Chengdu Hunters outperform early expectations in Overwatch League

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BURBANK, Calif. -- To a paltry crowd left in Blizzard Arena after a full day of Overwatch League matches on Feb. 15, Chengdu Hunters support player Li "Yveltal" Xianyao stood up and shouted. It was an explosion of energy and emotion after a long day and possibly a longer offseason for Yveltal and some of his teammates. He raised his arms above his head, stoking the crowd's directed cheers.

The Hunters weren't supposed to beat the Guangzhou Charge, a fellow Chinese expansion organization, but they did in a 3-2 marathon match to record a win in Chengdu's season-opening match.

Following their second match win, another five-map series victory over the Florida Mayhem, Yveltal was much more subdued. It was expected. Get the win. Keep moving forward.

Despite a minus-2 map differential, Chengdu, at 2-1 overall, is seventh overall in the standings and fourth in the Pacific Division entering Friday. Not bad for a team whose trajectory was expected to mirror that of the Overwatch League's inaugural season Shanghai Dragons.

"We're very happy and excited," Yveltal said after Chengdu's Week 2 win over Florida. He cited the team's unified atmosphere and all-Mandarin-speaking lineup as Chengdu's greatest strength.

As the only Chinese team in 2018, the Shanghai Dragons' winless streak cast a long shadow over the Chinese competitive scene. Even a strong, high-energy performance from Team China at the 2018 Overwatch World Cup didn't do much to change the notion that China was not as strong an Overwatch region as others. So when Chengdu announced its roster for its inaugural Overwatch League season, the Hunters did so knowing how many doubters they would face.

"Our coaches keep emphasizing that we represent both Chengdu and China," Chengdu flex player and 2018 Team China representative Ma "LateYoung" Tianbin said. "Our first victory definitely bears a lot of weight, especially for the Chinese Overwatch community."

The Hunters' success despite expectations is no small feat, especially considering how it has come about. Chengdu has stuck to what works for its roster rather than trying to to change their playstyle to suit what other teams are playing and what is admittedly the strongest composition right now: triple-tank, triple-support -- affectionately, or not-so-affectionately, called GOATS after the Contenders team that first played it.

The Hunters' playstyle is more reminiscent of a variety of more DPS-heavy, triple-triple-breaking compositions seen in this past season of Contenders: China with an added heavy emphasis on Wrecking Ball as their primary main tank hero.

"Against GOATS, we just want to have our own playstyle," Yveltal said.

His teammate and Wrecking Ball enthusiast Ding "Ameng" Menghan told Blizzard that playing a triple-triple composition was "uninteresting."

"Part of the reason we play our own style is also due to our team's hero pool or map situations," Ameng said. "But if we play these comps perfectly, we know we can beat three-three."

This confidence is shared by Yveltal, who also said that having a Wrecking Ball in the game requires less attention from his end, allowing him to go for more aggressive Lucio or Mercy plays that you might not see from other supports. Sometimes this pays off; other times it doesn't. But as a whole, Yveltal's offensive style perfectly complements what the Chengdu Hunters want to do as a team.

The Hunters love to separate opponents and skirmish rather than rely on the more defensive timings of ultimates in full six-on-six teamfights. If the more common triple-tank, triple-support composition is a delicate dance of ultimate timing, then the Hunters are a berserker, disrupting opponents' plans with consistent DPS damage from multiple sources and a surprisingly mobile hamster.

This adherence to their own playstyle throws the Hunters' foes off-balance but can also hurt Chengdu if the team's execution is lacking. When one hero goes forward while the rest stay back, it frequently leads to all of the Hunters dying one by one. Ameng's reliance on Wrecking Ball can be seen as a strength but also a weakness. He has played 75 percent of his time in the Overwatch League on the hamster, some on Reinhardt and none whatsoever on Winston. The Hunters will have to perfect their Wrecking Ball-centric style in order to continue winning because it doesn't seem like they can take on their opponents in a triple-triple mirror match.

Many see the Hunters as a team on a timer. Once opponents figure out their playstyle, Chengdu might stop playing perceived stronger opponents so closely -- even their 4-0 loss to the Seoul Dynasty was closer than expected when looking at the individual performances on each map -- and start losing more games. But by perfecting their own style with an all-Mandarin lineup, the Hunters have already accomplished something that no other Chinese Overwatch League organization has done: Chengdu has restored confidence in Chinese talent and the wealth of potential players that other teams could find within the Contenders: China player base.

As LateYoung said onstage after an emotional Day 2 first win, Chengdu is happy to take up the mantle for its region.

"We are ready to let the world see China again," he said.