Four months ago, ATL Academy, the Contenders squad for the OWL’s Atlanta Reign, made their first foray into international competition at the Atlantic Showdown. They entered with few expectations as North America’s third seed, having defeated Gladiators Legion to secure their spot in Krefeld, Germany. North American powerhouses Envy and Fusion University stole the show and met in the Grand Finals. Meanwhile, ATL Academy quietly did their region a service. Their win over British Hurricane, combined with Fusion Uni’s eventual title meant that North America would have four spots at the Gauntlet, the crowning event on the Contenders calender.
Since their exit from the Atlantic Showdown, ATL Academy has been working to make sure that they would be one of those four teams. Not only did they accomplish that, but they also became one of the most dominant teams in the history of Contenders, going 28-0 on map score during their most recent season. “I think our loss in the Atlantic Showdown was a driving force going into the season,” ATL Academy coach, Dillain “LegitRc” Odeneal, told The Game Haus. “After that loss, the team never wanted to lose again.”
Now they enter the Gauntlet as the kings of North America. They beat out Gladiators Legion again in August to capture the NA East title, though they gave up their unbeaten map streak in the process. Then they dispatched NA West champs Envy to claim North America’s top spot. With all that momentum comes the expectation of success. Now they’ll have yet another chance to prove themselves on the international stage.
The Golden Season
One ATL Academy member who saw their massive improvement coming was Daniel “FunnyAstro” Hathaway. In an interview with Upcomer after the Atlantic Showdown, FunnyAstro set his sights on 28-0. “At the time we were doing really well in scrims and it felt like we were easily going to win every match, so I thought that it was possible to win every map,” he told The Game Haus ahead of the Gauntlet. “It started out as a joke in the team after we were doing so well in scrims then it eventually became a goal.”
For a team that was waltzing over the competition, that goal helped keep them on their game. “I remember there were a couple of maps that were close, and it’s nice to have some extra pressure so everyone on the team is fully focused on winning every map,” added FunnyAstro.
Now, though, that run fades into the background as ATL Academy shift their sights toward the best Contenders teams from around the globe. For his part, Blake “Gator” Scott doesn’t put any stock into how they performed in NA Contenders: “It doesn’t [matter] since it was just pub stomping contenders teams that couldn’t compete but it was cool since we made a small effort to get it done before the season started.”
A Long Way From GOATs
Gator enters the Gauntlet after a brief cameo with the Reign during the OWL Playoffs. He was a surprise X-factor in Atlanta’s upset over the eventual champions, the San Francisco Shock, in the first round of the double-elimination bracket. Playing alongside fellow main tank Hyeonjun “Pokpo” Park, Gator picked up Overwatch’s new hero, Sigma, faster than his peers. “I feel that the hero is another ‘main tank’ so I play it like we had two of them and I think that playstyle worked very well,” he said.
It was Gator’s first full Overwatch League match. That’s life as a two-way player – a meta shift can suddenly make you vital to your team’s playoff hopes. When his team needed him, Gator was ready for the spotlight: “I did feel pressure, but that is my favorite part about competing.”
That match was the latest step in Gator’s meteoric rise. Just a year ago he was still playing with GOATS, the team that set Tier 2 Overwatch on fire with a new take on the game. The composition that carried their name was Gator’s brainchild, leveraging the power of tanks and stacked healing in a brawl. GOATS, the team, faded into memory not long after Gator’s departure, but their contribution to Overwatch was lasting.
“I think it will be known as the most broken meta in the game for a long time. It fundamentally changed how a lot of people think about playing the game,” said Gator. Now that 2-2-2 role lock has taken GOATS off the menu, Gator reflects on his place in history: “It is cool to be a part of that, I feel like the game was headed in that direction anyway with tanks/supports being such a powerful combination.”
Now Gator will return to his T2 roots with ATL Academy. When he takes the stage at the Giga Arena in Seoul, he might not do it on the Reinhardt that he first made his name with or even on the Sigma that lifted the Reign in the playoffs. He may find himself back on Orissa as his team’s sole main tank. No matter what he’s playing, Gator is ready for the pressure of the moment.
A Perfect Mix
ATL Academy has built its success with an impressive collection of young talents with veterans around them. Xander “Hawk” Domecq has been steadily improving during his time with ATL Academy and has become one of the top prospects for the 2020 OWL season. Whether he signs with the Reign or another team, expect to see him lighting up the league next year.
The youth movement only goes further when the DPS come into play. Garrett “Saucy” Roland and Kamden “Sugarfree” Hijada won’t reach OWL eligibility until 2021 and 2023 respectively. Together, they are rapidly building their resumes and proving to be one of the best duos in Contenders. “Sugarfree might be young but he is very mature for his age and is always eager to improve for himself and for the team” said LegtRc, “There is no doubt in my mind that if he were 18 years old right now that he would be in OWL.”
Around that young core, ATL Academy has put an experienced group in place. Before the most recent Contenders season, they brought FunnyAstro to the US, slashing his ping in the process. They also paired him with Steven “KodaK” Rosenberger, a support partner with OWL bona fides. “I really enjoy the environment in the house where we all stay together,” remarked FunnyAstro.
All that came together to promote a culture of camaraderie and continuous improvement. “I don’t think we did a VOD review for the entire contenders season,” said FunnyAstro. “Everyone on our team is smart, and when we made mistakes or realized things we could improve in scrims, we would just fix it on the spot. That way we improved way faster and got really good at fixing mistakes, which helps in matches when things start to go wrong.”
Gearing Up for Gauntlet
The Gauntlet represents an opportunity for ATL Academy to test itself against the best teams that Contenders has to offer, not just from North America, but from around the world. Their opponent certainly fits that bill. Element Mystic, the Pacific Showdown champs, are considered by many to be the best team at the Gauntlet. They haven’t finished below second in any of the last three Contenders Korea seasons and they feature the Gauntlet’s biggest star in Yeong-han “Sp9rk1e” Kim.
Of course to get to this point, Element Mystic has already had to win two matches, proving themselves resilient – especially in a 3-2 win over Talon Esports – while also showing signs of weakness. ATL Academy, by virtue of their 1st seed from North America, got to bypass the Group Stage entirely. “While other teams are playing we’re going to be able to focus on practice,” said LegitRc. “We’ll also be able to study how teams are approaching the new meta before we play against them.”
Now all that’s left is to see whether ATL’s NA dominance will translate to international competition. They’ve been building to this moment steadily throughout 2019, and soon their efforts will be realized. LegitRc sums it up, “We’re going into the gauntlet feeling confident. We haven’t lost yet and we don’t plan to any time soon.”
Featured image courtesy of ATL Academy.
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