For a shot at glory - Atlanta Reign take calculated risk

How are their odds?

Overwatch's Icon Sascha Heinisch · 24 Aug 2019


Photo via Tonya McCahon For Blizzard Entertainment

Atlanta Coach Brad “Sephy” Rajani made news by publicly tweeting out his team’s strategic shift - they are focusing on practising the playoff patch as opposed to scrimming in preparation for their remaining regular season games against Dallas and Boston. Is this a good strategy? 

Mathematically, there is a way to model this, and working backwards, provide insight into Atlanta’s beliefs on their chances this weekend and in the season playoffs. Eric Doerr is back to do just that.

Atlanta has two remaining regular season games against teams going into an early offseason. The Dallas Fuel and Boston Uprising are locked out of the playoffs and sport stage 4 map records of 5-21 and 7-16 respectively (0-10 collectively in series). Winning both of these games would lock the Reign into the 5th or 6th seed, while losing one would drop them into the play in bracket. Obviously, Atlanta is heavily favored this weekend regardless of practice, but let’s model two scenarios and try to understand Sephy’s strategy.

A bird in hand, or two in the bush?

Atlanta has a choice to either practice on the stage 4 scrim and maximize odds of securing a guaranteed playoff spot, or practicing on the playoff patch to give them better odds of playoff advancement and acquiring a bigger piece of the $3.5 million prize pool. 

Let’s explore two scenarios dealing with different beliefs on the value of patch-specific practice. Given a few assumptions*, and focusing on maximizing the end of season prize earnings, our example scenarios lay out like this:

Trading off winning now for winning later?
Trading off winning now for winning later?

In the above hypothetical, the Reign has a choice between focusing on Sigma or the stage 4 patch. The scenarios depicted just move one variable (likelihood of Top 6, in red), yet the recommendation (in bold) differs depending on how much patch-specific practice impacts the equation. By their admission, Atlanta’s coaches believe the long term benefits in learning Sigma outweigh the possible immediate costs of un-lucking into the play-in tournament.

Now in reality, Sephy and staff are probably intuitively reaching the same conclusion without explicitly pulling out a calculator, but this example shows how such decisions can be considered quantitatively. You could change any of the variables above and compare your conclusions to the Reign’s actual strategy, but we will all have to tune in this weekend to see if it starts to pay off or immediately backfires.

Publicly sharing the strategic approach via Twitter also has its drawbacks and benefits in itself. Dallas and Boston could be more motivated to make Atlanta rain tears, but fans are also forewarned that poor showings this week shouldn’t necessarily foreshadow a playoff bomb-out, and could be just a cost of investing into better playoff results. The question remains why you would simultaneously forewarn your other future opponents who might have to conceive of their own cost benefit analysis down the line when it comes to the playoffs. 

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*Practice Decision Scenario Assumptions 

  1. By current Elo odds, Atlanta is roughly 90% likely to win out and secure a top 6 seed
  2. If the Reign have to go through the play-in bracket, they would have a roughly 60% shot of making it out 
  3. Top 6 Odds + (1 - Top 6 odds) * Odds of Winning Play-In Match
  4. Expected Playoff Winnings represents prize money by spot multiplied by the likelihood they finish the playoffs in that spot. $300,000 represents an average finish around 5/6th in the season playoffs, and with more Sigma practice, its reasonable to expect better outcomes in September. There is no money for teams falling out of the play-in tournament. 
  5. Expected Strategy Payoff is the above two lines multiplied, the crux of the matter. In this simple example the goal is to maximize expected winnings.

Taking it to the next level / Graduate School 

Certain commentators have suggested Atlanta should deliberately throw one of this weekend’s matches to secure the 7th seed, play through the play-ins, and reap the rewards of facing a vulnerable NYXL in the first round rather than opening as the 6th seed against a dominant 3rd seed Shock. Let’s take an oversimplified example to see what assumptions would be necessary for this to be a good idea:

Table via Eric Doerr
Table via Eric Doerr

Basically, per the above, you would have to believe Atlanta has absolutely zero chance against the Shock and are a 100% guarantee to beat the Excelsior. Maybe you do, but then you should definitely also consider the following:

  • Playoffs are double elimination, so losing in the first round against the Shock as the 6th seed would still allow a chance to secure minimum top 6 by beating the Excelsior or their Play-in qualified opponent in Round 1 of the Loser’s Bracket.  
  • If Atlanta take the 7th seed, winning in Round 1 likely puts them up against the dreaded Shock in round 2. (Winner of seed 2/7 plays winner of seed 3/6)
  • The big prize money is not considered here. Even if your team has small chances at the $1.1 million first prize, the expected potential value of that money and a championship likely dwarf any perceived gains of the extreme scenario depicted above.
  • I glossed over this, but the Reign are about equally likely to wind up as seed 5 or 6 after Sunday. Getting seed 5 instead of 6 would delay any potential Shock matchup until 2 rounds into the playoffs, thus also increasing their overall theoretical monetary gain

Beyond the countable

Other than considerations of prize money and choosing optimal strategies here, teams as well as the public recognize that there is more at stake than a payday. Excellence, greatness and glory are sought after and often placed as goals of higher importance. Many of the competitors and staff in the Overwatch League could be high performers in anything they put their mind to but they chose competition as their canvas.

And we have to recognize that strategies that aim for winning the league are ultimately of higher intrinsic value to them than what the mathematical prize money sweet spot suggests. It is precisely because we don’t assign value symmetrical to the monetary gain that teams like the New York Excelsior and the Los Angeles Valiant are met largely with apathy in terms of their playoff achievements in the inaugural season. While both teams made it past the first playoff rounds, very little respect is earned by those victories in relation to the feat of reaching the Grand Final.

Search in yourself what feelings you find towards Philadelphia Fusion’s and the London Spitfire’s first season. Barely clinching playoffs ahead of the Houston Outlaws, their season was wondrously made hole the moment they made it to the Grand Finals.

Atlanta Reign’s gamble is a respectable decision that likely has a higher chance to produce a peak performance in the latter stages of the playoffs as experience in a meta has time and time again been proven to be of the utmost importance. The overdogs have long opted for this approach and a team with championship aspirations can’t afford to fall behind.

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