Just 18-months into Overwatch’s lifecycle, the Charlotte-based esports organization has thoughtfully constructed one of the world’s most impressive rosters while navigating the industry’s seemingly unavoidable pitfalls.
Overwatch has been on the market for nearly 18 months now, but the popular first-person team shooter from Blizzard Entertainment became the darling of the esports universe almost immediately out of the gate. In three months, the world will bear witness to the first-ever global professional eSports league when the inaugural season of Overwatch League kicks off in Burbank, California on January 10, 2018. The 12-team league is nearing the end of an initial free-agency period during which organizations can communicate with prospective players, conduct try outs, and make signings before the window closes on October 30th. As many teams are still frantically scouring Overwatch circles to solidify their ranks, the recently announced Dallas Fuel already has its core roster in place thanks to the underlying eSports organization that helped put them together more than a year ago.
Just some 72 hours ago (pictured left-to-right above) Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod (Thailand), Kim “Effect” Hyeon (South Korea), Sebastian “Chipshajen” Widlund (Sweden), Christian “Cocco” Jonsson (Sweden), Timo “Taimou” Kettunen (Finland), Jonathan “Harryhook” Tejedor Rua (Spain), and Brandon “Seagull” Larned (USA – not pictured), raised their team’s third major Overwatch trophy in less than a year when Team EnVyUs swept opponents FaZe Clan 4-0 in the Overwatch Contenders Season One Championship at Blizzard’s brand-new esports arena in Burbank, California. The decisive victory was the culmination of an 8-week event that Blizzard established, in part, to provide the North American and European players who were hoping to get signed to Overwatch League with an opportunity to perform in front of the league’s participating organizations and coaches (similar to the NFL or NBA combines).
Team EnVyUs (sometimes stylized as Team Envy or nV) is a popular esports organization that was initially founded as a Call of Duty team beginning in 2007. Today, the Charlotte-based outfit headed by esports visionary Mike “Hastr0” Rufail supports teams competing across a variety of games that also include Halo, Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Rocket League, Street Fighter, and Paladins.
When Overwatch was still in its pre-beta phase in early 2016, Rufail approached a talented group of European players whose names were already making rounds on the web and presented them with a rather unique opportunity: Rufail wanted to fly the players to Team Envy’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they would live together and practice in an Envy-owned, state-of-the-art team house (in addition to offering lucrative contracts to sign with his organization). After mulling over the offers and considering the life-changing prospects laid out in front of them, the players finally took Rufail up on his offer and haven’t looked back since.
It wouldn’t take long for Envy to become the poster organization for Overwatch success, either. They dominated the game’s earliest internet competition by winning a staggering 57-straight matches at one point. Envy also went on to capture the coveted Apex Season One championship and, in the process, became the first western-based team to win a major esports trophy in South Korea.
Weeks later, Envy returned to the U.S. to put their talents on display in front of western audiences at the MLG Vegas Overwatch Invitational. Many esports fans were eager to see how the boys would match-up against U.S. and European-based teams after just having witnessed them conquer the comparatively stronger Korean circuit. Envy would go on to lose just a single map across the entirety of the tournament before ultimately handing FaZe Clan (believe it or not) another 4-0 drubbing in the championship.
Having achieved two major tournament victories in a matter of weeks, “the Boys in Blue” were on top of the Overwatch world and preparing to enjoy a much-needed vacation back in their home countries for the holidays. Little did they know of the countless challenges that 2017 had in store for Team Envy right around the corner.
The Challenges of esports like Overwatch
No professional sports league or industry has ever really managed to get it right on the first go-around, and esports is no exception. Since Day 1, one of the biggest challenges facing organizations in Overwatch has been the issue of roster turnover. Roster turnover has always been inevitable in esports, but it seems to be increasing at a faster-than-normal rate in this era of elevated stakes and increased pressure to meet expectations.
Overwatch’s professional scene exists globally and teams that have the infrastructure needed to support a multinational roster may find that the language barrier proves too difficult to overcome further on down the road. Last December, for example, a 3-team, 8-player trade was completed between Rogue, Misfits, and Luminosity that sought to reorganize rosters for language purposes. But Swedish side Misfits, a team that ran the group stage in the most recent European Contenders season, has only two players remaining on its current active roster who were part of the team back in December 2016 when this trade was finalized.
