Season 1 of the Overwatch League was not easy for the Dallas Fuel. Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Now, though, the Fuel are determined to turn over a new leaf – and there are three people leading that charge.
For Head Coach Aaron “Aero” Atkins, it’s a question of pride and ownership. As he’s mentioned, this is his team now. All eyes are on his leadership, especially after the turn-around he affected in Stage 4.
For Dylan “aKm” Bignet, 2019 is also a restart year. Fans lambasted his performance all season long, but he knows that there’s more to it than the aKm blades. For him, this season is a chance to prove himself all over again.
Finally, Richard “rCk” Kanerva has joined the Fuel by stepping into some of the biggest shoes Overwatch has ever seen. With Brandon “Seagull” Larned long gone, will he be able to live up to the man who changed the off-tank game for western players the world over?
He thinks so. Let’s get in there and find out how.
Let’s talk about the off-season. How have you guys been resting and getting ready with the season so close?
aKm: As a player, the off-season was pretty busy. We had to prep and play in the World Cup, and then get right into preparing for this season. There wasn’t much of a break, but it was a good off-season, I think. Everyone’s worked pretty hard, and the coaching staff have done an amazing job of preparing us for the season. Then the Dallas Fuel made this amazing facility for us. It’s perfect for us as players in terms of its environment and everything. So I’d say the off-season has been pretty busy, but also pretty good so far. We’re looking forward to the season starting.
Break down that training center for me – it’s new, it’s shiny… does it have like, mini fridges full of Red Bull..?
aKm: I mean, I am sponsored by Red Bull… I wish we could do that, but Envy is sponsored by Monster, so we can’t really do that. The facility itself is a giant space, with a kitchen (where we all eat), a giant couch where we do VOD review together, there’s an area where the coaches can meet and talk to each other, and the player area, which is just a massive room with all of our stations. It’s really cool – amazing, frankly. There should be a video out about it now.
Aero: One of the coolest parts about [the facility] to me is that the desks are all the exact specification of the Overwatch League stage. The chairs are the same, the headsets are the same, the computer setups are all the same. The only difference is that we have Fuel stuff everywhere – otherwise, it matches the stage entirely. That environment was what I wanted to build for the players, so that way we can control as many variables as we can – that way when they’re actually on stage, it’s all familiar.
So you’ve noticed that impact as a coach? The idea that the facility is as close as you can get to the real deal without driving the team to Burbank, basically?
aKm: Another thing, too, is that we’re bringing the temperature in the facility down really low. That makes it feel like the stage most of all. We’re really leaning into it. It’ll pretty much feel like home every time we’re on stage.
I overheard [Nate] Nanzer telling you guys that he wanted someone to ask you a specific question. I’m sure he was being glib – what did he want?
Aero [exasperated]: He wanted to see someone ask about Team USA again…
I don’t even know if I want to bring up Team USA, honestly. It’s still too fresh.
aKm: Yeah, what a failure! (laughs)
Not even because of the failure, though!
Aero [to aKm]: Hey, come on, we’re Top 8 boys together!
I think everybody has oversimplified that whole thing drastically. Is there any way you’d like to clear the air on the whole World Cup situation, showing the reality and complexity of what happened?
Aero: There’s a lot to it. On any given day, a team can not play up to the way they know they can play. I think that’s pretty much what happened. When you look back at the group stages, our match vs Canada… we played very well. With the limited amount of info you can really get from scrims, we felt things were going very well for us. We were confident. We never underestimated the UK – we knew they were a strong team in the styles they played. I just think that when we got on stage, we didn’t play at the level we needed to play.
It’s not really justified to put that on one person – not one player, not the strategy from the coaches. We went in as a team, and we lost as a team. Even though we didn’t play up to our expectations, or what we thought we could do, we at least came in feeling like we were ready. It was just a bad day for us. And in a showmatch style like BlizzCon was, too, one bad day means you’re out.
What was the post match talk like?
Aero: The players were pretty devastated. The biggest thing I could do as a coach was show that, regardless of what happened on that stage, everything we had done up to that point was still valid and good. We still accomplished something to get there. That talk was me saying, “Look, stuff happens. We had a bad game. It sucks that we’re out, but hey, up to this point we did extremely well. We all accomplished things that we wanted to. Now we can enjoy the rest of the games, focus on the Overwatch League, and move on. It’s time to move on”. After that, I just gave everyone the space to deal with it, breathe, and move forward.
aKm: You can only move on from situations like that. If you cry about it, you won’t really feel better anyways. It’s better to move on and focus on a new horizon.
So stepping into OWL 2019, what made you [Aero] feel like bringing on rCk was the move? What about him stood out to you and the team?
Aero: We decided that there were some holes in the roster we wanted to fill. I wanted to create more competition in the off-tank role. In Stage 4, we had both Seagull and Mickie who could play that role, but then Seagull decided to retire, but we still wanted to have that extra option. Looking there, we wanted flexibility, someone who was vocal, and someone that was pretty mature in their communication. We were looking around for awhile, and had more than a few candidates, but rCk really stood out as one of the main ones. We finally got to try him out, and I think his experience with Team Gigantti was a big factor, because that team is really good.
