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Houston Outlaws 2020 Season Preview

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With big personalities and charm to spare, the Houston Outlaws are one of the most popular teams in the Overwatch League. But while their fan appeal has been consistent, their results have been anything but. At their best, they delivered a 20-map win streak, still the second-longest in League history. At their worst, they became only the third team in the League to have a winless stage. They’ve been a juggernaut and a punching bag in turns, but never found lasting success. Heading into 2020, they’ve made big changes in hopes of reaching new heights. Can they also eliminate the lows that have always dragged them back down?

2019 in Review

The 2019 Outlaws were, by and large, the same team that they had been in 2018. There were only two major changes: the addition of Dante “Danteh” Cruz, acquired from the San Francisco Shock, and the Outlaws’ parent company, Infinite Esports & Entertainment, being put up for sale after several months of financial trouble. While Danteh proved a valuable addition, various Outlaws staff, management and players commented throughout the season on the strain caused by the organization’s financial woes.

Whatever the reason, the first half of the 2019 season was a major disappointment. Stage 1 was touch-and-go, with some convincing wins and close losses. But Stage 2 was where everything fell apart. Not only did the Outlaws go 0-7 in games, but they won only four maps out of twenty-nine played. And just as the cherry on top, one of those losses was to their in-state rivals, the Dallas Fuel — in Dallas, at the League’s first homestand weekend.

They began to rally in Stage 3, using Danteh’s Sombra to finally crack the 3-3 meta. They even wrenched a win off the Shock, who would go on to win the season, and appeared in their first stage playoffs since Stage 1 of 2018. But the introduction of role lock in Stage 4 shook up the standings yet again, and with only a single further win, the Outlaws limped to a 16th-place finish in the regular season with a 9-19 record.

Who’s Back (And Who’s Not)

outlaws 2020

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

After 2019, it’s not surprising that Houston has made major changes in their lineup. However, the lion’s share of the team’s inaugural roster will remain in black and green for now.

Main Tank: Austin “Muma” Wilmot
Flex Tank: Alexandre “SPREE” Vanhomwegen
DPS: Jiri “LiNkzr” Masalin
DPS: Dante “Danteh” Cruz
Main Support: Daniel “Boink” Pence
Flex Support: Shane “Rawkus” Flaherty

When the Outlaws are at their best, they’re a well-oiled machine. The roster has been largely static for two years, and several players were on teams together before OWL. Easy communication and an understanding of each others’ playstyles are vital to Overwatch — many a team of superstars has been bested by a less skilled but more cohesive crew.

However, some changes still had to be made. Head coach Tae-yeong “TaiRong” Kim and assistant coach Hyun-woo “HyunWoo” Kim were released before the 2019 postseason had even ended, and Wonhyeop “ArHaN” Jeong left shortly after. TaiRong and HyunWoo have yet to announce future plans, while ArHaN is now the head coach of T1, the Korean academy team of the Philadelphia Fusion. Main support Chris “Bani” Benell later announced his departure from the team; he would eventually sign on as an individual coach for the Washington Justice.

The biggest changes came later in the postseason when two of the Outlaws’ tentpole personalities departed. Jacob “JAKE” Lyon announced his retirement from pro play to take a position with the League as a shoutcaster, and Matt “coolmatt” Iorio transitioned to a yet-unspecified non-player position with the team.

Who’s New

outlaws 2020
Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
Head Coach: Harsha Bandi
Assistant Coach: Dong-eun “Hooreg” Lee
Assistant Coach: Chris “Dream” Myrick
Flex DPS: João Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles
Flex DPS: Jeffrey “blasé” Tsang
Main Support: Seung-soo “Jecse” Lee
Flex Support: Jun-keun “Rapel” Kim
Flex Tank: Tae-hong “MekO” Kim

The overhaul began with the acquisition of Harsha as head coach. Dream joined not long after as his assistant, and then the roster pickups began. The bombshell scoop of free agent Hydration was the first indication that the Outlaws were taking this offseason by the horns. They quickly followed up with blasé.

With the DPS lineup reinforced, the team made their biggest statement yet: officially pivoting to a mixed-language roster with the signing of Rapel, MekO and Jecse, along with player-turned-coach Hooreg. While ArHaN played only a handful of games with Houston, all three of the new Korean acquisitions are likely to be starters.

Coaching Background

While Harsha’s coaching history is somewhat sparse, his record is strong. After hosting a popular podcast in the early days of professional Overwatch, he joined the San Francisco Shock as an analyst for the inaugural OWL season. Their 2018 may not have been spectacular but, Harsha did spend the latter half of that season working with Dae-hee “Crusty” Park, widely considered one of if not the best coach in pro Overwatch. In 2019, he moved on to the Vancouver Titans as an assistant coach to Ji-Sub “paJion” Hwang. This is his first head coaching position, but it’s hard to deny that he’s learned from the absolute best.

Dream has a similar background to Harsha’s, beginning his career as an analyst with the British Hurricane, the academy team of the London Spitfire. Early in 2019, he was picked up as head coach for the Toronto Defiant’s academy team, Montreal Rebellion, who he led to a semifinal finish in the North America East division of Contenders. And while Hooreg is new to coaching, he technically has the best track record in the Outlaws organization. He was signed to GC Busan when they won APEX Season 4, was on the London Spitfire roster for their 2018 OWL championship, returned to Contenders with RunAway for their 2019 Season 1 victory, and was then picked up for the inaugural Vancouver Titans roster that went to the 2019 Grand Finals. For the more superstitious of Overwatch fans, just having him in the room counts as an upgrade.

