Boston Uprising is the team with the most sophisticated grasp of making money in the transfer market. At least in the first season, nobody invested their money more efficiently while making the playoffs than they did. Smart strategies, customized towards the Overwatch ecosystem and clear cut execution brought them there. If the rumors around Gamsu’s transfer to the Shanghai Dragons turns out to be true, it would be the purest expression of their organizational philosophy yet.
Everything for sale
When the news hit that Gamsu might be going to the Shanghai Dragons it was only initially surprising to me. The main tank had been one of the players most used in their social media activations and with the rumored internal league suggestion to make certain players “brand players”, Gamsu seemed to be the destined one.
On the other hand, it had been suggested behind the scenes that the South Korean was eyeing a move into a coaching position eventually. That much seemed plausible, given that Gamsu had had a long career competing at the top of both League of Legends and now Overwatch and at the age of 23 was already one of the older players in OWL.
He had been missing in recent scrims and what initially seemed to hint at the move into a more coaching oriented bench player role, turned out to be another profitable move by the Boston transfer system. Looking at the organization’s transfer market moves, one would have to regard them as the economically most successful.
Firstly, no other academy team had sold nearly as many players to Overwatch League teams than Toronto Esports which later became Uprising Academy. Equally, their roster promotion seemed to be up there with the best of them, fully utilizing the two-way contracts and their academy team alike.
Secondly, the team had managed to sell Striker and Neko to San Francisco Shock and Toronto Defiant respectively. Both players had commanded sizeable buyout fees and while both of them were outstanding talents and arguably the two star-players on their team, Boston let them leave.
President of gaming, Christopher “Huk” Loranger stated that the team had always had an “open door policy when it comes to discussing trades”, further elaborating by stating that “There is no player that is ‘off-limits’”. The selling of both of his former star players indicated for this to be genuine. If Gamsu’s transfer turns out to be true, it would provide all but proof.
Striker and Neko didn’t quite feel as core, both in terms of leadership and marketing efforts, as Gamsu did. If he was really to be sold, there would be little doubt that Huk had meant what he said to the most literal degree.
All team building starts with scouting and here Boston seemed to have figured out early which talent forges to avoid. While Huk was in contact with Kongdoo, the premier seller of elite players in South Korea, he seemed to have learned his lesson early that this team was not going to be of much assistance. Kongdoo themselves were too similar in their approach to the Uprising, commanding high buyout fees for all their players, and had themselves build a reputation.
To this day, Boston hasn’t fielded a player that was either highly sought after by other teams or had major fan attention directed at them. Perhaps Gamsu had been the only exception, given his reputation as a League of Legends player for well-known brands such as Samsung Blue, Dignitas, and Fnatic.
If we want to trust the first season’s results, something in the scouting structure seems to be inherently superior at Boston. One aspect could be that they are among the teams that invest the most time into sifting through low profile players and conducting scrims and are willing to take risks on players which nobody else will look at. Later they will leverage the fact that they only target those players with one option, both in terms of squeezing even academy teams on the buyouts and offering relatively low salaries for long contract lengths. It is an acceptable agreement for those players, as nobody else would give them the chance or would provide them with equal playing time and the benefits of a relatively proven system.
To Boston’s advantage, very few teams employed their strategy towards scouting for even a select few roles. Only the expansion team Washington Justice seemed to employ a similar approach and they have yet to prove that it works for them.
Using 1+1 optionality
The most common player contract structure is a so-called “1+1 contract”. They entail a guaranteed first year for the player under the agreed upon terms. After that, only the teams have the option to extend the contract for another year under the same conditions. This season has seen a lot of contracts even become “1+2” meaning that teams enjoy a two year optionality period. In contrast to professional sports, most have a so-called “right of first refusal” which hands a lot more power in negotiations to the players.
This gives teams a sizeable economic advantage if they want to exercise their rights to the fullest. Theoretically, taking on a talent that has a break out performance in his first year of his contract and slapping very high buyout fees onto him provides the team with all the leverage. There is no obligation for them to even raise their salaries, other than a moral one which is further diminished by Boston giving those players the chance at a career in the first place.