Personality conflicts between teammates have also been known to curtail team chemistry in Overwatch; Most teams are often without the presence of a team manager or player coach to mediate and resolve these issues, and teammates left to their own devices are likely to underperform during such conflicts. The announcement of Overwatch League late last year compounded the issue even further. Teams raced to optimize their rosters ahead of tournaments like Contenders knowing ownership groups that had already secured spots in Overwatch League would be recruiting there.
Rosters were often constructed hastily and in a manner that provided teams the chance to become competitively viable in the shortest amount of time. But esports rosters can be like fragile ecosystems, especially in a game like Overwatch where communication amongst the 6-player units is paramount to success. When a star player became an available free agent, organizations would line up to offer a tryout, rarely considering how the new player’s personality would fit (or not fit) with other players.
Making matters worse are teams with hands-off ownership groups that place much of the roster construction responsibilities on one of the team’s own players – usually a designated captain. Think back to the reaction of NBA fans when they learned that LeBron James might be influencing free agency decisions in Cleveland that were typically handled by a team’s General Manager. One of the all-time great professional basketball players – and basketball minds for that matter – apparently can’t be trusted to make personnel recommendations, but a 21-year-old esports professional can?
And while implementing a devoted infrastructure and support system like team managers and player coaches can help to rectify many of these scenarios, Overwatch’s first 12-18 months have taught us that there may not be any way of getting around the potentially flawed model of esports.
Think about the lifecycle of a game that is built for the esports industry. Unlike other professional sports in which coaches typically possess years and years of experience that they can pass down to their players, esports coaches are almost always ex-players who repurpose their roles after some time spent playing the game professionally. But rarely do they ever find themselves coming into a situation in which they have more experience or more success in a game than the players they are coaching (if they did, they would probably still be playing in most scenarios – with certain exceptions). Imagine being forced to take instruction from someone in a professional setting who, quite simply, used to do what you do – maybe just not as well.
The model works in traditional sports because “I’ve been coaching football for 20 years” sounds much better than “I’ve been playing League of Legends since the game was in beta phase, just like all of you.” Translation: The addition of a coach is not always a failsafe plan for eliminating inter-team disputes and conflicts. Whether the issue is competing personalities or disagreements over strategy or tactics, not all players are willing to buy into the guidance of a peer whom they may not respect. Perhaps organizations may have to be willing to prioritize aspects of a player’s profile other than technical skill when outfitting a roster (though I have yet to come across a headline reading “Player X signed to contract as a result of displaying strong emotional maturity”).
Team EnVyUs and Their Commitment to Overwatch Success
With all of these factors working against an organization’s chances for achieving sustained esports success, how exactly has Team EnVyUs managed to consistently navigate these challenges in such a volatile industry environment? In this case, you really have to start at the top with team owner, the previously mentioned Mike “Hastr0” Rufail.
Rufail showed a willingness to commit limitless resources to growing Envy’s Overwatch brand from the outset, beginning with his offer to relocate the European-based players to Charlotte, North Carolina. Envy was the first Overwatch team to provide such an arrangement for its team members, and thanks to Rufail’s dedication, the Overwatch roster was already settled and scrimming in the U.S. when other teams were still wrestling with the logistics of such a move.
As someone with vast knowledge and experience in U.S. Immigration Law, I can also tell you that securing O-1/P-1 visas (U.S. visas that have specific designations for athletes) at that time was extremely difficult, particularly because of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s inconsistent stance on whether esports professionals qualify as “athletes.” I spoke with Envy’s Timo “Taimou” Kettunen via Reddit in December 2016 to discuss his frustrations with the immigration process, and I know that he (and possibly other Envy players) were forced to secure temporary visas using the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) while they awaited decisions on their primary visas. Without going into much detail, I can tell you that coordinating these simultaneous visa processes while his players were actively participating in OGN Apex Season One in Korea and preparing to return to the U.S. for the MLG Vegas Overwatch Invitational shortly thereafter would have been no small task for Rufail (not to mention the financial commitment associated with hiring specialized immigration counsel and paying the USCIS filing and expedite filing fees).
Rufail and Envy have also made all of the right decisions when it comes to roster construction. When Ronnie “Tailspin” Dupree (the lone U.S. player on Envy’s roster) quit the team late last year without warning, it left very little time to find an adequate replacement with the OGN Apex playoffs fast approaching. Rufail and then-captain Dennis “Internethulk” Hawelka met to discuss potential replacement ideas. Would they seek a player who could fill the DPS position left by Tailspain? Would they move Harryhook, a talented all-around player into the vacant DPS slot and recruit a new support specialist?
