Despite their tagline of "Shock the world," the San Francisco Shock's appearance in the 2019 Overwatch League grand finals is anything but surprising. As the Shock razed through the loser's bracket of the 2019 Overwatch League playoffs, and the Vancouver Titans pushed through the winner's bracket, their meeting in the grand finals was called inevitable, preordained, and fated. When the Shock qualified to face the Titans in the grand finals with a stunning fourth consecutive 4-0 sweep, it was most fitting and representative storyline of the Overwatch League year as a whole.
It has been a tumultuous sophomore year for the Overwatch League. The league ballooned from 12 to 20 teams, causing scheduling unevenness and viewer fatigue. The prevalence of the triple-triple (GOATS) meta throughout three of the four regular season stages was immediately -- arguably before the community had watched a single 2019 Overwatch League match live -- panned and denigrated as boring in comparison to more DPS-oriented dive or double sniper metas that came before it. And although the 2-2-2 roster lock remains one of the most widely-accepted game-altering changes in esports history, it came at an awkward time as teams were jockeying for playoff qualification in Stage 4.
Amidst the arguments of the merits of GOATS, the appalling timing of the roster lock, and varying strengths of schedule, one team remained startlingly consistent: the San Francisco Shock. The Shock made all three stage playoff finals, something that the Titans did not manage to accomplish due to a slight Stage 3 meta shift, with San Francisco winning Stage 2.
"[Our strength] has to be flexibility," Shock flex tank Choi "ChoiHyoBin" Hyo-bin said. "We don't have a fixed roster that we went with this entire season. Obviously for the GOATS meta, you saw the same roster, but as it changed you see the roster change in and out and everyone is able to play at a high level so I think that's our greatest strength."
ChoiHyoBin has survived multiple meta shifts this year and also picked up Sigma for the playoffs. He has been a consistent presence at the center of many moving parts as the Shock have swapped around their DPS and tank players.
"Pre-season I was on the bench and Nevix got the majority of the starts," ChoiHyoBin admitted after the Shock's 4-0 victory over London a few weeks ago. "I was able to learn, I was able to talk with Nevix and eventually catch up. Once I started figuring things out even more, that's when I became confident. As the season went on, that confidence just grew more and more and I was able to adapt to different roles."
Framing the Shock's success is the fact that they accomplished this consistency in hard mode: surviving large meta shifts while swapping players on a hybrid lineup.
Shock DPS player and league MVP Jay "Sinatraa" Won cited their success in both adapting and swapping players to the strong, positive personalities on the team.
"No one has a negative mentality of being benched or whatever because we knew from the start of our season that we had ten really talented players that could play in most metas," Sinatraa said. "We knew from the start there's going to be changes when meta changes because we have a really nasty DPS lineup and a tank lineup. I think everyone is just fine with it and everyone knows their role and what meta they should be in."
Substituting players between series and maps is more common in the Overwatch League than other esports. Still, it's difficult for any player to be sidelined, especially when every player on the Shock has a high level of talent. On another team, it would likely breed resentment and internal conflict. But not on the Shock. They balances their personalities through team bonding exercises, making them one of the more tight-knit and relaxed groups, despite the substitutions.
"The personalities have to mesh well, but it's small things like doing team activities all the time together and eating dinner and lunch together all the time at the dinner table with each other," Sinatraa said. "That makes it family. Everyone has a positive vibe on the team. No one wants to be that one guy who's negative. It just helps everyone be positive all the time."
This mentality is what helped the Shock grow to become one of the best GOATS teams in the league after a shaky start to Stage 1, overcome the Titans in the Stage 2 finals, and adjust to the 2-2-2 role lock seamlessly in Stage 4. More recently, the team's positive outlook helped them overcome an upsetting loss to the Atlanta Reign in the season playoffs that included a stunning conclusion on Rialto where the Shock left their payload.
"A game like that, when we're in a winning situation and we get off the payload, mentally it's a huge toll on everybody," ChoiHyoBin admitted. "We told ourselves, 'We have one more match left. It's not over.' We were trying to encourage each other. And also we kind of like being the underdogs, since Stage 1. So we kind of went back to that mentality."
Few other teams would have rebounded this quickly. The Shock not only regrouped, but swept all of their loser's bracket opponents. They did so by focusing on themselves and how they wanted to play.
"Not to discredit Atlanta, but [the loss] we kind of tumbled ourselves," ChoiHyoBin said after the London win. "We've had a couple of those moments where we've beaten ourselves up and put ourselves in that situation. Going into London, we didn't want to pay too much attention to how they were going to come at us, we just wanted to play our style from the start."
"Before every match, before every map, I just say, 'This could be our last game so let's just have fun," Sinatraa said. "Let's play how we always play in scrims and not be timid like we were against Atlanta.' I think losing actually helped us because everyone was playing reckless, fun, whatever they want to do, which is our style. You don't want to be a rollercoaster team where you have your ups and then you have your really hard downs. It's just keeping it consistent after every match, resetting our mindset after every match."
At the end of it all, the two best teams qualified as grand finalists: the San Francisco Shock and the Vancouver Titans. It's a culmination and conclusion to the overarching narrative of both teams and organizations throughout the 2019 Overwatch League season. Given the Titans strength in this Doomfist-Reaper meta, the Shock could even be seen as slight underdogs, despite their consistency and own DPS prowess. Fortunately for the Shock, that suits them better than being favorites.
"If we're down, we just don't care anymore and we'll just start doing whatever we want and our mechanics will carry really hard," Sinatraa said. "But also a good synergy with everyone doing whatever they want."