New game, new champions, new era — The Overwatch League Grand Finals return to Anaheim

Dallas Fuel wins the 5th season of Overwatch League as the premier eSports competition returns for in-person competition. Annenberg Media photographer covers a new era for Overwatch eSports.

Kim “Sp9rkle” Yeong-han and his Dallas Fuel teammates lift the Overwatch League Grand Finals Champion trophy at the Anaheim Convention Center on Nov 4, 2022. (Photo by Michael Chow)

After a tense seven-game back-and-forth match, the Dallas Fuel triumphed over the San Francisco Shock 4-3 and emerged as the champions of the Overwatch League. The Overwatch League is the pinnacle professional eSports league for Overwatch, a first-person-shooter game by Blizzard Entertainment. It features 20 franchised teams representing cities from all around the world, from London to Seoul. The competition was held in front of a 6,000 person crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena on Friday, November 4. Dallas Fuel was the top seed entering playoffs while San Francisco Shock was the second seed.

Stakes were high entering grand finals — Dallas Fuel had yet to win a championship after years of lackluster performances while the Shock had the opportunity to earn their third championship with a roster mostly comprised of rookies. This was the first Overwatch League season played on Overwatch 2, featuring new characters, new maps and a faster-paced five-versus-five format. It was also the first in-person grand finals since the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been a difficult few years for Overwatch — The COVID-19 pandemic shut down plans for homestand matches held at the teams’ home cities; Overwatch 2 was also hampered by release delays, poor communication and criticism by returning players for its expensive new monetization model. Parent company Activision Blizzard also faced legal suits by California and employee walkouts over toxic work environments and rampant sexual harassment.

The return of in-person finals proved to be an important milestone in the longevity of the league and the game moving forward. Returning to the Anaheim Convention Center Arena, where BlizzCon and the Overwatch World Cup was held from 2016 to 2019, symbolically marked the return of a thriving competitive community. After years of slumping viewership, the grand finals broke the Overwatch League’s online viewership records, peaking at 398,000 viewers with a total of 9.9 million hours watched.

“It feels refreshing to see the new game live, especially after years without major content updates to Overwatch,” said Joon Ho Hong, a long-time Overwatch fan and a sophomore at USC majoring in business administration. “It is also amazing to be back in person. It is just a different feeling of feeding off the energy of the crowd compared to passively watching the online stream chat.”

Ashley Kim, a senior at USC studying theatre, signs a fanboard outside the Anaheim Convention Center Arena. The Houston native wore a Houston Outlaw jersey to catch the games. (Photo by Michael Chow)

“It feels really invigorating,” Kim shares of her first experience at an Overwatch League event. “I have not followed the League before but seeing a team representing my hometown was amazing. You really feel all the highs and the lows and it is really amazing to see their hard work live.”

A group of students poses for a group photo with a peace handsign. (Photo by Michael Chow)

SC eSports, a student gaming club at USC, was offered complimentary tickets to catch the grand finals. “It was a great opportunity to catch the grand finals where it is for once decently close in Anaheim,” said Ashley Kim, who is also the president for SC eSports and has a minor in video game production. “We are so thankful to be able to socialize as a club and enjoy the games. It is important to get out and understand what happens in the eSports industry, beyond our computers and our classrooms,” Kim said.

6,000 fans crowded the Anaheim Convention Center Arena for the first in-person grand finals since the COVID-19 pandemic. The arena is dubbed the home of Overwatch eSports where the Overwatch World Cup, the first premier event for competitive Overwatch, was held in 2016. (Photo by Michael Chow)
San Francisco Shock fans Chloe Barrocas and Anthony Hanly celebrate as the Shock overwhelmed the Houston Outlaws in the finals of the losers’ bracket 3-0. No. 2 seed Shock avenged their early upset by the no. 6 seed Outlaws after a hard-fought lower bracket run, besting five teams in order to reach the grand finals. (Photo by Michael Chow)
Kim "Proper" Dong-hyun, damage player for the San Francisco Shock, high-fives fans while walking out for the grand finals. Proper became notorious during the playoffs for single-handedly winning fights with his stellar performance on damage characters. He swept the postseason awards, bagging the Most Valuable Player (MVP), Rookie of the Year and Role Star awards. (Photo by Michael Chow)
“Kill Proper please!” wailed Fuel fan Tyler Fletcher as Proper earned kill after kill, sending Shock fans into cheers. The Fuel trailed the Shock 2-3 after five maps in the best-of-7 series. “I didn’t come all the way from Texas to see the Fuel lose! They can definitely do it but they just need to kill Proper!,” Fletcher said, as he paced around the arena floor. (Photo by Michael Chow)
Lee “Fearless” Euiseok triumphantly embraces his teammates as soon as “Dallas Fuel wins” flashes across the screen. (Photo by Michael Chow)
Yun “Rush” Hee-won, head coach of the Dallas Fuel, embraces Sp9rkle as the team celebrates the win. This is Rush’s first title after three seasons in the Overwatch League. He came close in 2021 after earning the Coach of the Year award that year but ultimately fell short with the Fuel in third. (Photo by Michael Chow)

“I feel so happy it is so difficult for me to talk. As a team we relied on each other and worked together towards the same goal for years. To grow together with the players that I picked out at a young age and trusted from the start, and to become champions on this great stage, I think that makes it feels even more special. I’ve always enjoyed developing a team like this, and the players are all close like family, so I love them even more because of that.”

—  Yun “Rush” Hee-won, head coach of the Dallas Fuel
Fletcher proudly shows off his custom Dallas Fuel jersey to the camera. A Fuel fan since the franchise’s inception in 2018, Fletcher attended all of the Fuel’s homestand events and flew out from Texas to support the team. “I am on top of the world! We are champions! We are the best in the world!” Fletcher exclaimed. (Photo by Michael Chow)
Fearless breaks into tears as he was announced the Grand Finals MVP. (Photo by Michael Chow)

His journey in the Overwatch League has been described by commentator Jonathan Larsson as the “greatest individual story in Overwatch League history.”

He started out in the 2018 Shanghai Dragons squad with a loss streak of 42 matches, the worst in all of professional sports. He then left the league and came back as a Tank Role Star, an award for the top 4 performances in the Tank role of the season, in 2020 and 2021. He then fell just short of winning the grand finals twice in 2020 and 2021.

“We got this win because of all of the fans,” Fearless said, holding back tears. “Every time I felt my mental slipping, I could hear the sound of the fans cheering us on, and that motivated me more to win it for them. It gave me a lot of strength.”

As the season comes to a close, Overwatch and the Overwatch League looks to build on their grand finals thriller. Dion Rogers and Alec Dawson, respectively the art director and lead hero designer for Overwatch 2, announced a new tank hero during the grand finals. Rammatra, a hulking robot with the unique ability to switch between two forms, attracted excitement and applause from fans. Overwatch League teams will now take a break after the season and refresh their rosters. Champions Dallas Fuel took the opportunity to celebrate their win at Disneyland to tie up their fairy tale season while in Anaheim.