How role lock caused huge upsets in the Overwatch League

Damage dealers are freed and three high-ranked teams have felt the consequences.

Photo by Tonya McCahon via Blizzard Entertainment

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Overwatch League’s stage four has been wild. Three major upsets occurred this week and numerous smaller wins have evened out teams like never before. Role lock, which requires that each team field two damage dealers, two supports, and two tanks in each Overwatch League match, has been in play for two weeks. 

Most new metas cause a few weeks of chaos before players adjust. Unfortunately for teams at the top of the standings, they haven’t come out ahead after role lock’s massive changes. In stage four, low-tier teams almost universally defeated their higher counterparts. What’s caused this chaos and will it matter, considering this is the last stage before playoffs? 

Damage dealers are freed 

Aug. 4 was a day of incomprehensible upsets in the Overwatch League. The Washington Justice, ranked 19th in the standings, handed the Vancouver Titans their second loss of the entire regular season. In the very next game, the Chengdu Hunters beat the New York Excelsior. Chengdu gave New York their first 4-0 loss in league history. All across social media, fans were wondering “what just happened?” 

Role lock opens up the opportunity for damage dealers to carry a game, demolishing entire enemy teams with expert shots or well-planned ultimates. In two separate games this weekend, Atlanta Reign’s Jeong “ErsTer” Joon nearly eliminated all six players on the opposing team with a single ultimate. This is the best example of carry potential, or the likelihood that a damage player can change the tide of a game by themselves. 

No player has embodied this carry potential like Corey Nigra of the Washington Justice. Before stage four, the Washington Justice had two wins in the entire Overwatch League season. The team struggled in the triple tank, triple support meta, suffering from a lack of coordination. Corey was relegated to lackluster Zarya play or, in stage three, the occasional Sombra swap.

Role lock has “freed” Corey and other damage dealers of his caliber. Liberated from the slow and patient play of Zarya or Brigitte, DPS players can now show their true talents. Against the Vancouver Titans, the top-ranked team in the league, Corey broke the Overwatch League record for critical hit accuracy on Hanzo at 16 percent. That’s a major record broken by a single player facing arguably the best team in the Overwatch League. What else will damage dealers be able to do with this freedom? 

Beware: damage isn’t everything 

Some teams are taking the idea of carry potential too far, on the other hand. Last season, numerous players could be depended on to carry a game with their plays on sniper characters like Widowmaker or quick, sneaky heroes like Tracer and Sombra. Many of the teams that lost this week have put too much pressure and resources into enabling players that may still be reeling from a meta shift. 

On Aug. 3, the Florida Mayhem beat the London Spitfire with a 3-0 scoreline. This was the first of many wild upsets, considering the Mayhem are ranked dead last in the league. The Spitfire struggled with the triple-triple meta this season but still climbed to sixth place on their mechanical prowess and understanding of the game. Last year, London won the season championship partially on the backs of damage dealers Park “Profit” Joon-yeong and Kim “birdring” Ji-hyuk. 

This expectation of domination in the role lock meta came back to bite London. Mayhem’s Lee “BQB” Sang-bum’s Mei play was miles above that of Profit’s and Ha “Sayaplayer” Jeong-woo routinely won sniper fights against Birdring. London put so much emphasis on their damage dealers that, when they failed, there was nothing left to fall back on.

There’s also the angle of having nothing to lose. The Florida Mayhem are out of playoff contention while the Spitfire need every map win they can get. Florida are more willing to make confident, aggressive plays because little is on the line. 

A similar narrative occurred in the match between the Chengdu Hunters and the New York Excelsior. The Hunters are inconsistent but fun to watch, always playing their own game regardless of the meta. Yi “Jinmu” Hu dominated the NYXL on his signature Pharah. The team routinely worked together to dive and eliminate the damage dealers on New York’s side, namely expert sniper Jeong “Nenne” Yeon-kwan. Without that damage carry, something broke in the Excelsior’s plan over and over again, and they received their first 4-0 loss of the entire league.  

Does the shift matter? 

Teams that struggled profusely during the first three stages of the league are surging in the rankings, but the question remains if it makes a difference whatsoever. As of week two, only the Florida Mayhem and Washington Justice are mathematically out of playoff contention. Both have surged in the rankings in stage four. Multiple other teams on the cusp of playoff rankings, like the Atlanta Reign and Chengdu Hunters, are making strides thanks to their damage dealers. 

Overwatch League statistic producer Ben “CaptainPlanet” Trautman posted a visual representation of the power balance for teams based on how they’ve performed over a number of maps. The best teams have sunk to the middle and lower teams have universally risen over the past few weeks. For some teams on the playoff cusp, it matters. Take the Atlanta Reign: Continued dominance in stage four will nearly guarantee them a playoff spot. 

For many high-ranked teams, though, it’s just a loss of dignity. The New York Excelsior could lose every single game in stage four and still be guaranteed a top six playoff spot. Similarly, the Washington Justice could win all seven games of the stage and still not reap any of their success with a playoff run. Dignity is important, though, and teams will continue to fight for anything they can get out of the final stage. 

Week three of stage four begins on Aug. 8 when the London Spitfire take on the Vancouver Titans at 6pm CT.