Kim “Sp9rk1e” Yeong-han is basically connected with his Dallas Fuel teammates.
If they aren’t attached at the hip, laying on bean bags while interlocking hands at the Envy Gaming compound, they are boosting their Overwatch synergy.
The moments of sheer focus were followed by laughter during a scrimmage Monday afternoon. And of course, the cuddling. Dallas has a 6 p.m. CT playoff match against the Washington Justice on Sept. 21, and it’s easily the most important match in franchise history to date.
Kim and Fuel support player Kwon “Fielder” Jun huddled together on a couch when chatting with The Dallas Morning News. While past Fuel teams had recognizable stars, fan-favorites and a couple prideful moments in matches, those teams didn’t connect like this one. Physically or mentally.
Kim, who has been with this same group for most of his Overwatch life, thought the reasoning for being a tight-knit group was simple.
“I feel like your teammates should always be your friend,” Kim said via interpreter. “We are all around the same age, so it’s comfortable for us.”
gm! ☀— Dallas Fuel (@DallasFuel) September 14, 2021
1. more. week.
Fuel assistant general manager Helen “Dear” Jang followed up with Kim, asking if he felt the cuddling was part of the culture of esports in South Korea. Kim thought so, and Yun “RUSH” Hee-Won had more to add.
Players often end up in the same housing together, sometimes as many as four people per unit. That’s how they get so close. Their teammates are home.
Yun has led the Fuel to a No. 1 overall seed in the West, and a franchise-best 11-5 record. The first-year Dallas head coach detailed the Fuel’s strategies and crafted compositions that fit the mold for a team that didn’t have the same options other top squads.
That can’t go unmentioned. But it’s the Fuel’s connection with each other that could mean erasing -- or rather alleviating -- the nightmares of past seasons.
Dallas has parted ways with star players in the middle of seasons. The Fuel have had talented rosters never reach its potential, and coaches that wish they had nurtured a better culture.
Envy Gaming owner Mike Rufail promised Fuel followers a new start. He and Fuel general manager Mat “TazMo” Taylor delivered. Now the Fuel control their own destiny.
“Nothing really matters unless you win the championship. It doesn’t matter what kind of trials you went through or what kind of tribulations you had or the bumps in the road that were present before,” Rufail said. “When you win, you are the best in the world at that point. That’s our goal and we keep focused on that.”
Could the Fuel’s first-round playoff matchup be any more metaphorical?
Jang “Decay” Gui-un had a dramatic breakup with the team a month before the playoffs, then went to Washington and ended Dallas’ 2020 season in a lopsided 3-0 win.
In the offseason, Jung “Closer” Wonsik joined Jang in Washington. A superstar DPS player that wasn’t happy in Dallas, and a talented support player that didn’t see full potential on the same Fuel roster. The Fuel certainly had a better regular season than the Justice this season, but that doesn’t mean the Fuel aren’t facing their past.
“People always say cycle of misery, this and that. We had some rough seasons, but look at traditional sports,” Taylor said. “Our league is so new that people look to very recent things, so they have nothing else to look at. I understand, but this is all about growth and building a team and building a structure. And I think we really have nailed it now.”
Goodness, the Fuel’s season didn’t even start well. Hitscan specialist Jung “Xzi” Ki-hyo decided to take a step back from Overwatch to nurse an ongoing back problem. That was a week before the season began in April. The Fuel were tasked with defeating loaded teams while fielding two flex-damage players.
Their 3-2 loss to the Houston Outlaws on April 16 was ugly. Dallas players were leaving their supports without peeling, making uncharacteristic mistakes and still almost won.
That’s what made the Fuel’s six-match win streak explosion to a May Melee title all the more special. Taylor swears he didn’t cry even though Yun thought he did.
The Fuel always knew they were that good, but the rest of the league was shaken. Now Dallas has the full respect of OWL squads.
“I thought you know, like these guys aren’t really that good, but they really are that good,” said Los Angeles Gladiators superstar Indy “Space” Halpern. “And it kind of motivated me and our roster. It showed players and it showed teams that it doesn’t matter what players you have in or what you can and can’t play. If you’re just a good team you can win, and Dallas set that tone for the season.”
OWL teams rose to the occasion. The Shanghai Dragons stepped up. The Chengdu Hunters and Atlanta Reign emerged as contenders. Now the whole eight-team field is chopped full of championship-worthy rosters.
The Fuel had an underwhelming end to the season, working to find new strategies that fit them. With less than a week until playoffs, would another remarkable run be possible?
“We basically proved everyone wrong and showed a promising performance for May and June,” said Fuel assistant coach Kim “Yong” Yong-Jin. “It’s fair to have that faith in our players to overcome our pressure.”
The Fuel leave for Hawaii on Friday, and they have experience playing on that setup that other Western teams won’t have.
Hand-holding and bean-bag sitting probably won’t win a championship, but all the time Yeong-han and his teammates spent together wouldn’t be for nothing. It takes a team that’s willing to be in the trenches with each other to win an Overwatch League title.
The San Francisco Shock are the most capable, and best example, until proven otherwise.
“We have all that experience in the playoffs and know what it’s like, and other teams might lack in that area,” Shock tank star Matthew “Super” DeLisi said. “That’s definitely a big advantage for us.”
Most of the Fuel’s core was on the Paris Eternal in 2020. Their season ended in the third round of the playoffs -- oh look, to the Washington Justice. This group, formed mostly from an Element Mystic Contenders super team, wants to prove it is championship-capable still.
The pressure of being the best Fuel team ever and the playoffs overall didn’t phase Kim “Doha” Dong-ha.
“Back in contenders, I did go to a lot of finals games. I played in a lot of finals games,” Dong-ha said via interpreter. “I know that the scale is very different from contenders, but I feel like I’m not too nervous or feel like I’m not too pressured. I’m just going in with the winner’s mindset.”
The Fuel already surpassed expectations. They broke through that ceiling months ago. But an Overwatch League world championship? That’s the sort of healing and euphoria the organization has sought for four years.