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Overwatch League Season 2 preview: The biggest story lines to watch

Fans are preparing for the start of the second season of the Overwatch League. (David 'Dee' Delgado for The Washington Post)

The second season of Overwatch League (OWL) begins Feb. 14 and will feature the introduction of eight new franchises. If you heard about the fireworks from the league’s first season, which culminated in a championship for the London Spitfire last June, and want to prep for the 2019 campaign, this is your starting point.

From a focus on a former favorite, key free agent moves and new players entering the league, here are the key story lines to study ahead of the league’s Opening Day.

How will the New York Excelsior (NYXL) do this year do?

The Excelsior dominated the OWL in its first regular season, going 34-6 in their 40 matches with a jaw-dropping +83 in maps won/lost differential.

To put that into perspective, the next-highest team in the league, the Los Angeles Valiant, only had a map differential of +36. They weren’t just winning. They were winning big … until the playoffs.

After a first-round bye, the Excelsior were ousted 2-0 in the best-of-three series by the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Fusion.

It has been a very long offseason for NYXL as the team looks to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and that it has what it takes to capture the OWL championship.

Almost the entire squad returns, including superstars JJonak and Saebyeolbe. Janus, the team’s main tank, and coach WizardHyeong left to become the first two members of the new Washington Justice franchise.

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South Korea’s Overwatch World Cup team, which dominated the World Cup over the offseason en route to its third straight title, was loaded with Excelsior players. Half of the initial 12-player roster came from NYXL and three of them made the final seven-player squad that shut out their opponents in all three matches, winning the World Cup by a combined score of 9-0.

Despite their ignominious defeat in the playoffs last season, NYXL is still the team to beat when the curtain rises on Season 2.

How will the expansion teams fare?

This might be the most intriguing question in OWL’s second season.

Will the expansion franchises be able to hold their own against teams full of elite and proven pros?

There are eight new teams in the league this season: the Atlanta Reign, Washington Justice, Toronto Defiant, Vancouver Titans, Hangzhou Spark, Guangzhou Charge, Chengdu Hunters and Paris Eternal.

Paris, whose entire roster is composed of European players, and Vancouver have been drawing most of the preseason buzz while most OWL pundits, broadcasters and commentators listed the Washington Justice in last place in their season-opening power rankings.

Most of these teams have rosters full of players from different Contenders regions and most of them haven’t worked or played together before. That means they’ll have a bigger learning curve in addition to the fact that they’ll now be playing at the highest level of competition.

There is going to be a lot of pressure on the new teams as they look to get off to good starts in Stage 1 of the season.

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Beom-joon “Bishop” Lee, the head coach of the London Spitfire, last year’s OWL champions, left in the offseason for the same position with Toronto, a team that also added stats and analytics guru Dennis “Barroi” Matz to the staff. Can they capture magic in a bottle?

The three new Chinese teams will be interesting to watch because they have a lot of relative unknowns on their rosters. Can they jell quickly and work their way through this trial-by-fire?

Most of the season one teams appear to be much better talent-wise than the expansion franchises, so the climb will be steep for the new teams in season two.

It would be a really bad look for the league office if the season one teams spend the whole season crushing and beating up on the new squads. Besides making for terrible competition, it would show that the talent pool for top players isn’t that deep and that another future round of expansion would dilute the product even further. That would also make it tougher for the league to request franchise fees that ranged over $30 million from prospective team owners if those owners felt they were purchasing a team that would not be able to compete immediately.

Will Vancouver’s experiment work?

Imagine this scenario: A minor league baseball team with a scrappy group of guys with a compelling, straight-out-of-Hollywood story rides an incredible wave and wins the minor league championship.

Then a new MLB expansion franchise is created in Canada — my apologies to Montreal Expos fans — and instead of going through the process of trying to sign free agents piece-by-piece, the expansion franchise signs the entire plucky, lovable minor league championship team.

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That’s more or less what we saw happen with the Vancouver Titans when the franchise signed RunAway, the team that won Season 2 of Korean Contenders.

Vancouver wanted Hyung-Ah Lee, the GM of RunAway, to lead its new franchise and she was able to negotiate for the entire team to join her. You could argue that in leading RunAway to the Korean Contenders championship and her supporting role on South Korea’s National Competition Committee during its incredible three-peat in the Overwatch World Cup, Lee is already one of the most accomplished general managers in Overwatch’s young history.

The defending OWL champion, London Spitfire, is laden with Korean Contenders players. Vancouver is hoping to have success with the same formula and a team that already has outstanding communication and chemistry, two factors that will be crucial both in OWL matches and over the course of the season.

Who are the new players to watch?

There are two players in particular that I think Overwatch fans should keep their eye on: Daniel “dafran” Francesca and Ethan “Stratus” Yankel.

The Atlanta Reign made one of the biggest splashes in the OWL offseason by signing dafran. He hails from Denmark and is one of the world’s best Overwatch and DPS (damage-per-second) players. While a brilliant player, he’s also a loose cannon. He has previous suspensions on his ledger for throwing ranked competitive games and toxic language during games.

A good comparison might be Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in “Top Gun.” He could single-handedly win games for the Reign and do so in a way that will take your breath away … but he is dangerous.

