It took the Los Angeles Gladiators four seasons to win a championship.
The franchise was established in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League. That initial roster had a lot of heart, but they always seemed to fall just short of competing with the top teams. As the years rolled on, players came and went, yet something was always missing. There was this sense the Gladiators were getting close to perfecting the formula — just not close enough.
For a while, it seemed like 2021 would be the same story for the Gladiators. They were touted as the potential best team in the league coming into the season, an expectation they failed to reach for a long time. Though they consistently performed well in the regular season, they didn’t manage to reach the final four of the first three tournament cycles.
As always, it felt like all the pieces were there. It was just a matter of putting them together.
“I feel like we could have gone to Hawaii all three tournaments,” said flex support Kim “Shu” Jin-seo. “We always just missed it by a very narrow margin.”
Many people play the game, but @shu_overwatch has changed it.
— Los Angeles Gladiators (@LAGladiators) August 19, 2021
Then, during the fourth tournament of the season, the Countdown Cup, the Gladiators finally did make it to Hawaii alongside the Atlanta Reign, Chengdu Hunters and Seoul Dynasty — all teams who’d made it there before. There were doubts surrounding the Gladiators when it came to the series of high-stakes matches they’d have to play. The team was prone to panicking even during regular season matches. How would they react if something went wrong during a playoff game?
“This tournament, we were all just thinking about how we could overcome that little margin that we couldn’t overcome in the previous tournaments,” Shu said. “So everyone just talked to each other and tried to figure out what we needed to change. I feel like communication was the biggest problem that we fixed.”
Whatever steps the team took to fix communication, they clearly worked. The Gladiators stormed through the Countdown Cup looking the best they’d been all season. They made it to finals through the winner’s bracket, where they faced the Hunters. Over the course of the series, the Gladiators went up 3-1, only for the Hunters to rally back and win the next two maps to take it to a tiebreaker.
For a moment, it seemed as if the Gladiators might be losing control again. It was up to them to prove things were different this time.
“I don’t believe in momentum,” Shu remarked. “It doesn’t matter what the score is. Once the game starts, both teams just try their best, so I didn’t feel any difference [in the tiebreaker] just because Chengdu won the last two maps.”
The Gladiators held on to their composure in the final map and managed to come out on top. It was the organization’s first championship. Hell, it was the first time they’d ever even cracked the top four in any tournament or stage. Finally, they’d figured out the winning formula — though their competition didn’t make it easy. According to Shu, while the Gladiators were confident in their dive composition, Chengdu caught them off guard.
“I didn’t think we’d lose to any other dive team,” Shu said. “But we were kind of surprised by Chengdu’s style, because we’d never faced a team that played that fast before.”
It was a clash of similar styles that made for exhilarating Overwatch. The Gladiators and Hunters had been among the most high-tempo teams in their respective regions all year. When the two collided, it resulted in a series of thrilling individual plays, fast-paced dives and hectic team fights.
“We’re an aggressive team,” Shu said. “We’re probably the most aggressive team in the West region. Every player has their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of what style they can play. In our team, for all the players overall, I think the aggressive diving style fits us better.”
After the Dallas Fuel and Shanghai Dragons exercised considerable dominance over the first three tournament cycles, the playoffs felt like a foregone conclusion, with these two teams expected to be the last ones standing again. But with the Gladiators’ victory in the Countdown Cup and the Hunters not far behind, the field has been blown wide open. Now it feels like anyone could win the whole thing, as long as they can put it all together. That’s what the Gladiators did, after all.
When it comes to which team will pose the biggest threat in playoffs, Shu doesn’t have to think about it for very long.
“Chengdu,” he said with a laugh. “Chengdu and Shanghai. Shanghai also plays very high-tempo and they’re really good at diving, just like Chengdu. They have similar playstyles, but Shanghai feels like a more solid team. All six players are always playing very solidly, so they might even be a little more difficult than Chengdu.”
Even so, every team will be hungry for victory come playoffs. The Gladiators may be the best team in the world right now, but Shu said they still have things to work on. There’s always room for improvement, and that’s what they’ll need to keep striving for in order to climb even higher. This time around, the Gladiators are going to continue addressing areas Shu said they’ve struggled with in the past.
“If you look at the top tier teams, mechanically, they’re pretty much all the same,” Shu said. “So the number one thing you have to improve on is communication in terms of players making calls and talking about strategy. I think if we improve that more, we can win the grand finals.”