Hulk instead suggested contacting Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod, a Thai player whose upbeat personality caught Hulk’s attention at last year’s Overwatch World Cup. To those who weren’t following the World Cup event from BlizzCon, though, Mickie was virtually unknown across most Overwatch circles. He had invested very little time playing off-tank heroes like Zarya and D-Va to that point (the role Envy was looking to fill) in addition to having almost no professional esports experience in general. Rather than splashing for a flashy DPS player like many other teams would have, Rufail was more interested in mending the somewhat fractured personality of his squad that came about after the unceremonious departure of Tailspin.
The decision to temporarily bring Mickie into the fold for the remainder of OGN Apex Season One worked in more ways than one. For starters, his game-changing D-Va ults against opponents Rogue and KongDoo Uncia (both times on the map Eichenwald) proved to be the deciding factors in pushing Envy through to the finals. As far as short-term replacements were concerned, Envy could not have made a more inspired choice.
But Mickie’s contributions weren’t limited to that 3-match stretch in Korea wherein Envy captured their first major championship trophy. His cheerful, buoyant demeanor reanimated a struggling squad that was desperate to re-establish itself as the class of Overwatch. After doing just that in Korea, Mickie played a critical role in Envy’s annihilation of western opponents one week later at MLG Vegas. And after Envy secured its second major trophy in as many weeks, Rufail crashed the onstage celebration to officially welcome Mickie to Team EnVyUs on a permanent basis (see 17:20 in the video below).
A month earlier, Envy was in a state of free-fall having just lost a key team member. No one could have predicted that the addition of the relatively unknown Mickie would lead to two major championships in the final weeks of 2016 while simultaneously re-energizing his teammates in the process. But then again, no one but Rufail was smart enough to sign him.
The Trials of Life on the Other Side of the World
The end of 2016 worked out just about as well as Envy could have hoped with the addition of Mickie and two major Overwatch tournament trophies. The Apex Season One finale against Afreeca Freecs Blue and the MLG Vegas tournament established Envy as the world’s best tank-heavy team. With Cocco playing Reinhardt, Mickie on D-Va or Zarya, and Taimou flexing onto Roadhog, the Boys in Blue showed they were essentially unstoppable.
But prolonged dominance was not in the cards for Envy, and as the year changed, so too did the in-game meta. Blizzard released a new patch to Overwatch that re-balanced many of the heroes’ abilities. As a result, slower, triple-tank comps were being swapped out in favor of more mobile “dive” comps. The new meta placed a premium on flanking heroes Genji and Tracer — two characters that were notably absent from Envy’s hero pools.
Still, Envy returned to Korea in January 2017 for OGN Apex Season Two, and despite having to run outdated compositions, they qualified for the second group stage by going 2-1 in the preliminary round. The dream of an Apex repeat performance was crushed, however, when Envy dropped their next two matches to Lunatic Hai and Kondoo Panthera, ultimately eliminating them from the tournament.
The early exit from Apex left Envy with much to ponder. Could they continue to contend for championships in Overwatch with a roster that was comparatively limited in terms of its ability to adapt to the changing in-game meta? Envy had also received an invitation to compete in Season Three of Apex in Korea, which was to start a mere 20 days after the end of Season Two.
The short window between seasons two and three did not allow for the team to return home for an extended period of time, and despite the fact that the players had already been living in a Korean hotel since January, the team elected to stick it out and remain in Korea along with the world’s best competition. Envy also made the difficult decision to part ways with their long-time captain Internethulk and replace him with the Kim “Effect” Hyeon — a talented Korean DPS player who had been a part of Meta Athena’s inactive roster despite being considered one of the world’s best Tracer players. The swap was a big surprise to fans of Envy as Hulk had been an integral part of the team going all the way back to the days of the Overwatch beta.
Rufail and team manager Mat “TazMo” Taylor also explored additional ways to improve the squad outside of player recruitment.
One of Envy’s greatest strengths in the past had been its situational preparedness — the result of hours upon hours spent scrimming and practicing at their Charlotte team house in which they developed map and situation-specific strategies. Just take a look at the 13:50 mark in the MLG Vegas highlight video above for an example: Anticipating that opponents FaZe Clan would be grouping up behind their Reinhardt shield to make their next push through the main chokepoint on Nepal’s Shrine map, Chips’ Ana left the safety of his own backline to hide just inside the choke. FaZe, expecting Envy to defend their next attack on the map’s central objective point (like 99% of other teams would), advanced forward knowing that any incoming damage would be negated so long as they stood directly behind their tank’s shield. Just as FaZe marched past, Envy began moving toward them as Chips simultaneously sprung from his hidden position and landed a sleep dart on Reinhardt: the only thing standing between FaZe and a barrage of Envy ultimates. As the enemy Rein fell and FaZe no longer had use of his shield for protection, Cocco landed a massive Earthshatter ultimate of his own that stunned the enemies and allowed the rest of his team to move in for a Team Kill.
