It was the worst of times, until, all at once, it was the best of times.
After two miserable weeks of play, with a 2-12 map record and no match wins, the Houston Outlaws headed into their first homestand with a lot to prove. The team made big roster changes over the off-season, losing some key names and officially gaining ‘mixed roster’ status. Fans and staff alike came into 2020 expecting major improvements from a team that’s been in the middle of the pack (at best) since its inception.
What they got was the opposite of that. The beginning of the Outlaws’ season was dismal. The first two games weren’t just losses, but disastrous ones. The next two saw improvement, but not enough to get a win on the board. They limped back to H-Town with an 0-4 record, and the internet collectively hoping that maybe the lack of travel and the supportive crowd would help put a little wind back in their sails.
But even the Internet wasn’t ready for what descended on Harris County last weekend.
Rallying the Troops
The Revention Music Center in downtown Houston is a hip venue with a storied past. It’s hosted the likes of Sting, Coldplay and Dave Chappelle. There’s a downstairs bar and lounge with dark bronze accents and moody lighting. The walls are covered in posters and framed portraits of artists who have graced its stage. And on Friday afternoon, the entire place’s carefully crafted hipster cred was overrun with an inescapable glow of electric green.
The homestand was produced by Esports Engine, the operations company that also put on the New York Excelsior’s first homestand last month. The NYXL homestand was well-received by fans, and the production in Houston was equally high-quality. The front lobby was graced with a reproduction of an Outlaws-themed mural that’s painted on the side of local games cafe Coral Sword. The rest of the entrance was lined with stations for sign-making, temporary tattoos, photo ops with Overwatch props, and an assortment of bright green temporary hair extensions with varying levels of glitter. And overlooking it all was a series of backlit black-and-white photos of the team.
There was less decor inside — just a few banners surrounding the seats and the same stage setup seen at most homestands — but it wasn’t really necessary. The crowd provided enough green and black to adorn the venue five times over. It was an impressive turnout, made more so by the Outlaws’ recent struggles. Previous homestands were hosted by teams that either hadn’t played yet in 2020, or were already performing well. These were the first two home games for a team that was, quite frankly, expected to lose.
But Outlaws fans have never been deterred by something so inconsequential as a losing record. H-Town turned out in force, and fans flocked from across the continent to support their team on their home turf.
The Main Event
The weekend’s games were among the more enjoyable of the season. Florida lost 3-0 to New York, but showed enough spirit to leave their fans hopeful, and took London to map 5 the next day. Atlanta took an expected win over Toronto, only to be shut down by Paris, the latest team to play through illness. And then, of course, there were the home games.
Houston’s first match against London was a nail-biter. Despite Jiri “LiNkzr” Masalin’s triumphant return to his signature Widowmaker, they handed over Busan and Blizzard World with little contest. Then, on Temple of Anubis, Jeffrey “blasé” “Still Not A Hitscan Player” Tsang and Dante “Danteh” “But I Sure As Hell Am” Cruz took matters into their own hands — and fist. Their Sombra-Doomfist duo held the second point and secured the Outlaws their first map win of the weekend. A similarly close Junkertown put the match at 2-2, but London took the fifth map decisively. The crowd let out the breath it had been holding in a collective disappointed sigh.
The next night’s game started out much the same, with the rock-star walkout narrated by veteran OWL emcee Malik Forté. But another name was added to the roster, one last time — that of former Outlaw Jacob “Jake” Lyon. Jake was the face of both the team and the League for two seasons, before retiring at the end of last year to become a shoutcaster. The change in uniform did nothing to lessen Houston’s support of their prodigal son; the cheers on his walk to the stage were just as loud as the current roster’s. After a brief montage, general manager Matt “flame” Rodriguez came to the stage to formally retire Jake’s number 76.
Then the game began. And yes, it could just be that the Outlaws found a composition that worked for them in Sombra and Doomfist. Or it could be that Austin “Muma” Wilmot came out of his Reinhardt slump to deliver some impressive Winston play. Or even just that the Toronto Defiant were having a tough weekend. But as the team bounced back from a 2-1 Nepal loss to take King’s Row, then stage a full hold on Horizon Lunar Colony, it was hard not to believe that the passionate crowd was having an effect. And when the payload slid into the final point on Dorado… well, the resulting roar might have rung church bells in San Antonio.
Measure of a Fan
It may seem like overstatement — of course a supportive crowd buoys a team’s spirits. But Houston’s fan base has always been an anomaly. Of all the Overwatch League teams known for their passionate supporters, the Outlaws arguably have the weakest performance. (An argument could be made for the Shanghai Dragons, but they at least turned their abysmal 2018 into an 11th-place finish in 2019.)
It perplexes the old guard of esports, sometimes. Why in the world are fans so wild for a team that’s never escaped the middle of the pack? It’s easy to put together the team’s conventionally attractive stars and heavily female fanbase and presume that’s the reason, but the crowd in Houston was incredibly diverse. If it’s not their play or their faces, then what commands that kind of loyalty?
The particular charisma of this team is hard to nail down, especially in its first year with a significantly different roster. It’s perhaps easier to demonstrate it in moments. In Danteh and Jung-keun “Rapel” Kim loading their Instagram feeds with clandestine photos of each other. In Jake, otherwise professionally detached, failing to hide the joy in his voice as LiNkzr racked up headshots. In Seung-soo “Jecse” Lee’s encouraging messages to Rawkus after Saturday’s loss, and their delighted on-stage hug after Sunday’s victory.
“Outlaws fans still have faith,” said caster Andrew “ZP” Rush during the failed comeback against London. “They still have hope.” What he didn’t mention was the third of the celebrated triad: the greatest of these is love.
Houston will face another significant challenge this weekend. Their only game in Week 5 is against the Paris Eternal, who themselves are on a massive upswing. The week’s hero bans take McCree and Widowmaker out of the mix, which eliminates what could have been a heart-stopping sniper duel between LiNkzr and Ki-hyo “Xzi” Jung. Paris leaned heavily into the popular McCree-Mei meta last week; they’ll have to adjust to face off against Houston’s presumed ‘Hackfist’ combo.
Houston, meanwhile, struggled some against London’s Mei and Pharah; while Danteh and blasé have been the go-to DPS duo, it may be worth bringing out João Pedro “Hydration” Goes Telles and his Pharah skills, especially with no McCree to shut him down. The question is twofold: can Paris find something to crack Houston’s preferred comp, and if they do, can Houston adapt to resist it? These are two teams that had unexpectedly good results last weekend, so expect a barn-burner of a match.
Follow Rainee on Twitter @Jezi_Belle for your daily dose of bad puns and emotional over-investment in Overwatch League and its players.
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