The Overwatch League is revving up for its third year, which might be the most ambitious for any esports league to date.
Instead of games being held exclusively in-studio in California, this year teams will travel all over the globe, making good on the Overwatch League's original pitch of localized esports. In addition, most of the rosters look vastly different than they did last season, with several star players moving around during the busy offseason after their original OWL contracts expired.
Combine all of this with a meta that supports more diversity than the entirety of season two and a potential promise for more game updates from Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan himself, and you have the makings for what is potentially the most exciting season of Overwatch in the game's young history.
A look at the biggest changes and issues heading into Season 3 of the Overwatch League:
--The biggest change to the OWL is the format itself.
The stage system is gone, replaced by 27 weeks of action running from Feb. 8 through the end of the regular season on Aug. 9. While teams will still play two games against conference opponents, they will also now play non-conference teams only once during the season, which is a departure from last year's model where each team played each other team twice per season.
With fewer match days, teams will now have off-weeks with which to prepare for travel, which might just be the biggest factor leading into Season 3.
--Season 2's scattered homesteads, in which a team hosted matches for itself and a handful of other teams in its home base, acted as a proof-of-concept that the Overwatch League could take the show on the road.
In Season 3, every team will host at least one homestead, with Dallas, Guangzhou and Washington each hosting a league-high five. This introduces a new dynamic for most teams: travel fatigue.
The league's two European squads, Paris and London, will have to travel more than 69,000 miles over the course of the season whereas Washington only has to travel 21,000 miles. The entire Atlantic South division (Washington, Florida, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston) will not have to travel to Asia, which might lead to better-rested players later in the season.
--Teams stocked up on talent during the offseason by signing Contenders players to fill out their rosters. In addition, a majority of the Season 1 contracts expired this offseason, leading to some marquee names swapping teams.
The stacked Pacific Division saw Team USA off-tank Indy "Space" Halpern join his former cross-town rivals with the L.A. Gladiators, while fellow USA DPS Joao Pedro "Hydration" Goes Telles was traded to Houston.
Seoul Dynasty captain Je-hong "ryujehong" Ryu left for the Vancouver Titans to join his former teammate, the mercurial Chan-hyung "Fissure" Baek, who came out of retirement to take the starting main tank role from the released Sang-beom "Bumper" Park. Seoul also picked up DPS all-star Jun-young "Profit" Park and tank Jae-hui "Gesture" Hong, but traded its DPS star, Byung-sun "Fleta" Kim, to Shanghai.
In the Atlantic Division, New York said goodbye to DPS highlight reel Do-hyeon "Pine" Kim, who retired, but more than made up for it by signing the somewhat controversial DPS star Seung-jun "WhoRU" Lee to go along with new off-tank Hong-joon "HOTBA" Choi, who came over from Guangzhou.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic division, Philly made big waves by acquiring Kim "Fury" Jun-ho from London and rising support star Kyung-bo "Alarm" Kim, as well as key role players in Daniel "FunnyAstro" Hathaway, Seung-hyun "Ivy" Lee and streamer/Doomfist specialist Philip "ChipSa" Graham.
--Historically, the Overwatch League has fallen victim to stagnant metas, but things might change soon for Season 3.
According to a dev post on the Activision Blizzard forums on Jan. 21, Kaplan said that: "As a team, we agree with and understand that players want the meta to be more fluid and move more frequently... We absolutely have plans to help move the meta more and we'll be talking about these in an upcoming developer update. We get it. We agree. Make the meta move faster. Ok."
While Kaplan denied rumors of a hero ban system being implemented, the commitment to more meta shifting means that teams will have to stay on their toes and be flexible with their lineups to field the best possible lineup.
With teams wanting to keep players fresh during travel, Season 3 might see fewer players riding the bench for an entire season. It's difficult to say what the future will look like, apart from Orisa and Baptiste playing a large role in the meta until they get nerfed into the ground and their contemporaries get significantly stronger, but the potential of Season 3 looks bright for the Overwatch League.
--Noah Waltzer, Field Level Media