The New York Excelsior is the best Overwatch team in the world. Despite an always-shifting metagame and one of its best players sitting out nearly a third of the season so far, they have won two Overwatch League stages and made the playoffs for the third. They rarely drop games and have swept every team in the league at least once.
Photo: Robert Paul (Blizzard Esports)
How? We spoke with the NYXL coaching staff in attempt to answer that question. Assistant coach Kim "WizardHyeong" Hyeong-seok translated our questions and his colleagues' answers in a conversation over Discord voice chat.
"Perfection," said head coach Yu "Pavane" Hyeon-sang. "Perfection would be the word."
Yu's assistant and translator, Kim, relayed that to me and then immediately disagreed with it, saying the team is "not even close to being perfection. It's a relatively new game and we're trying to make it as close to perfection, but I still think we're very far away from perfection. Because simply, we have a lot to discover in this game."
New York's playstyle is, broadly, defensive, a word the coaches of New York used often when discussing their mindset and strategy.
The most common Overwatch lineup consists of two tanks, two DPS (damage per second, or simply, damage dealers), and two supports (healers). The tanks and some of the DPS players lead the way while getting backed up by longer-ranged DPS heroes and the supports, whose low health and high value means they need to stay safe.
When teams get into a skirmish, these six members react in different ways. In a dive composition, the tanks and DPS on the front line go straight for the enemy's back line, "diving" in to pick off high-value targets. It's a strategy that asks a lot of the supports, who have to back up the divers while not succumbing to enemy fire.
New York's defensive style is somewhat the opposite: The tanks, instead of diving for enemy targets, try to enable New York's backline to do what it does best. Though the coaches tell me they work on other, more aggressive styles, being hyper-defensive is the bedrock of their strategy.
JJoNak accounts for roughly 15 per cent of Zenyatta production in the entire OWL. Graphic: Overwatch League
Kim says that their style is often copied but usually misunderstood. Like any well-run sports team, the plan is centred around the talents of their best players - especially Bang "JJoNak" Seong-hyun.
Bang is the fiercest Zenyatta in the game, a role he's basically created for himself. The timid support, a floating robot-monk who throws orbs to disrupt the enemy, doesn't seem intimidating, but Bang racks up the eliminations with a hail of perfectly aimed metallic balls.
The coaches say that Bang creates a perfect anchor for a stout back line. And the rest of their personnel make that defence almost impenetrable.
"I don't think other teams would have a defensive Mercy who could pull out that defensive style like Ark does," said Kim. "Or they don't have as good defensive D.Va as Meko, who can pull out that good of a defensive style."
As Kim explains, unleashing Bang enables Hong "ArK" Yeon-jun, their regular Mercy player, to play comfortably. Where Bang pops off, Hong hangs back, keeping watch over the team and controlling the fight.
You can see this support synergy play out in a match against the Houston Outlaws from stage two, where Houston's Winston player Muma tries to dive onto Bang and take him out of the fight, only to find Hong there to stave him off while still positioning his Ana to keep tallies on the rest of the team.
These two set up the rest of the squad in ways that are simply not available to other teams because of the incredible synergy between them. Bang presents a threat as deadly as a Widowmaker, and Hong heals and covers enough for two players' worth. They can more reliably resurrect their DPS players than just about anyone, and as we've covered, Bang's ability to pick off important heroes on the other team is basically unmatched.
All this forces diving opponents to overreach; and like in any fight, the opponent sets themselves up for a world of hurt when they do that.
"Us playing around [Bang] in a defensive way and protecting him baits the enemy team as well," said Yu. "It kind of forces them to dive in a way. They kinda over-extend sometimes, like a lot of times. So it works out very well in that way. But our front line is always ready to take the advantage when they over-extend."
Take the flank that Kim "Pine" Do-hyeon executed on the Houston Outlaws in April. When Pine's Widowmaker starts shredding the back line, Winston and D.Va are too caught up dealing with the other five members of the Excelsior to retreat and protect them. The Outlaws' back line is too far from its tanks, the big beefy heroes who can get between a sniper and its prey.
Pine is essentially shooting fish in a barrel, Houston's tanks are nowhere nearby, and their defence has been split and dealt with in just a few moments.
It's easier to lead the push with such a strong defence, but that goes the other way too.