The Washington Justice signed Stratus, a DPS player, from NRG Esports in the North American Contenders league. He hails from Pittsburgh and he’s only 17 years old, which makes him one of the youngest players in OWL history. (Though he will not be able to play until he turns 18, per league rules.) His ability belies his age however and he could be a difference-maker.

Justice assistant GM Kate Mitchell was effusive in her praise of Stratus when she talked to The Post about her roster last year.

“He’s only 17 and is our ace in the hole. He can pick up any hero and grind it out.”

Stratus will only miss a couple of matches because his 18th birthday is less than a few weeks after the start of the season.

Who are the biggest free agents to watch with new teams?

There are several players who excelled last season and will start season two on new teams:

Janus was the main tank on last year’s loaded NYXL squad and left in the offseason to become the first-ever player for the Washington Justice. He’s the only player from last year’s roster that didn’t return.

Is Janus capable of carrying a team? He didn’t have to be the superstar last season, but he’ll have to be locked in during each and every match for Washington to have a chance in its first season.

Terence “SoOn” Tarlier helped the Los Angeles Valiant go 27-13 and capture the No. 2 seed in the regular season. He joined the Paris Eternal in the offseason and reunited with Julien “daemoN” Ducros, one of his assistant coaches on the Valiant, who was hired as head coach of the Eternal. SoOn, who is French, is one of the league’s best DPS players and can play at an elite level with not one, but three different DPS characters. If there is a meta where one is better than the others, he can switch without skipping a beat.

Se-hyeon “Neko” Park, a support player, was one of the biggest contributors on the Boston Uprising, last year’s Cinderella story. They didn’t look like much on paper and had players from the U.S., Canada, Ethiopia, Russia and South Korea. The experts counted them out, but they proved that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The Uprising went 26-14 in the inaugural season and locked up the No. 3 seed. They fell to Philadelphia in the quarterfinals of the grand playoffs. That led most to believe the Uprising would be a serious threat to win it all in Season 2, but six players left in the offseason, including Neko. He joined Bishop and Barroi in Toronto. Neko is an elite player, but he will be called upon to do even more this season and won’t have the same caliber of players around him. Will he be able to help Toronto recreate some of that incredible chemistry and magic that fueled Boston’s rise?

Will Shanghai finally win a match this season?

The Shanghai Dragons were awful last year. They were the kind of awful that’s hard to watch. Like 0-40 bad. The Dragons posted an embarrassing -120 map differential, winning just 21 maps over the course of the season and finishing with a map record of 21-141-2.

Management decided to jettison most of last year’s players and infuse some fresh blood into the team. It is nearly unfathomable to imagine a scenario in which this year’s Shanghai squad is just as noncompetitive or even less competitive than last year’s team.

I expect to see Shanghai get its first franchise win this season, especially since the Dragons will get a chance to face off against expansion franchises that don’t have the kind of firepower they faced last season.

Speaking of the Shanghai Dragons, will we see more female players join the OWL this season?

In the midst of a terrible losing spell early in the season, the Dragons signed Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim, the first female player in OWL history. The Geguri signing obviously didn’t turn things around, but she still made history.

Will more teams take a chance on female players?

There are several that are playing well in various Contenders regions around the world. Unfortunately, misogyny and sexism are still rampant in today’s gaming and esports environment and culture.

Geguri is still on the Shanghai Dragons roster, so there is no doubt whatsoever that she has the skills to play and compete with the best players in the world.

If the situation presents itself where teams need to make an in-season move, will they take a chance on a female player and help make the game more diverse and inclusive in the process?

How will the league perform in its first three “home” games?

In the first season of OWL, every single match took place in Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California. Every team has to live in LA during the season, and almost all of season two’s OWL matches will be played in the same arena again this year. However, OWL Commissioner Nate Nanzer has said that the plan is for the league to move to full localization next season.

What does that mean? The distribution of franchises to cities around the map has been a founding principle of the OWL’s economic model, and securing revenue from ticket sales and partnerships in local markets is pivotal to the league’s long-term success. When the teams disperse, they will play live in their actual market and play true home and road matches in every single one of its games. For the Washington Justice, that means living and training in D.C. as well as hosting 20 matches in the District and hitting the road for 20 matches over the course of the season.

This is the first season that we’ll get to see home and away games in action. It’s a theory so appealing it led traditional sports owners from the NFL and other top leagues to invest tens of millions in the OWL. How will it play out in reality? If they don’t go well, it could send the league runners at Blizzard back to the drawing board, delay localization plans, and limit the league’s growth in its infancy.

The Dallas Fuel, Atlanta Reign and Los Angeles Valiant will play host for the first three “homestand weekends.”

Dallas will play at the Allen Event Center in April, the Reign will play its matches on Fourth of July weekend, and the Valiant will host its matches in August at The Novo by Microsoft at LA Live.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stayed that WizardHyeong was the head coach of NYXL and that Ethan ‘Stratus’ Yankel was the youngest player in OWL history. WizardHyeong was a coach, not the head coach with the Excelsior and Charlie “Nero” Zwarg is younger than Stratus.

Noah Niederhoffer is a freelance writer who produces national radio shows at SiriusXM and develops, produces and launches podcasts in addition to covering sports and politics. He’s an Atlanta native and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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