I wrote this back in early March for another website, but unfortunately it was never published. As some points in the column are still relevant I’ve decided to put it up here.
The past Overwatch League offseason saw the spiritual death of the APEX-era Kongdoo Panthera, with Rascal moving to the Fuel, Fissure moving to the Gladiators, and wakawaka retiring from the game. For those familiar with pre-OWL Overwatch history, it was the news of the winter: It was the first time that an era-defining APEX roster had completely dissolved. (The cores of EnVyUs, Lunatic-Hai, and GC Busan live on in the Overwatch League under different names; RunAway’s will be competing under the same banner in Contenders Korea). But for most viewers, it wasn’t news at all, for they had hardly ever heard of Kongdoo Panthera. The regular global viewership APEX enjoyed may have been respectable, but was but a pittance compared to the Overwatch League’s.
The Overwatch League and its pyramidal global ecosystem was long promised to be Overwatch esports as it was meant to be; everything preceding it were essentially considered test runs for the real show. So far the league has been living up to its promise, outshining past tournaments in most aspects — wordlessly proving that those test runs were, indeed, test runs. Some have argued that the broadcast remains wanting in areas such as observing or player-based shoulder content, but the product’s overall quality and public reception has been beyond convincing.
The international league’s massive commercial success in the West leaves APEX in a curious historical spot. It’s impossible to downplay APEX’s significance; it was the original premier circuit for Overwatch esports, more than one-thirds of the league’s players directly hail from it, and much of the narratives surrounding the league’s biggest stars stem from their achievements in South Korea. Yet due to huge differences in field, format, and global reach, it feels both unintuitive and wrong to treat APEX as a continuous predecessor to the Overwatch League, in the way one would relate the European Cup to the Champions League.
The equivocal degree of Korean dominance within the league complicates the problem. Had the Overwatch League been much less competitive across the board, with the three full-Korean rosters barely even dropping maps against the other nine, it might have been possible to argue that APEX had been clearly the more prestigious event in terms of skill. From what we have seen so far, that hardly seems to be the case. Yet despite the very impressive performances from the non-Korean field, it still was the APEX imports who took most of the glory, and the Stage 1 champions were none else than the champions of APEX’s final season.
In the narrative sense, this vague historical disconnect will disappear over time. As the Overwatch League progresses, teams and players will soar and crash in enough ways and enough times for us to construct new storylines completely independent from those carried over from OGN. In a year or so, APEX itself will pass into the distant past for most. First-generation fans may look back on those times with longing, but as long as OWL continues to deliver, such bouts of reminiscence will come to resemble a happily married man’s very occasional flashbacks about his high school sweetheart.
Yet in a different sense — the sense of our being knob-headed sports fans forever compelled to compare and rank and argue — one wonders how APEX’s honors will be weighed in the far future, by the time when OWL honors will provide more than enough material to judge entire careers. Will they be lost in time? At the dawn of competitive StarCraft: Brood War, dozens of different tournaments were held, and most of them were just as competitive as any OSL or MSL held during the same period. Yet once all those other brands shut down, public opinion began to shift towards only acknowledging the OSL and MSL as premier events. All other trophies subsequently lost most of their value — not for lack of actual merit, but for the sake of comparative convenience. APEX may suffer a similar fate, or worse; with Contenders Korea promising to crown regular Korean champions once again, APEX trophies may one day be subsumed under a far less impressive achievement. The idea may sound ridiculous now, but more egregious recalibrations have happened in Brood War.
To be fair, for many viewers, APEX’s chief draw as a tournament might not have been the level of play on display, but the fun and excitement it provided through its signature soundtracks, cinematic observing, delightfully odd shoulder content, and breathtaking finals stage productions. It would be a shame, however, if we were to solely glorify its spectacular appeal while letting the dust of time consume its competitive prestige, and our memories of its heroes. The Kongdoo Panthera we knew has died, as has APEX. But it’s up to us how we bury them.