The big boss Pine is a seasoned master with Widowmaker's rifle. Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol ushered in the "married man meta" with both his endearing love for his wife and his incredible Tracer play. Kim "Libero" Hae-seong is one of the best players in the league on projectile-based heroes such as Junkrat and Pharah, and Jung "Anamo" Tae-sung was a key mid-season signing at support. It's a great roster!
That depth gives the NYXL some flexibility to plan for their opponents. Against a team like Houston with a strong Widowmaker, Pine is a better fit, but Libero's mastery of shield-battering projectiles will serve better than a pinpoint sniper against teams that like to go shields up, such as Dallas or the LA Gladiators.
It's little surprise this team plays so well together. Most of the team, both players and coaches alike, hail from Luxury Watch Blue, one of the sister squads that played in the South Korean Overwatch scene. Saebyeolbe, Meko, Janus, Pine, Mano and JJoNak were all part of the Blue squad, coached by Yu and Kim.
While other members come from other backgrounds, the core group was picked up wholesale due to the success they were already seeing overseas. NYXL staff told The Ringer. in January that New York's owners determined the best path to be signing players who were already winning.
"We didn't want to come and in Year One presume that we knew more than a lot of managers and members of the community who've been doing this," said Farzam Kamel, a partner at New York Excelsior owner Sterling.VC, the Wilpon family-owned fund that also owns the New York Mets.
"We knew there were successful teams, that there were successful coaching systems, and we wanted to look for the ones that had the attributes that we highly valued."
Members of the future NYXL walk out as members of Team South Korea at the 2017 Overwatch World Cup. Photo: Blizzard Esports
But plenty of teams have been together just as long or longer and not seen success. Kim points to Florida Mayhem, formerly Misfits, and Seoul Dynasty, formerly Lunatic-Hai, as two examples of why that plan doesn't work.
Seoul is currently fighting for its season playoff berth against several other teams, and the Mayhem sit near the bottom of the league, well out of playoff contention.
But as Lunatic-Hai, the now-Dynasty won the APEX league (the top pre-OWL outfit, based in South Korea) twice, while the Excelsior never placed higher than third in APEX as LW Blue. (The Mayhem/Misfits were European and so only competed in one APEX season, but did well in European majors before OWL.)
"They have been all together, their core members have been together a long time," said Kim. "And you look at their records? Huh. I am not so sure if that's the case."
Kim says that "you look at other teams, and I see a lot of unhappy players. And I'm kinda wondering how it would be possible for them to play a high level if they're not happy." The NYXL players work hard, sure, but they also let Pine take a break that was explicitly for mental health reasons, and Saebyeolbe lives in an off-campus apartment with his wife.
The team took a week completely off between stages three and four, when most teams were likely practising for the coming Brigitte-laden meta, which could have become a stumbling block. But that long holiday doesn't appear as though it's affected them at all: They're 5-1 in the stage, their only loss a narrow 3-2 to a surging Los Angeles Valiant.
As head coach for New York now, Yu focuses on the macro perspective. He looks for the overall picture, determining compositions (the lineup) and strategies. Each week, Yu writes the playbook for the team, the larger plan that will get them from map one through four with a win.
Kim, meanwhile, tries to remove what he calls "blockers" as best he can. "Sometimes, [blockers] can be a micro perspective of the game... usually what I do will be take a look into specific subjects, specific topic for two to three weeks and find a damn good answer on that," said Kim.
And Yu adds that "blockers" can also mean the non-game stuff that matters, but would take way from his area of expertise - the actual game. "Back in LW, I used to do all the housework," said Yu. "So I was taking care of their food and sleep issues and such, but now I don't wanna do it any more. I just wanna focus on the game itself."
There isn't any one single thing that the NYXL has over the rest of the league; Kim isn't afraid to say that it's everything. "We just have better players, we just understand the game better, and we have much better management, which makes players much happy. I think we're just fundamentally different."
Get star players, coach them creatively, and treat them well. Sounds easy. New York is the de facto home team and clear favourite for the inaugural OWL playoffs and title matches in Brooklyn this winter, and Yu and Kim don't mind the pressure.
Yu, through Kim, said "of course we're confident". And Kim quickly followed up: "How would it be possible for us to not be confident?"