The Hangzhou Spark have had a long season, but it’s finally come to an end. After a solid run through season playoffs, they ultimately fell to the San Francisco Shock in the lower bracket, wrapping things up for their 2019 season. As the squad and staff head home to enjoy a break, it’s the perfect time to look back on the season behind them. For the Overwatch League’s eight expansion teams, it’s been an interesting road, and the Spark are no exception to that rule. All things considered, they’ve had quite the journey since February, and it’s definitely one worth looking back on.
Stage 1: A Deficit of Scrimbucks
Among the eight expansion teams taking the stage for the first time in season two, the Hangzhou Spark had garnered a lot of attention as a potential powerhouse. Whispers from behind the scenes indicated that Hangzhou was performing well in scrims, and that they had the potential to take people by surprise once the season kicked off. Sure enough, they started Stage 1 off strong. With decisive early victories against the Shanghai Dragons and Los Angeles Valiant, they kicked things off in good form. They also immediately began looking at expanding their roster, and announced the addition of Sang-hyun “SASIN” Song early in the stage.
Shortly after, however, they fell off the wagon. In quick succession, the Spark suffered losses to the Houston Outlaws, London Spitfire, and San Francisco Shock. Though they later brought it back by defeating the Los Angeles Gladiators, the hype they had started off with had quickly quieted down. In particular, fans began to wonder why Hangzhou opted to field Da-un “NoSmite” Jeong as their starting main tank, considering how well Xu “guxue” Qiulin had performed in the Overwatch World Cup earlier that year. As the conversation turned to whether the Spark could successfully integrate their Chinese players, the team ended Stage 1 with a loss to the Toronto Defiant. They finished the stage with a 3-4 record, tying them with the London Spitfire and the Shanghai Dragons for thirteenth place in the standings.
Stage 2: Hitting Their Stride
After failing to meet expectations for the first part of the season, the Spark regrouped. Most notably, they began fielding their two Chinese players, moving guxue into a starting position and splitting DPS time between Cai “Krystal” Shilong and Jae-hwan “Adora” Kang. At the time, rumor had it that the Boston Uprising looked to acquire Krystal, which made it all the more interesting that Hangzhou debuted him in their Week 2 match against Boston.
Stage 2 gave Hangzhou a chance to show that they could, in fact, adapt to the dominant 3-3 meta placed in front of them. After a difficult loss to the Vancouver Titans in Week 1, they hit their stride. Besides a loss to the San Francisco Shock in Week 3, they moved through the stage with little trouble, defeating the Boston Uprising, Guangzhou Charge, Chengdu Hunters, Paris Eternal, and Seoul Dynasty. Though their tendency to take things to a fifth round hurt their map differential, they finished out the stage with a 5-2 record and punched their ticket to stage playoffs.
Playoffs started off looking hopeful, with Hangzhou taking down the London Spitfire with ease. Their journey to finals stopped abruptly, however, when they faced off yet again against the San Francisco Shock. The Shock, who had since established themselves as one of the strongest teams in the league, shut them out entirely, defeating them with a 4-0 scoreline and moving on. Still, people took note of the fact that the Spark had only lost to them and the Titans since the stage began. At long last, the Hangzhou Spark had started making a name for themselves.
Stage 3: A Chance for Glory
After a bit of a break, which included guxue representing his team in the All-Star game, the Spark roared back onto the scene for their best stage of the season. After a clean 4-0 victory over the Philadelphia Fusion, they went on to face the Vancouver Titans yet again. This time, they managed to take a map off of them and kept the other three as close as they could, although Vancouver still came out on top. Hangzhou didn’t dwell on that loss for too long, however, as they proceeded to win every other match in the stage. After defeating the Washington Justice, Dallas Fuel, Seoul Dynasty, Los Angeles Valiant, and Florida Mayhem, they finished things out with a stunning 6-1 record. That placed them in third place for the stage, giving them a high seed to start out stage playoffs.
Unfortunately, they didn’t make it very far this time. Their first playoffs match pit them against the Los Angeles Valiant, who they had beaten on the fifth map twice before. This time, however, the Valiant took them to map five and won. Despite the upset, Hangzhou could rest easy knowing that they had pulled off a very impressive stage.
It seemed that Stage 3 gave the Hangzhou Spark a real chance to develop a team identity. Late in the stage, they announced that they would move both NoSmite and Jun-ki “Bazzi” Park to two-way contracts with their academy team, Bilibili Gaming. With the poorly-kept secret of role lock looming, it seemed that the team had figured out how they wanted to face it. Considering how strong of a 3-3 team they had become, though, it would remain to be seen how they handled this forced change in their structure.
Stage 4: Role Lock Struggles
Sure enough, role lock shook things up severely, and the Spark’s success definitely took a hit. Unprepared to deal with the influx of new compositions, they struggled against the Atlanta Reign, Guangzhou Charge, and New York Excelsior. Additionally, they faced scrutiny for their very public handling of internal issues involving Krystal, who had allegedly gone home to China to deal with personal issues but failed to return. After a series of tweets exchanged between the two parties, the Spark ultimately announced that they would suspend Krystal indefinitely, and he currently remains suspended.
After that shaky start, however, Hangzhou found their footing. They brought their two-way players back to the United States, and Bazzi, in particular, had a successful run in the DPS lineup. Moving forward, they won the rest of their games that stage, taking down the Chengdu Hunters, Dallas Fuel, Los Angeles Gladiators, and Shanghai Dragons. With that, they finished out Stage 4 in seventh place and locked in a spot in the season’s top six, ensuring that they would see season playoffs.
The Playoffs Run
Hitting the bracket with the fourth seed, the Spark started their playoffs run with a rematch against the Los Angeles Gladiators. Much like the Valiant back in Stage 3, however, the Gladiators had figured their opponent out. Los Angeles went on to face the Vancouver Titans, forcing the Spark into a lower bracket run.
There, however, they found more success. Hangzhou blew through their matches against the Seoul Dynasty and the Atlanta Reign, and it started to look like they had found their momentum just in time. However, they found themselves facing the San Francisco Shock, who had annihilated the lower bracket after a surprising loss to the Atlanta Reign. The Spark couldn’t stop their ferocious push to finals, either; with yet another 4-0 victory, San Francisco moved on, and the Hangzhou Spark’s season came to an end.
Until Next Time
It feels like a very long time ago that Overwatch League aficionados speculated about the eight new teams. A solid season-long performance and a run through the playoffs bracket is definitely a good start for the Hangzhou Spark, but they know as well as anyone that it’s best to aim their sights even higher for next season. With the offseason looming, it’s difficult to say just how much the changes will shake them up, but it’s sure to lead into an interesting arrival when they take the stage in Hangzhou next year. Until then, it’s the perfect time to dive deeper into how the season unfolded, before looking forward to World Cup and beyond.
— Hangzhou Spark (@Hangzhou_Spark) September 18, 2019
Follow Darby on Twitter @soundchecck! She is happy to talk about anything she’s written! You can also get in touch with her on Discord (soundchecck#7242).
Featured image courtesy of the Hangzhou Spark.
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