If a player doesn’t perform up to expectations, not extending his contract keeps the taken the risk for the team low, especially at a near minimum salary. The team now doesn’t have to pay a player for the full three-year contract length. The only way for a player to get out of a contract is to exercise a retirement clause which renders him unable to compete for the rest of the season or to be bought out by triggering his buyout clause.
The advantage that teams enjoy through that contract structure is immense, yet rarely is it exercised in full. Perhaps it is too early to say that Boston does just that, but they seem to at least use the threat of going there as leverage more aggressively than others.
Avast, Kalios, and Snow were let go and no significant dent was put into Boston’s war chest. On the other hand, extending player contracts for Striker, Neko & now possibly Gamsu at the salaries they were earning was now a no-brainer in the aftermath of the season. Either they’d have cheap top level players or others would have to (and in fact did have to) pay considerable buyouts that each amortized large parts of the bill that Boston had footed to gamble on the aforementioned players.
One aspect of their system not to be overlooked from last season is that they not only were able to spot people with the right specs for what they are looking for. They also managed to install their operating system with great success. Players like Striker and Neko weren’t just unknown gods who were dragged down by their former team’s performances. Boston unarguably managed to raise their level of play significantly.
To pinpoint the source of this considerable performance boost proves difficult at this point and I won’t further speculate on it here, given the limited amount of insight we have into their system. It does, however, ring irrational to assume that those qualities all left when their former coach Crusty left towards the Shock.
With Gunba, formerly of the LA Valiant, they once again brought in highly regarded coaching talent. Reportedly, he’s one of those coaches who have a deep understanding of the game and he has answers as to what kind of improvements need to be made as mistakes happen. Judging from the outside, his type of coaching and leadership lends itself to the Uprising’s system. It could very well be, that the Uprising aren’t just ahead in finding underappreciated players, but also have a solid idea of what it needs out of its coaches and where candidates can be found.
There is no precedent for continued excellence
Another factor that could potentially be crucially underrated by other teams in the league is, that there is no historical precedence for continued excellence in Overwatch. Few players (arguably none) in the history of Overwatch have maintained a cream of the crop level performance for a year. It is indeed overwhelmingly the case, that a player’s peak hardly ever lasts 6 months. This becomes more important when looking at the league’s schedule and the opaqueness of potential performance drops in the off-season.
Perhaps, Overwatch as a game, with frequent balance and resulting meta changes is not an environment in which a player can build a long-lasting legacy. At the very least, there is little data to suggest that. Ryujehong was considered the best player of 2017, a god tier player who put fear in Genji and Tracer hearts all over the globe. Now we understand him to be an average player on his position. Woohyal, a player that was believed to be one of the best D.Va players in the world in late 2017, has yet to even find an academy team to play for. Former universally considered monsters like Fleta and Birdring seemed docile and domesticated towards the end of the season.
It doesn’t seem unbelievable that Boston’s approach could be no more risky in terms of long term performance than sticking with a formerly excellent roster for an extended period of time waiting for their eventual decay.
On the bright side, maybe it could be the case that these patterns we observe are merely a by-product of a young competitive game that is still trying to figure itself out and that we will eventually find longevity in player careers. For the time being, however, Boston is taking this gamble all the way to the bank.
Boston is a team of extremes, min-maxing roster building to the highest degree. With the rules and regulations in place as they are, one has to wonder if it isn’t the rest of the league that is off-kilter and behind in terms of playing the transfer market to its logical conclusions or if they perhaps deem Boston’s approach as unfeasible or improper.
On the spectrum of scouting efforts in niche places, Boston sets the one extreme, while a team like the Houston Outlaws has self admittedly never had a tryout. In terms of lavishly spending on salaries and buyouts, Boston and perhaps Washington Justice make up one end, while teams like London Spitfire with their purchase of both a KDP roster and GC Busan are likely to be found on the other end. It stands to reason that the Uprising’s approach might likely not produce championships as reliably as other systems with higher spending, but in terms of sustainability (while ignoring marketing efforts) they likely to have the closest to a sustainable formula.