All-in-all, it was one of the most well-crafted and effective set plays ever executed in professional Overwatch. Most importantly, this action was the result of the many hours Envy committed back in Charlotte to gameplay analysis and strategy development. Envy was always at its best when it could be unpredictable. But in order to be unpredictable, the squad relied on those daily practice sessions and scrims to implement and test strategies — a luxury they were not afforded after MLG Vegas (international travel, players returning to their home countries for the holidays, getting situated and set-up in South Korea, etc.). Instead, the team was forced into comfort picks and comps that had worked in the past but now lacked the element of surprise.
Like usual, Rufail had a solution: On April 5, 2017, Envy announced the signing of ex-C9 player KyKy to the roster as a coach. Despite having a lack of dedicated practice time while in Korea, KyKy could now perform the heavy lifting and analysis to ensure Envy was always prepared going into their next match.
Season Three started off on a high note for Taimou, Harry, Chips, Cocco, Mickie, and the squad’s newest member, Effect. Those not yet familiar with Effect’s Tracer play were quickly initiated when he carried Envy to a 3-0 Group Stage record. The difference between this Envy squad and the one we saw bowing out of Season Two earlier than expected was night and day. It was clear that the introduction of KyKy to the fold was also helping the team immensely.
Despite a slip-up against X6-Gaming in the first match of the second Group Stage, Envy would quickly recover to win its next two against Meta Athena and a rematch with X6. The Boys in Blue were one of four remaining sides headed to the playoffs. Effect’s Tracer play made Envy a legitimate threat in the dive meta. Everything was good in the Envy universe. Right?
Season Three was now running into late July. If you account for the team’s participation in Apex Season One from late 2016, Envy was on pace to spend eight out of the last nine months in a South Korean hotel. Just as the team was getting acclimated to their new lives and careers in America, they were now dealing with being displaced for almost a full year in another unfamiliar country. Players spoke about feeling restless and uneasy. The decision that had previously been made for the team to remain in Korea for Season Three was brought up, suggesting that not everyone was on-board at the time. Players also admitted to finding it increasingly difficult to live a healthy lifestyle there — both physically and mentally.
The combination of less-than-ideal living conditions and the stress of having to spend so much time in an unfamiliar country finally came to a head in the playoff round. Despite looking like the best team in the world in the group stages, Envy fell 4-0 to the eventual runners-up KongDoo Panthera. They would later drop the 3rd-Place match 4-1 to Afreeca Freecs Blue, but they didn’t care: They just wanted to get the hell out of there.
Something Nice Back Home
The first half of 2017 was challenging for Envy to say the least, and any lesser unit might have folded. On the outside, the addition of Effect to the roster clearly made Envy a legitimate contender for the world’s top team. But month after month of uncomfortable living conditions in Korean hotels had taken its toll on the players. Sure, being a member of an elite esports organization and one of the top Overwatch teams in the world had its advantages, but was it really worth the debilitating physical and mental stressors that the players were incurring over their extended stay in South Korea?
The end of OGN Apex Season Three brought a much-needed break for the Envy players. Some traveled to their home countries to visit family. Others returned to Envy headquarters in Charlotte to relax and spend some time streaming new games and interacting with fans. Cocco, in all likelihood, went hunting for the best neighborhood burger he could find.
When everyone finally returned to the U.S., the Boys in Blue were ready to get back to work, commit their time to Overwatch, and reclaim their position as one of the game’s best teams in the world – just like they had done so many times before.
It didn’t take long for Envy to get back on track, either, which they made clear going into Overwatch Contenders Season One in August. Having spent the entirety of 2017 to this point competing against Korean competition at OGN Apex, it would also give fans an opportunity to see Envy matchup with other western teams – something we hadn’t seen since December 2016’s MLG Vegas event.
The Contenders format proved to favor well-prepared teams like Envy. In 2-3 day weekend tournaments, teams were often forced to go into matches without opponent-specific strategies given the high volume of matches they would have to play in a condensed period of time. With the Contenders regular season spread out across six weeks and KyKy now working around-the-clock to ensure that his team was always prepared for the next match, Envy proved to go into every game with an obvious advantage over its opponents.
