcase how people handle themselves in the Overwatch League environment. When you come here, you're playing on LAN, you're away from home staying in hotels, lots of traveling, there's the stress of the crowd, the nerves can kick in."
Mangachu echoed his Team Canada coach by saying that the opportunity to play against Overwatch League players is invaluable and a validation of your own skills.
"At the moment, the Overwatch League is the highest tier of skill you can get," Team Norway DPS player Usman "TracK" Mohammad said. "So for us Contenders players, getting the chance to play against Overwatch League players and see how we perform against them onstage in front of a crowd, it kind of shows and proves to yourself and other people that, 'Yeah, I can actually compete with these guys.' If you play in Contenders, you don't really know until you play these guys."
European Contenders is in a much different state than its NA counterpart and lacks both the attention and infrastructure of the former. Stefan "ONIGOD" Fiskerstrand played in OGN's APEX tournament in South Korea before Overwatch League began, NA Contenders and recently joined EU Contenders team Angry Titans. He's a known talent in a way, but because he has yet to be on an Overwatch League roster, he has floated on and off the community's radar. He agreed that the World Cup is the largest scouting stage for European players right now but said it shouldn't be that way in practice.
"I think when you play in Contenders with a team you play, you practice a lot, you show that you can play on a team and work together," ONIGOD said. "I guess there's more spotlight at World Cup, but I think there should be more attention to Contenders."
The natural ascendancy of Overwatch League as the esports' premier stage affected every Tier 2 or Contenders stage differently. The discrepancy in play is what makes it so difficult to evaluate Contenders players without seeing them in an environment such as the World Cup.
"It's often hard to judge relative power between players in different regions," Jayne said. "For example, when you have a team that dominates South American Contenders like Brasil Gaming House or Australian Contenders like the Sydney Drop Bears, those players are good, and they look fantastic, but you always have to question the level of skill of their opponents as well."
Brasil Gaming House made up the majority of the Brazilian roster in both 2017 and 2018 World Cup qualifiers. While the team remains definitively at the top of its region, a lot has changed in Brazil for the better with the South American Contenders seasons.
"Last year we had two tournaments in all of 2017, none of them sponsored by Blizzard," Brasil Gaming House and Team Brazil DPS player Eduardo "dudu" Macedo said. "This year we had two Contenders tournaments and a third later this year. So we got a lot of investments from Blizzard at least."
He reiterated that the Overwatch scene still needs a LAN environment and more investment from endemic Brazilian esports organizations, but the landscape has dramatically improved from the previous year. His teammates Renan "alemao" Moretto (support), Maurício "honorato" Honorato (flex) and Felipe "liko" Lebrao (DPS) were all frequently brought up by their World Cup peers and other coaches as potential Overwatch League Season 2 candidates.
"I believe that we are under the level of Overwatch League players since they have a huge infrastructure to support them on a daily basis," alemao said. "But I do believe in the skill level of Tier 1 and 2, and with better infrastructure we could be just as good. We have a lot of mechanical skills, but the tactical and other things are not that good."
Other players recognized by their peers in Los Angeles included Team Switzerland DPS player Luca "Luxx" Locher and Team Norway main tank Jørgen "Decod" Myrlund.
Different players had a variety of impressions of their non-Overwatch League peers, especially besides the short-listed few from NA Contenders. Combined with the flurry of expansion team announcements, last weekend's Los Angeles World Cup qualifier was one of the largest scouting stages to date, despite the predictable outcome.