In a rare repeat-champion underdog story, University of California Berkeley defended its Tespa Overwatch title with a 3-0 sweep of previously undefeated UC Irvine on Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship on Saturday at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Both California universities headed into the championship match after strong performances against their semifinal opponents, UC San Diego and University of Toronto. Nonetheless, Irvine's 16-0 record during the season had analysts picking the Anteaters, a scholarship program with a stacked roster. The team was considered a favorite from the beginning of the season, thanks in part to the school's amenities that come with it being a varsity esports program and the additions of Saddleback Community College mainstays Nick "Learntooplay" Theodorakes and Behrod "Baerod" Baghai.
Learntooplay, UCI's main tank, and Baerod, the Anteaters' captain, made one of the most talented Overwatch rosters in the collegiate scene a behemoth, and the addition of Jacob Bishop, another former Saddleback student, as the team's coach padded its advantage even more.
But Cal, on the backs of flex player Daniel "Alined" Lee and main tank Kevin "Slurpeethief" Royston, managed to quash UCI at every turn in the final and ended the Anteaters' unbeaten season and title hopes.
"I think we were expecting to make it to LAN finals again, but we were not expecting to make it all the way through," Slurpeethief said in a post-match interview on Twitch. "We were expecting to have a really tough time with UCI because they're a really strong team, but it was actually Toronto, surprisingly -- they really blew us away with how good they were. After that first round, we were actually scared. Everything that was happening in scrims just fell apart."
Cal pieced itself back together again, though, and just in time for a title run.
The game's stream topped out near 12,500 concurrent views for the finals, with viewership above 7,000 concurrents for most of the matches. Cal's starting six took home $7,000 apiece in scholarship money, with compensation for coaches and staff as well; UCI's starters got $3,000 each as the runners-up along with the funds for support staff.
Map 1, Oasis, started off explosively for Cal. Strong play from senior DPS Gandira "Syeikh" Prahandika's Junkrat and a two-hitscan composition from the Cal crew overwhelmed the UC Irvine squad, giving the Anteaters no chance to recover on the control map's two stages or lean on its Pharah expert, Chansoo "Lootre" Park. Signs of life for the Anteaters did briefly show up with a forced overtime, but this would only delay an eventual Cal win by a couple of minutes.
The second map, which shifted the gears over to Numbani, proved to be more of the same for Cal, which started off on the defense. A quad-tank lineup from the Anteaters proved ineffective at the beginning, though UCI would eventually find an opening after an extended skirmish and bring the point up to 90.5 percent. Just when it looked as if UCI would catch a break and start pushing the payload, Cal's Isaias "IzzyyyB" Barrera allowed his team to maintain control of the round with a key Transcendence from his Zenyatta.
Things didn't change once Cal took its turn playing on the offensive side. IzzyyyB's Zenyatta, this time complemented by Daniel "Alined" Lee's Torbjorn, took center stage and overwhelmed the Anteaters' defenses. Each player's ultimate abilities were used to their fullest potential as Cal took its second map in a row.
Support play was a tipping point in this matchup, and while UCI's supports certainly didn't disappoint, the Golden Bears were lucky enough to have a player who was more than prepared for a non-Mercy meta. The last time any Tespa program had competed in a match with stakes in the Tespa Collegiate Series was in early December, and since then, nerfs to both Mercy and Junkrat have shifted the Overwatch meta considerably. However, with tournament patches in the Overwatch League and little to go on in the way of pro strategy examples, Tespa teams had to create their own takes on what would work best Saturday.
For Cal, that meant letting support Alexander "Paigwut" Dam do what he does best.
"I'm super glad that Alex is a Moira main because that was incredible," Slurpeethief said. "He just had that pocket Moira pick during the whole Mercy meta, and now we got to use it."
Moira's Coalescence ultimate, mixed with Transcendence from Zenyatta and the occasional Sound Barrier from Lucio, kept Cal's players topped off and UCI fumbling for answers.
The third map on Temple of Anubis, once again with Cal starting on the defensive, seemed to be a different story initially. The Anteaters' highly offensive quad-tank lineup proved more effective this time around, allowing them to take the first round without much trouble. Cal, however, would bounce back in the second and third rounds off the back of a spectacular performance from Paigwut's signature Moira.
The Anteaters got close on Map 3 but couldn't make up for a massive timebank advantage that the Golden Bears accrued during the first two runs on the map. The strategies that had worked for UCI before on the map -- using Lootre on Widowmaker to overwhelm opponents and rotating around to cause havoc for foes -- weren't enough against the now-two-time champs.
Despite losing half of its roster from last season to this one and going up against a team that looked impregnable on paper, Cal's players had a Tespa trophy in their hands again Saturday. And for the Fiesta Bowl, and executive director Mike Nealy, the experience was an eye-opening foray into esports.
"This is my first event live," he said during the trophy ceremony, "and wow, did they put on a show."