SEOUL, South Korea -- Few things in sports, traditional or electronic, are more satisfying to watch than a dialectic clash of styles at the top level of play.
Last Saturday's OGN Overwatch APEX finals were supposed to be such an occasion. GC Busan, lithe and virtuosic, was expected to flaunt its encyclopedic playbook; RunAway, headstrong and feral, was expected to default to freeform bloodlust. The match would be a sonata of control versus chaos, of intellect versus intuition. The script was as perfect as it could be.
But then GC Busan tore it apart.
GC Busan's approach to the game in recent months, prior to the finals, revolved around running poke compositions designed to "juggle the D.Va" -- diving Zenyatta if D.Va shields Winston, and focusing down Winston if D.Va shields Zenyatta. The idea itself is nothing special, as all professional teams understand the economics of Defense Matrix, but the execution is surprisingly difficult. There are two requirements for the strategy to work smoothly: Your Tracer must dominate the enemy Zenyatta in one-on-one situations, and your Soldier/McCree must have good enough aim to melt down the enemy Winston without the Tracer's help. Busan's superstar DPS duo of Park "Profit" Joon-yeong and Lee "Hooreg" Dong-eun have fit those bills all season.
When subjected to juggling, most D.Va players tend to focus on protecting the allied Zenyatta over the allied Winston. Zenyattas cannot defend themselves against enemy Tracers apart from outdueling them one-on-one (an extremely difficult task), whereas Winstons can throw down a bubble or leap away from the action. However, if the Winston takes a meaningful amount of damage, or uses abilities to evade it, he loses the power to dive the enemy backline until both his health and cooldowns are restored. This puts his team at a massive disadvantage for a few seconds, as Winston is ineffective at defending against enemy dives; he provides much better protection by threatening to answer a dive with a dive.
When the enemy Winston is effectively disabled in this way, the poking team can either go for the jugular (dive in as one with Winston-Tracer spearheading the charge) or continue the snowball (juggle ad nauseam until the enemy is forced to commit to a bad teamfight). GC Busan is comfortable with both options, although it prefers being decisive. Hong "Gesture" Jae-hee and Profit's target coordination is probably the best in the world, as demonstrated in their recent semifinal match against C9 Kongdoo.
It should be noted that this strategy, while all-purpose enough for general use, is most effective against teams that heavily rely on their D.Va's protection. The pre-Seoul Cup iteration of Lunatic-Hai is a perfect example: Kim "zunba" Joon-hyeok's D.Va was that squad's formational center. The decision to juggle him nonstop was the most important factor in Busan's back-to-back 3-0 victories, although Gong "Miro" Jin-hyuk's Winston play and the obvious DPS mismatch also played a part.
Busan went into the finals looking to maintain this style. After taking a quick 2-0 victory on Nepal with a Pharah-Mercy combo, Busan pulled out its tried-and-tested Soldier/McCree-based poke compositions in the next two matches. But this time, they didn't work. What was wrong?
Many things. First of all, Kim "KoX" Min-soo was playing out of his mind for RunAway. (You know something's going wrong when a Zenyatta keeps solo killing a Tracer.) Profit, who had done well even against Ryu "ryujehong" Je-hong, not only failed to dominate KoX but was downright humiliated. This stopped the juggle before it began. Without having to worry about KoX's safety, Choi "JJanu" Hyeon-woo was free to focus on protecting his frontline with Defense Matrix.
KoX being on fire also meant that extended standoffs, which usually should be advantageous for the poke composition, were actually going in RunAway's favor half the time. While GC Busan support Jo "HaGoPeun" Hyeon-woo did play a great Mercy and Ana, his Zenyatta was average, and RunAway had the Transcendence advantage too many times for Busan to handle.
To make things worse, Hooreg was displaying mediocre hitscan aim on Soldier and McCree. Even if he had been on top of his game, fulfilling his given duties as Winston-melter would have been quite tough, given JJanu's presence. But he was playing worse than usual, and this made Busan suffer from a lack of upfront damage against the enemy frontline. The problem was exacerbated by RunAway's Hwang "Tizi" Jang-hyeon playing more conservatively and not being caught out as Winston.
By the end of Set 3, GC Busan was down 2-1, out of ideas and overwhelmed by how fundamentally its game plan had been dismantled. There was a lot left in its playbook, sure, but most of it depended on certain conditions and requirements, most of which were not being met. It was time for a Hail Mary.
Coach Lee "Hocury" Ho-cheol walked into the booth.
"Boys, we're playing Genji-Tracer," he said. "And we're picking Gibraltar."
Busan had not practiced Genji-Tracer all season. Neither had they planned to play Gibraltar tonight. In such a situation, most players on most teams would consider their coach to have gone mad. But Busan's players are famous for having absolute faith in their coaching staff's decisions.
"You guys are better mechanically," Hocury continued. "Forget about what we prepared. None of that matters right now. Just pick Genji-Tracer and go run over them. You guys are better. It's going to work."
The players nodded. They believed in Hocury.
Everyone was perplexed when Set 4 began with Profit on Genji and Hooreg on Tracer. Profit was a very good Genji in ranked play but had barely touched the hero in tournaments. And while Hooreg had been the team's Tracer player before Profit took over, that was more than a season ago. It all made very little sense at first glance.
In terms of strategy, however, it all made perfect sense on many levels. Switching to full dive negated the KoX problem, since he could no longer stay safe just by neutralizing an isolated Tracer; Profit and Hooreg started to play better due to being taken off the heroes they just weren't feeling at the moment; the map choice allowed HaGoPeun to stay on Ana for a full match and regain his confidence; and RunAway, suddenly facing a composition and style they had not prepared for, was visibly confused.
Busan's DPS duo took a bit of time to shake off the rust on their respective heroes, but once they got rolling, they quickly took off. By the end of Set 4, Profit and Hooreg were dominating the Genji-Tracer matchup. Hocury was right; they were better mechanically. The players could not believe it. With almost no practice, they were playing Genji-Tracer better than RunAway. The unthinkable was happening.
Save for brief stints with Widowmaker and Doomfist on Anubis, Busan stuck to Genji-Tracer for the last three sets. So did RunAway. If there was any irony in Season 4 -- the most strategically advanced season of APEX yet -- ending in a series of direct Genji-Tracer brawls, it was lost on the crowd, enthralled at the insanity unfolding before them, particularly from the two Genjis. Never had Kim "Haksal" Hyo-jong met such a worthy opponent since his Season 2 showdown against Lunatic-Hai's Lee "Whoru" Seung-joon.
The match itself went down to the wire, with RunAway -- in the cruelest twist of fate imaginable -- losing once again on Eichenwalde's moat bridge. Yet in calm retrospect, it was not on that bridge where the fate of the two teams were decided, but on Busan's Gibraltar Defense.
"Our head coach told us to just pick Genji-Tracer and win through mechanics," said Seong "WOOHYAL" Seung-hyeon at the post-finals press conference. "And it worked out so well. Our Genji-Tracer play was toe-to-toe with RunAway's -- the best Genji-Tracer team in the world. At that moment, I realized that we could definitely win. It was a massive boost to our confidence."
Hocury's daredevil gambit can be read either way at the end of the day. On one hand, it validates the ever-increasing emphasis on strategic thinking; on the other, it proves that even at the game's strategic apex, Overwatch ultimately comes down to individual mechanics.
Or you, too, could choose to believe in Hocury.
"It was faith," he said. "It only worked because we all really believed in each other."