The Spark have had an intriguing coaching lineup in 2021, to say the least.
As of the writing of this article, the Hangzhou Spark will be entering the 2021 postseason play-ins without a proper Head Coach. Following a few shakeups at the upper management level throughout this season, the Spark potentially will now need to rally as a team with a single person at the helm. With the team narrowly making the playoff cut-off mark, they will need to be on their A-game as a unit if they look to shock the OWL scripts without a said head coach.
Hangzhou made a transition late into the 2020 season by mutually parting ways with the team’s original Head Coach, Muho “Mask” Lee. The team was underperforming, and change was needed to help fix what was lost from an initially promising season 2 expansion team.
This move was then followed by the promotion of former Vancouver Titans Head Coach and Spark Assistant Coach at the time, Ji-sub “paJion” Hwang on July 31, 2020. This organizational change was done immediately with no “interim” status present.
paJion was given the reins to the team without hesitation.
In the months following paJion’s promotion, the team introduced Former Titans Assistant Coach Jaehong “Andante” Hwang and Huang “Xiaogui” Tsung-Yu as both Assistant Coach and Team Supervisor respectively. Xiaogui’s role seemed similar to Seung-jun “Sup7eme” Han’s role as Assistant Coach with the Spark back in 2019.
The team of Head Coach paJion, Assistant Coaches Andante and Chen “U4” Congshan, and Supervisor Xiaogui would make up the quartet of staff going into the 2021 season.
While these four men were chosen to lead the team after the 2020 season, Hangzhou did decide to add some more brains to the operation as the season opener was looming. The Spark added Jae-dong “nOrU” Kim as the third assistant coach on March 26, 2021. On the same day, the team also announced that Na-dan “PPUJJIPPANG” Cho would also join the team as a Data Analyst.
With IBM Watson’s in-depth statistics creating a substantial shake-up in how viewers determined up-to-par OWL play, the Spark looked to capitalize on this with a dedicated statistician.
The 2021 Overwatch League season started on April 16, 2021, but the Spark did not play their first match until the following week on April 24. The team then went on to lose their first two games by a combined map score of 6-2.
Shockingly, the team then announced on April 26, 2021, that Head Coach paJion would be stepping down following the 0-2 start to the season. The Korean head coach’s seat at the head of the table would only last just over half of a season. This was especially bizarre following the multitude of new players the Spark brought in for the 2021 season.
This team was still fresh to everything – and was still learning.
The break-up did not to be as clean-cut as initially thought as reports came out that expectations were high for paJion going into the 2021 season. The lack of high-calibre gameplay from the team on top of some questionable roster lineups from the head coach seemed to be the final straw for a coach that was given so much power so early.
On top of this, the team announced that Assistant Coach nOrU would also be released exactly a month after he was hired. Around this time, analyst PPUJJIPPANG would also quietly leave the team without a public mention. For many, this spelt out another rocky season for the Spark.
But this time it was for entirely different reasons.
Not all was lost however as Assistant Coach Andante was given the go-ahead to make his mark in the OWL as Hangzhou’s new head coach: but this time with the “interim” moniker. Replacing Andante’s position would be former Bilibili Gaming head coach, Chung-in “Mentalist” Kim. It was an easy choice to call up the Spark’s academy team’s head coach following BLG’s first-place finish during Contenders China 2021 Season 1.
Maybe One Move Too Many
Three months into the season is where teams may think to make some changes based on how the season is currently turning out. But in the Spark’s case, they made some major coaching moves already in the first week of the season.
That did not stop Hangzhou, however, from making another controversial decision.
The team performed near the middle of the pack in the East division but failed to qualify for the May Melee final four. Andante and the Spark, however, went on a tear during the June Joust qualifiers with an undefeated 4-0 record. The staff of Andante, U4 and Mentalist seemed to be a perfect formula for success.
But then once again, the Spark failed to find that “next gear” as they suffered a devastating loss to the 4th seed NYXL – gifting them a flight to Hawaii.
This moment may have done to Andante the same as it did for paJion after the 0-2 start. While Andante’s interim status did not guarantee his future in the position – as it did for paJion – the circumstances on both sides were familiar through the eyes of management. Being the only team to go 4-0 to secure the first seed and lose the qualification match for the final four seemed to instil enough doubt in Spark management’s mind about the head coach position’s future.
Regardless of how anyone else feels about the Spark organization’s strict qualities, this seems to just be the reality for Hangzhou.
On July 15, 2021, the Spark would announce that Interim Head Coach Andante would not continue his tenure as head coach, leaving the team immediately. The announcement was also followed up with Mentalist’s retirement from coaching altogether.
One Left Standing
This left the team without a full coaching staff for over a week. U4, who has been an Hangzhou faithful since 2019, was the lone coach during that just-under-two-week span. Xiaogui was still a part of the team as Supervisor, but that position was made to work alongside a head coach and an assistant coach core. This coaching staff was the bare bones of bare bones.
The team never announced U4’s temporary position as head coach or something similar – oddly enough – as the singular coach left. The team seemingly ran without any pure coaching direction during this stint. And not even any type of replacement for Andante’s former Interim Head Coaching spot.
Ironically, the team then announced the promotion of Bilibili Gaming’s head coach Chen “OnlyWish” Lizhen – not as an Interim Head Coach – but as an assistant coach alongside another assistant coach.
An assistant to an assistant whose assistance has no head to answer to.
The Headless Spark-men
In the present day, the Spark has played almost a full month under the tutelage of just two assistant coaches and a supervisor. The team went 0-4 to end the season and tied with New York for the final spot of the East region play-ins with a 7-9 record. The only tiebreaker between the two teams is a map difference of two with the Spark’s 32-31 map difference vs the Excelsior’s 29-32. It will be a tough go-around for the team heading into September.
Overall, the Spark made six total coaching changes in 2021 alone. That’s quite a bit of ideology shifts for a new roster that was created specifically for this season.
Without a new head coach announcement on the horizon, Hangzhou’s morale going into the playoffs is at an all-time low. But they do have a chance to prove many doubters wrong if they can work together as a whole, even without a head coach at the forefront.
Follow Jordy on Twitter: @JRDNGRCA for everything Hangzhou Spark and more like this Coaching Timeline article.
Featured Image Courtesy of The Overwatch League.
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