Last year, the Excelsior and eventual OWL champion London Spitfire proved in the first-ever season of OWL that a team of superstars can indeed get you to the top of the heap. The Excelsior, led by all-world talent, went 34-6 to finish first in the regular season standings. After the season, five of their players played for South Korea’s seven-man squad in the Overwatch World Cup and demolished the competition en route to their third straight World Cup title. Those events suggest that talent may indeed trump all. It also explains why Washington was keen to add Janus immediately.
“He’s one of the most innovative players at the most important position in the game," Kate Mitchell, the assistant GM of the Justice and primary decision maker for the team, said of why Janus was the right player to build around. "Main tank defines your style as a team and is the leader in the game and out of the game.”
As Toronto Defiant analyst Dennis Matz told The Post earlier this year, building around a superstar tank player like Janus isn’t unusual at all, but Mitchell intends to challenge the established paradigm that you need an entire team full of superstars to win in the OWL by targeting “young, coachable players” that the staff can shape into a “disciplined and defined unit.”
Mitchell and her staff identified players from multiple regions at every professional level of Overwatch and invited over 150 of them to take part in trials over the course of multiple weeks. They then used stats and the eye test from the trials and the players’ past professional matches to whittle down the field and make their final selections. She noted that the Justice only has one player over the age of 21, and another who won’t be eligible to play until he turns 18 early in 2019.
Joining Janus on the Washington roster will be flex player Kim “SanSam” Hyang-ki, supports Riley “Fahzix” Taylor, Mun “Gido” Gi-do and Cho “Hyeonu” Hyeon-woo, and DPS players Ethan “Stratus” Yankel, Chon “Ado” Gi-hyeon and Corey “Corey” Nigra. Ado and Gido will bring previous OWL experience, playing with the Shanghai Dragons and Seoul Dynasty, respectively. The others will ascend to the OWL from the minor leagues.
In the same way that the Los Angeles Lakers surrounded LeBron James with role players after signing him in free agency, Mitchell is trying to build around her star with solid but lesser-known contributors. Her hope is that strategy, adaptability, communication and teamwork will help Washington overcome any talent deficit. If the Justice has success, it might change the future of roster construction in Overwatch and other esports.
While it might be tough to determine what a successful inaugural campaign would be, Mitchell has some ambitious goals for the upcoming season, saying she’d like to see the squad make two of the four stage playoffs and make the final playoffs, giving them a chance to compete for the OWL title.
Many OWL pundits aren’t bullish on Washington’s chances coming into the season. During the 2019 Overwatch League Preview Show on YouTube, OWL analyst Josh Wilkinson called the Justice the “weakest team in the league” on paper and the other analysts struggled at times to come up with positive things to say about the new team.
Five members of the Justice weren’t in the OWL last year and it’s possible that the commentators haven’t spent much, if any, time watching them in-depth. However, the pundits did acknowledge that last year’s Cinderella story, the Boston Uprising, was in a similar situation going into the OWL’s inaugural season.
Mitchell said the comments made for good bulletin board material.
“Part of their job is to rile people up and create conversation," Mitchell said. "People doubted Philadelphia [Fusion] and Boston last year. This is a chance for us to surprise, and we’re fine with playing the role of underdog.”
The Justice also made news this offseason by making Kyoung Ey Molly “AVALLA” Kim the first female coach in OWL history. Her “deeply analytical coaching style in Overwatch Contenders” was a key factor in bringing her on as an assistant coach, according to the team.
Mitchell has previously stated that she wants to be “at the forefront of the stats revolution of esports.” She wanted to be a baseball GM when she was growing up and is excited about building a data operation akin to what has become popular in more traditional sports. That data operation could be critical if the Justice is to break the mold and prove the doubters wrong.
“Every time we practice and play a match, we analyze every moment of it," Mitchell said. "There’s tremendous insight we can gain from that.”
Overwatch’s second season starts Feb. 14, with Washington’s first match falling Feb. 16 against the Excelsior.
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