After three years of not dropping a game at the Overwatch World Cup, it was clear that 2019 was different for Team South Korea. Although players from South Korea are still dominant in the Overwatch League, the South Korean team couldn't keep its world cup championship streak going for the fourth year in a row.
In a hectic Friday at BlizzCon that featured matches happening simultaneously throughout the day, South Korea lost for the first time in Overwatch's brief competitive history. Team France, which many believe is an up-and-coming powerhouse of talent, provided a fatal blow and took a game off South Korea.
"One of the biggest reasons we lost was that we were still trying to figure out how to adapt to our opponents until later in the tournament," Philadelphia Fusion DPS player Jae-hyeok "Carpe" Lee told ESPN. "Although we did feel confident we could beat France if we played them again."
They did beat France again to secure the bronze medal. The third-place finish is not a huge surprise, as South Korea has gone through multiple roster and coaching changes since last year. Some notable players, including 2017 world cup MVP Sung-hyeon "JJoNak" Bang, opted out of playing in order to put the spotlight on other players.
South Korea also ran into a list of issues leading up to the world cup. The team arrived in Anaheim late and didn't play in scrimmages against other teams, among other issues.
"The Overwatch World Cup is in Anaheim, so the United States has home-field advantage in that way," New York Excelsior tank Dong-gyu "Mano" Kim said. "We don't know how they prepared, though, so we can't say for sure if they had a home-field advantage. The whole schedule was compact, and we had to adjust to the time zone."
The entire squad except for Carpe and Mano was new to Team South Korea, even though all players are currently in the Overwatch League. For comparison, the majority of Team France's squad is made up of players from the amateur contenders league. Team China and the USA are also mostly represented by Overwatch League veterans.
"South Korea is not as strong as last year but definitely still strong," said Denmark's Johannes "Shax" Nielsen, who also plays for the Los Angeles Valiant.
Although South Korea handled Denmark, shutting them out in the end, the Danish squad forced several draws at pivotal moments. Despite not putting points on the board, Denmark was able to disrupt South Korea's strategy by capitalizing on mistakes and sticking to long-range combat.
"[Mikkel "Molf1g" Djernes] and I just looked at each other and asked what hero we wanted to go with and decided on Widowmaker and Hanzo," Denmark's Mads "fischer" Jehg said. "It actually happened and worked, which is crazy."
The duo were able to help pick off South Korea and hold them for almost four minutes, prolonging their Saturday match significantly.
"In the hype of LAN [local area network tournaments] there will be mistakes," Team Netherlands' Jonathan "Jona" Stelma said. "A good Widowmaker can punish those mistakes."
Multiple players across several teams expressed surprise at the compositions South Korea ran, citing the compact schedule as a reason for their less-than-stellar performance.
"If we didn't prepare for South Korea, if we didn't prepare for China, we would've lost," Team USA's Indy "Space" Halpern said.
"We were the best players at this world cup. That I can say," the Houston Outlaws' Shane "Rawkus" Flaherty said.
Team USA beat South Korea twice, knocking them out of the competition. They acknowledged that South Korea has better competitive infrastructure than other regions, but the gap is smaller than ever.
Throughout South Korea's news conference, the team seemed demoralized, following several questions with sentiments of disappointment. Every South Korean squad before had come away with a gold medal, and they didn't keep that tradition alive.
"Before heading into the tournament, I thought that if we lost, I'd be full of regrets," Mano said. "But after playing through all these matches ... playing alongside all these first-timers, I feel lucky to have played alongside them. I know we'll come back stronger for 2020."