Anyone who thought that western teams like Immortals, FNRGFE, or FaZe (all of whom had been successful in Envy’s absence) could now contend with Envy were immediately proven wrong when the Boys in Blue dismantled Contenders Season Zero winners Immortals 4-0 in both teams’ first match. Maybe it was the much-needed rest, or three straight seasons playing against the world’s best competition in Korea, or possibly adding KyKy in a coach’s role. Perhaps it was even a combination of all three. But Envy were looking better than ever and would continue to steamroll through the rest of the Contenders regular season, going undefeated and dropping only a handful of maps throughout the six-week stretch.
But the lopsided final scores still couldn’t do the matches justice. It was clear that Envy was the best team in North America and Europe, sure. Most importantly, though, it was clear that the players were finally having fun again. The hero picks and team comps were once again unpredictable. Mickie was playing Torbjorn on first-point hybrid maps. Harry was flexing onto Soldier: 76 from Lucio. Chips was solo-healing with Ana while the rest of the team fooled around with 4-tank comps.
And then there was Taimou. Arguably the best hitscan player in the world and one of Envy’s most important team members, it was Taimou who appeared to be the most adversely affected by the prolonged stay in Korea. So when we saw him flexing from Widowmaker to Junkrat to Sombra to Roadhog to McCree and making game-changing players throughout Contenders, it was both refreshing and rewarding to see him enjoying (and dominating) the game of Overwatch again.
A Bird, #BurnBlue, and Contenders Finals
Yes, Envy was back on top. But Rufail and KyKy weren’t content simply leaving it there.
On September 23, Team EnVyUs announced the signing of Overwatch’s most popular player, Brandon “Seagull” Larned. After becoming a household name in Overwatch through his Twitch streams that regularly attract 20-30,000 viewers at a time, Seagull elected to move to NRG’s inactive roster and focus on streaming after the team had failed to impress in major competitions. There was quite a bit of speculation as to which organization would eventually lure the star DPS/Flex player to its roster ahead of Overwatch League, but in the end, it was clear that Rufail and KyKy had made the best pitch to Larned.
From a roster perspective, Seagull fills in the few remaining DPS gaps not covered in Effect’s and Taimou’s hero pools. Seagull is one of the best Pharah and Genji players in the game, but he is also an extremely capable Zarya, D-Va, and Junkrat player, meaning Envy can now deploy limitless comps and strategies ahead of Overwatch League.
Speaking of which, PRNewswire released this not-so-secret industry announcement on October which covered Rufail and his investors managing to secure an Overwatch League spot in Dallas:
Dallas, get ready to know your new hometown team: the Dallas Fuel. Team Envy, the NowTV Esports Industry Awards’ 2016 Esports Team of the Year and owner of the Dallas-based team competing in the Overwatch League™, revealed Dallas Fuel as their Overwatch team name for the new major global professional esports league. Owner Mike Rufail and his investment partners at Hersh Interactive Group chose the name Dallas Fuel for its symbolism to their home state of Texas and to appeal to a wide variety of esports fans, traditional sports fans, and gaming fans.
Fortunately for Envy fans, they wouldn’t have to wait until Overwatch League to see how the team would utilize Seagull. The bird made his debut to a standing ovation last weekend at the Contenders Finals, which was broadcast live from Blizzard’s state-of-the-art esports arena in Burbank, California. Envy toppled FNRGFE 3-0 in the semifinals and followed that up with a 4-0 thrashing of FaZe in the championship to take home the trophy. As expected, Seagull excited audiences with some stellar Pharah play during the Control-phase of both matches, and was recalled for the final Route-66 map in the finals where he ran a combination of Pharah, Junkrat, and D-Va.
It is only now that I’ve come to realize a mistake that I made in an earlier section of this team profile. At one point, I believe that I discussed how Envy’s unpredictability was their greatest strength. However, looking back over the last year, I think the Boys in Blue actually have a more devastating weapon in their arsenal: the ability to bounce back from adversity – and when they do so, it’s always stronger than before.
Two player departures, various meta changes, an extended period of time living in hotels away from home, bad Korean BBQ. Thanks to constant innovation and a carefully constructed roster and internal support system put in place by Rufail, nothing seems to keep these guys down for long.
With Overwatch League on the horizon and reason to believe that Rufail and KyKy are not yet done adding to this talented roster, Envy is clearly stronger than ever and in an Overwatch class of their own.