One of the best training grounds for tank players in the world, really.
Aero: Exactly, yeah. Looking at all of our options, he was kind of a no-brainer for us.
[To rCk]: So you go through the trial process, you’re showing your stuff, things are going well. What went through your head when Aero and the rest of the staff said, “Alright, you’re in, let’s go. Get in here”?
rCk: Obviously, I was super excited. I was happy that I got the opportunity to prove myself.
Did you feel any pressure at that point?
rCk: I was getting pressured from a lot of different directions, honestly. I had a lot of tryouts at the time, some teams were already making me offers and pressuring me by then. I had a few favorites that I wanted to go for, but once the Fuel gave me an offer I was so happy that I just instantly took it.
And these other teams were trying to rush you into a deal?
rCk: Exactly, yes. The thing is, I’m a new player here – I’ve never played in the League before, obviously. So having one Finnish person here who’s already experienced – Taimou – gave me comfort. He’s someone I can speak Finnish to, who can teach me what it’s like to be here.
As biased as I might be, do you feel prepared to fill Seagull’s shoes at off-tank?
rCk: I think I can. Seagull’s a very talented player; he’s extremely flexible and everything. Before I switched into my off-tank role four or five seasons ago, though, I used to play DPS. I have that flexibility too.
[To Aero]: Is that something you spotted too? That he had that parallel capability?
Aero: It wasn’t really something we focused on when we were trialing him, but it was certainly a nice extra.
rCk: Of course, stepping into Seagull’s shoes is definitely an interesting spot to be in. I’m excited to go play on stage and prove that I’m worthy.
I want to talk about power rankings, but not in the way that would make you sigh and hate this interview. Most people hate them for plenty of perfectly valid reasons. Despite that, do any of you still keep your eye on them to get a feel for what people think? Or do you even care?
Aero: I don’t think any of us really take them with much weight. I look at them for fun, just to see what the community thinks. Realistically, a lot of the people making power rankings aren’t in scrims, they don’t see what the teams are like. They’re going off of limited information. It’s interesting to see what kind of information is out there, and what people think based on that information.
I actually don’t mind people putting us in the middle or lower-middle ends of the pack, either. The only expectations that matter to us are the ones we place on ourselves. It doesn’t really impact me, and I try to make sure it doesn’t impact the players, either. I think it’s kinda fun.
aKm: The good thing about people putting us in the middle or lower part of the pack is that it gives us more motivation to prove them wrong. If they don’t have any expectations for us, no matter what we do – if we do well, it’ll be a surprise for everybody. It means we don’t have to deal with those high expectations everyone had of us last season, where everyone expected Fuel to be top 3, and then we disappointed people. Not having that kind of pressure on us is a good feeling. Now we’re just motivated to show everyone what we can do.
[To rCk:] You’ve never really had to deal with that initial expectation of the Fuel. Do you still carry any feelings of having to show up and prove yourself to the world here in 2019?
rCk: Kind of, yeah. Plenty of people in America have never seen me play since I left EU. It’s a great opportunity to show that EU can do what NA can do, too. Our capacity to play at a top level.
What sort of message would the two of you send to the world to improve their understanding of who you are and how you play? Something that clears a misconception or adds depth – that shows that you’re more than another EU player, or more than just “the aKm blade guy”?
aKm: For me personally, the only thing I know is that I can’t have a worse season than last season. I didn’t play great, I wasn’t feeling confident in the role I had. This season is completely new, and completely different. I worked my ass off this off-season. I played literally every day, sometimes 10+ hours a day – I never stopped trying to improve myself, both as a person and as a player. I’m just looking forward to showing everyone that last season was just a single bad season. That I’m so much more than what they’ve seen.
rCk: I think it comes down to dedication, for me. How hard you work, and how much you want to prove. Moving forward and improving from where you were. I think it’s important that you know what expectations people have of you, if only so you can prove them wrong.
aKm: I agree. We shouldn’t see Korean players, for instance, as being better than us – it’s all about dedication. Korean players put their lives into this work, but now we’re doing the same. We can all reach an equal level – even maybe a higher level. It’s all about dedication, motivation, and proving that we can be the best we can be.
For Aero: Regarding “Our Time” – obviously people are going to point at you when things go well, and will definitely point at you if things go poorly. That video was you taking ownership of the Fuel’s performance this season – how can you reassure fans that Dallas as a team is going to be okay?
Aero: I think the biggest thing is that we’re very confident in ourselves. One of the things about Stage 4 and this off-season for us is that we know that this is a new chapter for the Fuel. That was the old Fuel, and everyone has agreed that we’re looking to the future and turning over a new leaf. That’s the message that we want to send out – that this year is a brand new year. While we’ve got some returning players and so on, this is a new team. Everything is different about us. We’re excited to go out there and show everyone that we’re a family, and that we can prove everyone wrong. This is a new era for us. That’s why I said what I said in that video – “This is our time”. Everything last season was, well… last season. This season, we’re setting new standards for ourselves, and we’re gonna do our best to meet those standards every day.
aKm: Like we mentioned earlier, it’s time to move and focus on the present.