BURBANK, Calif. -- In a highly anticipated return after a six-month offseason, the Overwatch League has never appeared as popular as it was this past weekend.
From watch parties that filled four-story malls in Chengdu, China, to a packed house at the Real Sports Bar & Grill outside of the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the return of the Overwatch League belonged to eight new expansion teams and a massive influx of rookie talent.
Of all 189 professional players in the Overwatch League this year, 105 are rookies. That number doesn't include players like Kim "Izayaki" Min-cheol, who made his stage debut this year despite being on the Los Angeles Valiant's lineup since Stage 3 of the inaugural season. Although this is Season 2 of the premier Overwatch competition in the world, it still belongs to first-timers, many of whom had great success in the opening week.
Here is what some of the Overwatch League rookies had to say about their professional debuts and playing on the Blizzard Arena stage.
"We are ready to let the world see China again," Chengdu Hunters flex tank Ma "LateYoung" Tianbin said with tears in his eyes.
LateYoung made it a point to say this in English on broadcast after the Hunters unexpectedly beat fellow Chinese expansion team the Guangzhou Charge. It was nearly midnight local time, and most of the audience had left outside of a few Chengdu faithful in the front row, but his passion was no less emotionally affecting for it.
There was only one Chinese team in all of the league last year in the Shanghai Dragons, and they're still on a historic winless streak at 0-42. Chengdu's all-Mandarin lineup was expected to perform similarly. To debut with a victory meant a lot to Chengdu, and LateYoung let the world know onstage, while remaining humble after the fact, frequently mentioning how Guangzhou pushed their team a lot harder than he had ever been pushed in the Chinese Contenders league.
"People say we are going to get 0-28'ed," LateYoung later told Chinese press. "Well, I guess the worst case scenario now is 1-27."
"At some point," Toronto Defiant DPS Lee "Ivy" Seung-hyeon said, "I started enjoying myself."
Nerves affected many of the Overwatch League's new pros, including Ivy and his fellow rookies of the Toronto Defiant. Ivy said he was so nervous that it affected his performance in their first two maps against the Houston Outlaws, but once they won on Volskaya Industries, the nerves disappeared and he began to have fun.
"Because I was nervous I made a few mistakes," Toronto Defiant support Park "RoKy" Joo-seong said, "but what was important was our teamwork."
This teamwork wouldn't have been possible without former Los Angeles Valiant and Meta Bellum flex player Lee "envy" Kang-jae, whose in-game adaptations and experience helped lead the team despite some individual mistakes.
"We're a newly formed team, and we don't have much experience playing together," envy said. "Our mindset going into the game today was we're just going to enjoy the game and not feel too much pressure, but everyone just showed their true skill, and it worked out very well. We didn't have any difficulties in terms of communications; everyone did his part."
Nerves also affected the Guangzhou Charge's Lee "Happy" Jeong-woo in his team's loss to the Chengdu Hunters.
"Overwatch League is definitely much bigger than Contenders just by the size. I got very nervous," Happy said. "I've seen more various compositions here in the Overwatch League in comparison to Contenders, and the players are much more professional."
Professionalism of teams and players also was mentioned by two of the Seoul Dynasty's latest pickups: former Element Mystic flex support Lee "Jecse" Seung-soo and former Lucky Future Zenith flex player Choi "Michelle" Min-hyeok.
"In comparison to Contenders, Overwatch League is far superior in terms of how they treat us players, the overall environment and the facilities," Jecse said. "In that regard, I can really perform well and show my true skill."
Michelle also mentioned a more professional environment and also thought that the larger stage and crowd would help him perform better and show off his improvements as a player as the season goes on.
"Everyone is the same," Atlanta Reign support Steven "Kodak" Rosenberger said. "Even though it might be hard to get the point across, it's there. We have fun together."
Alongside the 2-0 Hangzhou Spark, one of the most exciting expansion teams to watch on opening weekend was the Atlanta Reign, who focused on gathering a lineup of top-tier individual talent regardless of any inherent language barriers.
Atlanta has one of the most diverse teams in the Overwatch League and looked surprisingly coordinated in Week 1. The expansion squad pushed the Philadelphia Fusion to all five maps in their second match of the weekend.
"Communication-wise, it's been kind of interesting," flex support Dusttin "Dogman" Bowerman said. "At the beginning, it was probably a little bit more difficult when me and Kodak swapped out; but over the course of these past two weeks, it's been a bit easier but it's a lot similar to Philly and their setup. I'm pretty sure Philadelphia Fusion and our team ownership are very close, so they worked on a similar ideology when picking up a roster and that's kind of been what our team has become."
Dogman is the most recent addition to the Reign roster, and he is still adjusting to the team environment and its commute, but he mentioned that the environment and team were both helping him as a player.
"The only adjustments I've had to make are getting used to the lifestyle," he said. "We're pretty far away from the arena, and we're also in a really nice house provided to us by Atlanta Reign. Inside that house, it's just kind of surreal moving in, so it kind of took me some time to get acclimated, but everyone's been really welcoming. My counterpart in Kodak here, we're both really good friends. He's my closest friend on the team probably, so we work together well."
Kodak's point of reference other than his time with Mosaic and 6nakes in the European Contenders league was the Overwatch World Cup.
"I think that World Cup, there's not much you play for; it's not as intense as Overwatch League," he said. "The nerves are bigger here for sure."
"OWL is a whole different beast," Boston Uprising DPS Jeffrey "blasé" Tsang said. "The Contenders jump to OWL is really huge."
Existing lineups added some rookie talent, as well.
Blasé is one of the latest additions to the Boston Uprising, and he praised his team for overcoming some first-week roster difficulties that included new main tank Cameron "Fusions" Bosworth arriving days before their first match and veteran main tank Noh "Gamsu" Young-jin being traded to the Shanghai Dragons. A few members of the team had to play in off-role positions as a result.
"I think it's been all right," blasé said of his performances against the New York Excelsior and the Houston Outlaws. "I've made a couple mistakes I'm not proud of, but overall, I think I played really well. I'm really proud of the team for performing under the circumstances we were in with two main tanks, so I'm really happy with that."
Like a few of his other Overwatch League rookie counterparts, blasé said he was a bit nervous but also that the crowd gave him a jolt while playing.
"We're on a stage," blasé said. "There's a crowd. The energy is way higher. In Contenders, usually you're in a team house or some people are just not there with you, in their home countries and playing, so [OWL] is way more exciting."