HOUSTON -- It wasn't a major upset to see the second-seeded Harrisburg University Storm take home the Collegiate Esports Championship Overwatch trophy. Most thought the tournament would be won by either the Storm or Maryville University, with 1-seed Maryville as tournament favorites going into a semifinal matchup with Harrisburg. Yet the Storm's win against the Saints, and the compositions they ran to beat Maryville and finals opponent University of Utah, said a surprising amount about the current state of collegiate Overwatch.
Here are a few takeaways from this weekend.
GOATS isn't always the answer (in collegiate)
On Sunday, the Overwatch League Stage 2 finals pitted the two best triple-tank, triple-support teams in the league against each other in the San Francisco Shock and Vancouver Titans. That same day, the CEC finals saw the University of Utah's bunker compositions, which feature Bastion, Baptiste and Orisa combinations, go head-to-head with Harrisburg University's triple DPS setup.
An ongoing discussion at all levels of competitive Overwatch is whether competitors have to play triple-triple (GOATS) and when it's absolutely necessary.
Do you have to play it in the Overwatch League? Yes: Even the Chengdu Hunters have had to put Wrecking Ball extraordinaire Ding "Ameng" Menghan on Reinhardt and play triple-triple. Do you have to play it at the Contenders level? Again, yes, but players have a bit more leeway to experiment. Do you have to play it on ladder? Probably not: Most solo players, even in the Grandmaster ranks, don't have that same amount of coordination.
This weekend, the best triple-triple teams in the tournament were pushed aside for DPS-heavy "GOATS-breaker" compositions and bunker compositions that made the most of player flexibility and specific skill. In fact, Utes team captain Austin "CoolABC" Walch was just assigned the role of "flex" for his team, eschewing a follow-up role like "tank" or "DPS." Similarly, their support, Konrad "Captainbabe" Serbinowski, was listed as main support but played Ana in Utah's bunker compositions.
"Everybody plays every hero here," CoolABC said. "I'll play any role, anything. I don't get a role. Broken heroes is my role."
It wasn't just the Utes bunker that relied on the flexibility or certain hero prowess this weekend, although they were the most noticeably different team in playstyle. Orange Coast College, a 2-seed in the Tespa tournament, relied on their comfort DPS picks for Nick "Slayergramps" Caravaggio, Andre "Chicken" Merdinoglu and Joseph "EuphoRia" Huynh to earn a semifinal spot. EuphoRia was previously a DPS player who swapped to support while on OCC and was back on his DPS staples like Soldier: 76 for the CEC.
Within the collegiate scene, there's a lot more room for flexibility, and teams were generally rewarded for sticking with what they knew best as individual players rather than trying to counter specific opponents. Harrisburg stuck with their Pharah-Mercy DPS composition that was paired with Sombra and another DPS hero like Hanzo, first honed in the current meta by Chinese Overwatch Contenders teams as a response to the prevalence of triple-triple. Relying on these DPS-heavy comfort compositions allowed the Storm to upset Maryville in the semifinals.
"We were pretty sure that their GOATS was going to be stronger than ours," Harrisburg flex support Soames "Soames" Lovett-Darby said. "But the maps that we prepared for, our triple maps, like King's Row for example, we rolled them.
"GOATS is really hard and intricate. If you want to play GOATS into GOATS, you really need to be the better team and know GOATS really well. But if you're just running bunker into a GOATS team, a lot of teams don't know how to play against it because there's no one who runs only bunker like Utah does. We lost the first map against them because we didn't really know what was going on. Later, we figured it out."
Overhead investment matters (just like in traditional sports)
This tournament featured teams with varying levels of funding, infrastructure and support from their schools. They ranged from Maryville University, which has one of the best collegiate esports programs in the country, to the University of Utah, which offers scholarships but is still proving their worth to a PAC-12 institution that will always focus more on football, to Orange Coast College, a rare gem of six talented players who happened to play through the college's gaming club and made it to Houston.
As OCC's captain and only player with semi-pro experience, Slayergramps does a lot of the work for his team that a larger school with better support would divvy up to a team of analysts or managers.
"When I joined the team in the summer, I didn't expect them to be good at all," Slayergramps said. "Within a day of seeing them play, it was like, 'This team is way better than I expected them to be.' At this tournament, my personal expectations for the team were that everybody enjoys the experience and plays their heart out. Friday was like the perfect climax of that moment. Everybody played as well as they possibly could and got that Map 5 experience victory."
OCC's opponent that day, Grand Canyon University, is another team with limited resources that made the most of them to unseat 1-seed UC Irvine and make the quarterfinals. There are nearly 150 colleges in North America that offer scholarships for esports competitors, but club programs still have a shot.
Slayergramps said as early as fall 2018, OCC was already talking about their chances of making it to a LAN environment. By beating GCU in the quarterfinals and making it to semifinals, OCC outperformed their team's expectations. Since club teams are much more volatile and don't receive the same overhead support of teams from institutions like Maryville or Harrisburg, which both offer full rides for esports competitors, this may be the last time that this specific OCC team plays together at a major event.
Finalists Utah and Harrisburg receive much more support from their schools and have scholarship programs for esports players, making it no coincidence that they made it this far. The same would have applied to Maryville had they not been upset by Harrisburg. Soames reiterated how much Harrisburg's victory was owed to investment from team staff and the school itself.
"We have a lot of staff and infrastructure for the players," Soames said. "It's really helpful. Any time there's any problem, we have four of five people on staff to help us. Having them there is really good, and we have a really nice practice room. You have a lot of people looking after you, which is sweet."
Not everyone is here to go pro
Occasionally lost in translation, in esports specifically, is the idea that everyone who plays an esport at a team competitive level outside of a solo queue or ladder environment is interested or looking into becoming a professional.
The collegiate esports scene still is an ever-shifting space between amateur ladder play and Overwatch Contenders teams. The majority of players looking to go pro who have the skill to become professional players will be scouted and signed to Contenders teams directly from the ladder itself rather than playing on a collegiate roster first. This creates an odd perception that everyone who plays the game at a high level is looking to go pro, but some players, like Harrisburg's Soames, are capable of semipro play but want the safety net that a degree provides.
In some ways, college players at a scholarship esports program are like traditional athletes who go to college for their sports not to make it to the NBA or NFL but to fund their education and continue competing in a game they love.
"I think going pro is pretty risky," Soames said. He follows the pro scene and, like many flex support players, looks up to the New York Excelsior's Bang "JJoNak" Sung-hyeon.
"It takes a lot of work, and if you show up on the other end with nothing to show for it, it kind of sucks. Going to school and getting a full scholarship is really nice because I can still play the game and enjoy it, but I can also get a degree at the same. Afterwards I'll have the experience and a degree. That's a safe and optimal path for me."