After over five months of anticipation, the Toronto Defiant and Vancouver Titans will finally begin play this weekend.
First announced in September, the Defiant and Titans are two of eight new expansion franchises into the Overwatch League (OWL), which will begin its second-ever season Thursday night with a Season 1 championship rematch between the Philadelphia Fusion and London Spitfire.
Toronto and Vancouver will play their inaugural matches this Friday and Saturday, respectively, with the Defiant facing the Houston Outlaws and the Titans taking on the Shanghai Dragons, a team that infamously lost every match it played last season as it finished with a 0-40 record.
For those unaware, the OWL is the official league of popular Activision Blizzard first-person-shooter Overwatch, the first esports league of its kind to feature teams that represent individual cities.
Including the expansion franchises entering the league, the OWL is a 20-team league with clubs based in the United States, South Korea, China, parts of Europe and Canada. The regional structure of the league has attracted big names within the sports business including Robert Kraft, who owns the Boston Uprising, Jeff Wilpon, who owns the New York Excelsior, and Stan Kroenke, the Los Angeles Gladiators’ owner.
The two Canadian clubs have similar amounts of sports executive star power running their teams with Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini at the helm of the Titans and former Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Overholt running the Defiant in his new role as president of OverActive Media, the Toronto franchise’s ownership group.
Like last season, the 2019 OWL campaign will primarily play out of the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif., but in 2020 the league has plans to begin taking advantage of its unique regional setup and start to have true home-and-away games, an enticing prospect for the Titans, in particular.
“We experienced Vancouver during the launch event and were able to see the city, and players really thought it was a great place, but also we were able to experience a few Canucks games and they really liked the environment,” said Titans assistant coach Harsha Bandi over the phone. “I think what they’re most excited about when it comes to Vancouver is playing for the home crowd.”
The Titans have an entire roster comprised of South Korean players and a completely South Korean coaching staff, with the exception of Bandi. Though this may seem a little strange to the uninitiated, it most assuredly isn’t, as Korean players have dominated competitive Overwatch since the game first came out in May 2016.
What’s actually interesting about Vancouver’s roster is that eight of the nine players on the team are actually the entire former RunAway roster, a team that won an Overwatch Contenders (the minor league of the OWL) Korea championship.
RunAway became famous not only for the success it found, but also because of the team’s unique backstory that saw all eight players get personally housed and financed by a husband and wife who just happened to be Overwatch streamers, and rise up through the minor leagues while backed by this couple.
As a result, the members of RunAway became very close with each other, something Bandi believes will help the Titans’ fortunes this season.
“They’re kind of like a family and have lived together for a long time and all know each other very well, which is different from other teams who aren’t really like that,” he said. “So they have an advantage in terms of synergy because of that.”
But while Vancouver will be relying on pre-existing chemistry to try to make its mark in the OWL this season, Toronto will be relying on the element of surprise.
“If I was the coach of a different team I’d be terrified of us,” said Defiant head coach Beom-joon “Bishop” Lee.
Toronto’s team is the opposite to Vancouver’s in the sense that whereas RunAway and its players are a known commodity among the Overwatch community, the Defiant’s roster consists of a ragtag group of unknowns, with the exception of former Gladiators DPS player Jun-sung “Asher” Choi and ex-Uprising support Se-hyeon “Neko” Park, who will be suspended for the first three games of the season.
— Toronto Defiant (@TorontoDefiant) February 1, 2019
Bishop likes the fact that his team is made up of lesser-known players and believes that will give his team a distinct advantage.
“The fact that our players are hungry, that we’re underdogs, that we’re a new team, that we have nothing to lose. All of these things, in combination, is our strength,” said Bishop. “Everyone is very excited and there’s no signs of nervousness at all to finally be able to play and not necessarily prove everyone wrong, but kind of just give everyone a nice little surprise and show everyone that even though we’re an expansion team, we’re actually very strong here. And we plan on proving that right off the bat with our matchup against Houston.”
This confidence Bishop has in his team stems from the fact he has some lofty goals right from the outset for an expansion club.
“The goal is to make the playoffs and I don’t just say that — we have a very solid shot,” he said. “There’s no better story than the underdog story and I think we have exactly what it takes to make it to the playoffs.”
Starting Friday, Bishop’s bold proclamation will be put to the test.