This should've been the finals. It's going to be damn close.
That's what everyone -- the coaches, players, analysts, Korean casters, and English casters -- said before the match between GC Busan and Cloud9 Kongdoo during the OGN Overwatch APEX playoffs. And everyone turned out damn wrong. Fortunately, though, the matchup proved to be exciting all the same, precisely because it wasn't close. GC Busan's dismantling of C9 Kongdoo was the kind of stomp that spectators dream about and drool over. It wasn't the takeout-box-in-the-cubicle kind of stomp in which a lopsidedly dominant team gulps down their food with little amusement, deeming culinary indulgence to be a waste of time; it was a proper gastronomic presentation, a delightful treat, in the form of a three-course dinner.
First came the appetizer on Oasis. Control openers always function as an appetizer of sorts; teams use them to size each other up, flex their (finger) muscles, and exchange blows to establish dominance, which all serve to build everyone's expectations for subsequent dishes of more complex strategic flavor. In the first few brawls, mechanics on both sides turned out to be roughly even, but GC Busan was far more focused overall, which allowed them to eke out two consecutive wins for the set.
Why Busan had the edge in concentration was obvious to most, of course -- C9K recently suffered a massive fan fallout due to Choi "BDosin" Seung-tae and Kim "Rascal" Dong-joon using the term "Twitter b-----s" on stream. Fan support for C9K was at an all-time low going into the match, and the pre-game cheers for the squad were the quietest they'd ever been. Such drastic environmental changes can mentally destroy a team, as shown in SKT T1 LoL's meltdown this summer following a similar controversy.
Even prior to the start of the match, the C9K side of the bleachers was gloomy and melancholy. Many fans there told me they were unsure, deep down inside, if they really wanted their team to win tonight. They had come to the stadium today as they always had, and they still loved the other four players, but their "hearts couldn't be in the same place anymore," as one girl explained. This depressed ambivalence seemed to project itself in the form of disarray onto the booth below, as C9K's coordination would break down at random moments, uncharacteristic for a team that barely choked in an outdoors finals stage with much more riding on the line.
After the Set 1 defeat, the mood turned even darker in the stands. Hushed whispers darted around, tones laced with anger and apathy. The atmosphere was so foreboding that you could almost taste what was coming next.
Next up was the main course: Hollywood. This was where Busan started to reveal their true capabilities, with the dive-duo of Hong "Gesture" Jae-hee and Park "Profit" Joon-yeong completely running over the wobbling C9K. And while Profit was the flashier of the two, dribbling around the enemy backline like Lionel Messi, tapping in his Pulse Bombs with divine confidence, Gesture exerted far more influence on the game as a whole.
Just like he took Lunatic-Hai's Gong "Miro" Jin-hyuk to school in the quarterfinals, Gesture dwarfed Baek "Fissure" Chan-hyung in the Winston head-to-head. And it's important to note that this domination was achieved not by pure mechanical superiority, but mostly by having better game knowledge and decision-making abilities. Whether it comes to pre-jump positioning, jump timing, jump location, jump launch angles, or bubble utilization, Gesture has been displaying a mastery of Winston's package that hasn't been seen before.
In APEX Season 2 and 3, Winston matchups were thought to be less cerebral and more physical than Reinhardt matchups, and to a large extent that was true. But at this point in time, where every top team is coordinated enough to melt down an exposed Winston under a second and a half, Winston play has become far more demanding on the mind. Previously most Winstons could fare pretty well by thinking vertically, being judicious with jumps, and focusing on coordination with frontline teammates. They could often secure vantage points without too much fear; they were usually the ones controlling vision. Now, however, Winstons not only need to be judicious with jumps, but they need to be extremely precise with jumps -- and more importantly, it has become mandatory for Winstons to obsessively play around vision, almost to the degree of a flanking DPS. Both of these changes are due to health management becoming extremely difficult against elite teams. This problem is compounded when facing Soldier or McCree-based poke compositions (which, incidentally, Busan loves to run), which excel at snowballing off Winston advantages -- both in health and cooldowns -- gleaned in standoffs.
No Winston understands the hero's updated tactical requirements better than Gesture, and no team sets their Winston up for success as well as Busan. The team has absolute faith in his abilities; that's why they run Soldier or McCree-based poke compositions so much, which all heavily bank on winning the Winston matchup. Likewise, they usually default to devoting him maximum resources when they need to break open a stalemate, becoming a Magic Trackpad to Gesture's incisive leaps across the battlefield.
In the match, this maneuver succeeded over and over again, particularly because C9K was painfully incapable of handling situations with a Winston disadvantage. To be fair, however, it's difficult to blame C9K for not having prepared for it. After all, who else could have bested Fissure -- one of the most intelligent tank players in South Korea in his own right -- in such a fashion? How could they have practiced for a scenario that no scrim partner could have emulated?
Even with only Profit and Gesture running the movie, C9K were having it terribly tough on Hollywood. But when Lee "Hooreg" Dong-eun decided to start popping off as well, the night was essentially over. His consistent brilliance this season makes this easy to forget, but Hooreg's role on Busan isn't at all about straight up carrying games; his responsibilities are usually limited to playing whatever hero the team needs to strategically enable Profit and Gesture. In this meta, that means he needs to play all of Soldier, McCree, Pharah, Sombra, Doomfist and Widowmaker at a high level, an insanely tall order for any player save for -- ironically -- C9K's superstar DPS duo. But he has been meeting those standards every game this season, and tonight, he turned on the heat starting from Street Phase Defense onwards, leading his team's charge towards a breezy 2-0. His great aim and even greater positioning on McCree in particular repeatedly sent the Busan side of the stadium into audible rapture.
Once Hollywood was licked clean, it was time for dessert on Horizon Lunar Colony and Route 66 -- dessert, because C9K were already broken at this point. Aside from Kim "Birdring" Ji-hyuk somehow continuing to match Profit's performance, little heart remained in the soon-to-be-Londoners' play. Busan, who at this point were visibly laughing and whooping in the booth even mid-game, took full advantage of their opponents' lifelessness and used it to churn out sweet individual highlights, the best one probably being Hooreg's Widowmaker streak on Route 66 Defense.
Again, it was difficult to blame C9K for feeling completely lost as to what to do; it wasn't as if Busan's tactics were easily counterable cheeses. For most of the match, Busan stuck with the very standard "juggle the D.Va" playbook -- threatening to dive Zenyatta if D.Va shields Winston, then threatening to burst down Winston if D.Va shields Zenyatta. The strategic differences between Busan and other top teams seems to be, as for now, merely twofold: Hooreg has a wider hero pool than most other flex DPS players in APEX, and Busan's target switching between Winston/Zenyatta is the cleanest in all of APEX. This means that there is little else to do when you're losing against Busan apart from pulling out your best heroes and hoping for the best. They're not playing one yet-uncountered off-meta composition to death. They play the standard game with standard compositions, they play it better than everyone else, and they're so ridiculously good at it that the standard game looks fresh and new and exciting as hell. What's more, they're still only improving. Their back-to-back victories against Lunatic-Hai were perfectly thrilling beatdowns, but the way they swept C9K this night was nothing short of magical.
In terms of results, it matters little how and by what score a team won a match. But the great thing about sports is that you don't have to overcome human limitation to evoke divinity, only human expectation -- and the mechanical and tactical finesse that Busan displayed against C9K was enough to give us more than a few glimpses of transcendence. It warms the heart to think that greater teams than GC Busan -- far greater -- will undoubtedly continue to emerge as premier level Overwatch develops. One can only hope that the first season of the Overwatch League will be where it happens.