Player Background

Most of the Outlaws’ new additions require little introduction, as the team focused on pros with OWL experience rather than signing upcoming talent. Hydration has played competitive Overwatch since the game was in beta, and signed with the Los Angeles Gladiators’ inaugural roster. While blasé has less tier 1 experience, he’s been playing about as long and was a mainstay of the Boston Uprising roster last year. The inescapable 3-3 meta saw both of them playing Brigitte for most of 2019, but outside of that context, they both have reputations for extreme flexibility, even outside of the DPS role — Hydration has enough experience on main tank that he’s the likely emergency backup if Muma is unable to play. That flexibility could be incredibly valuable with the travel required in the 2020 season. It’s still uncertain just how much players may be affected by fatigue, burnout or illness. Having multiple options for rearranging the roster if necessary could turn out to be a lifesaver.

outlaws 2020
Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Outside of the new damage dealers, Houston has focused on shoring up weaknesses. The off-tank position has been rocky for some time, with coolmatt and SPREE both specializing in different heroes and neither one quite covering all the needed bases. The Outlaws hope to steady that ground by adding MekO, one of the strongest D.Va players in the game. Don’t forget, he also played a dominant Sigma in the 2019 playoffs. It’s going to be a big adjustment; MekO has spent his entire career with the former LW Blue squad that is now the New York Excelsior. But if he can find his footing with his new teammates, he’ll be a powerful addition.

Most analysts, though, would likely call the Outlaws’ support line their biggest historical weakness. They’ve chosen to address that problem as directly as possible: by signing a support duo with a strong history together. While Rapel and Jecse most recently played for Vancouver and Seoul, respectively, they were teammates on Element Mystic in Contenders Korea. Their results were strong, culminating in a semifinal finish in Contenders 2018 Season 2. Old EM fans should be delighted to see the two back together, but don’t expect them to rest on their laurels — veteran Outlaws Boink and Rawkus will undoubtedly be grinding to secure those starting spots as well, especially after the latter’s gold medal win in the 2019 Overwatch World Cup.

Schedule Analysis

The concept of “strength of schedule” has changed dramatically with the League’s shift to local homestand games. Teams aren’t just challenged by their in-game opponents, but also by long-distance travel. Thankfully, the Outlaws have one of the more forgiving itineraries in the League. They have multiple two-week breaks, one three-week break, and only a single trip out of the US — two games in Paris followed by a bye week. They also only have two four-week strings of games, in weeks 2-5 and 23-26.

The difficulty of the matchups is harder to guess. Most of their games are against fellow Atlantic division teams, many of which have made major changes over the offseason. Power rankings are a bit of a fool’s errand right now. But it’s hard not to see a challenge in the last few weeks of the regular season, when they’ll face Vancouver, San Francisco, and both Los Angeles teams on the road before hosting Philadelphia and Atlanta at home. They’ll need to rack up as many wins as possible early in the season to avoid facing these tough challengers with their playoff hopes on the line.

Homestands and Dates

The Outlaws’ two homestands bookend the 2020 season. They’ll be in Houston in week 4, February 29th and March 1st, at the Revention Music Center. The second homestand is in week 26, August 1st and 2nd, at a venue yet to be announced.

One upshot to that scheduling: a bye in week 27 means that, no matter how their record pans out, the Outlaws will play their last game of the regular season before their home crowd.

Most Anticipated Games of the Year
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Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

The Outlaws’ season starts off with back to back games against the Mayhem and Justice. Much like the Outlaws, both saw poor results in 2019 and made major changes this offseason. All three will be looking to make a statement, but with revamped rosters, the results are hard to predict. Houston’s first guaranteed challenge is in week 3, when MekO will play against his longtime teammates on the NYXL for the first time.

The biggest show of the year is likely to be in week 23. On July 11th, Harsha, Hooreg and Rapel will settle the score with their former comrades in Vancouver. Much debate has been made of the Titans’ offseason decisions, but they’re still some of the most skilled players in the League and not to be underestimated.

And the very next night? The fourth-ever Battle for Texas against the Dallas Fuel. Houston dominated the matchup against a struggling Fuel team in 2018, while Dallas took the win handily last season. If both teams are in fighting shape come July, this could be the first time this rivalry is truly competitive. And that’s something fans from both sides of Texas are eager to see.

Players to Watch This Season
Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Very few of Houston’s problems last season were actually rooted in a given player underperforming. The team’s structural changes are more likely to affect their performance this year than any one player could. And building team cohesion in a newly-mixed roster will require hard work and patience from everyone involved.

That said, the majority of the new Outlaws have strong performances backing them up. The veterans, meanwhile, have the shadow of two disappointing seasons. Of the remaining 2019 roster, the ones most likely to remain on the starting lineup are Muma and Danteh. Both have been standout talents in the past — arguably the strongest players on the 2018 and 2019 rosters, respectively. Their ability to shake off last year and perform at their best again will be vital to this season’s success.

Keys to a Successful Season

The Outlaws have a reputation as a tight-knit team. What they may have lacked in mechanics, they made up for with coordination and smart gameplay. But when it failed them, it failed them badly. Now they’ve gained players with the ability to carry a match, but neither skill nor teamwork wins championships alone. Regaining that cohesion and coordination with this new roster is the most important step to success in 2020. There’s more raw talent representing South Texas in the Overwatch League than ever before, and if this new posse of Outlaws can truly band together, fans just might see some magic happen.

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