The Dallas Fuel are currently the Overwatch League’s greatest mystery: a team that has been shrouded with drama and headlines since the league’s launch. They entered the league with the accolades from Team Envy draped around their shoulders. Team Envy, before the launch of the Overwatch League and the introduction of the Dallas Fuel, had established itself as one of the best Western teams in the game. Now, the Fuel sit at the bottom two of the standings, standing only above the Shanghai Dragons.
Heroes Never Die spoke to the Fuel’s general manager, Mat Taylor, who’s been with the team throughout it all. Taylor shared what led to the team’s tailspin and why he thinks that the Fuel still has a shot for redemption and vindication in the Overwatch League’s first season.
“Obviously, from the team, to the organization, to the fans, we had huge expectations going into the League.” Taylor is honest; he never flinches away from a question, even though the Fuel has been under a spotlight for tough reasons this season.
“Going from one of the best Western teams ever, and then going into Korea and winning there, which was a huge statement to make, winning Contenders... We definitely had a huge amount of pressure going in to perform,” Taylor said.
The rest of the league, at that point, had a few strong contenders: the Seoul Dynasty, the London Spitfire, and the New York Excelsior were all expected to contest the Dallas Fuel for the top spot.
“We weren’t overconfident,” Taylor said; the problem wasn’t with the team’s talent. “We were confident we’d perform well in the first season. Obviously we haven’t been doing that, it hasn’t been happening. To be fair, a lot of people may have overlooked this, but this season in multiple stages we came close to breaking through on these wins. We came super close to breaking New York recently, we had close matches against Boston and these other teams. If we had put those match wins together, that would have put together a momentum shift.”
But the Fuel didn’t win, and there have been sparks that threatened to set the entire team aflame.
Sparks and flames
Félix “xQc” Lengyel’s release from the Dallas Fuel was one of the most controversial developments of the Overwatch League so far. Since then, there’s been a suspension and two more releases, coach Kyle “KyKy” Souder and DPS player Kim “Rascal” Dong-jun. Hwang “EFFECT” Hyeon is currently in South Korea. Timo “Taimou” Kettunen tweeted about a hospital visit, raising further concern from fans.
And in the news: brains fine. I'm not dying.— Timo Kettunen (@DF_Taimou) April 23, 2018
Really annoying feeling to have half of your body hurting/numb 247 though. ER peeps said its probably extreme stress and or migraine.
“It wasn’t anything serious at the end of the day,” said Taylor, who assisted Taimou with getting checked out. “People were wondering why we played him, but the doctors said he would be fine. He was good; it was a bit of a scare. With Effect returning to Korea, he’s been working hard this season and we wanted him to take some rest.”
Effect’s recent return to Korea and Taimou’s medical concern perfectly sum up the problem that the team has encountered: constant, accumulated stress.
“It’s been one of those things where these players are playing six days a week, two matches a week, the schedule is very long and grueling,” Taylor said. “Everyone wants to win, and make our fans happy, make ourselves happy, it’s been tough.”
Not only are the Fuel playing a tough schedule, but they’re failing to live up to those early expectations that defined the early narrative for their team. “When you’re not playing well, for a lot of these young players and the team in general it’s hard to figure stuff out from it. Almost all of these players, coming from high expectations and high pressure including us as an organization, we had it rough in terms of getting back on our feet. We’re obviously still trying to do that and we’re working hard every day.”
Changes and coaching
The Dallas Fuel are currently in a transitional period. They’ve welcomed aboard Benjamin “uNKOE” Chevasson and Kang “Vol’Jin” Min-Gyu. Taylor acknowledges that with the schedule, roster shifts, and changing roles, there hasn’t been time to solidify a roster. The Fuel needs to add more staff, more infrastructure. In an AMA on Reddit, Mike “hastr0” Rufail explained that they had kept the team “lean” as they continued to succeed. As they hit the League, there was “a new team dynamic”. With the massively accelerated schedule that Taylor cited above, the team became a pressure cooker. Social media has also consistently been a problem with the Fuel. In the AMA, hastr0 acknowledged the constant spotlight on Twitch streams and Twitter feeds, writing:
We have given social media advisement repeatedly to our players. At the end of the day, we can’t put tape over their mouths or prevent them from using their social media platforms. We have the ability to fine players contractually, which we have done, but other than that, we don’t have the ability to silence them. This is something the fans can take up with the players themselves and has been an issue for the team environment no matter how many times we have addressed these issues with players. It is a tiring job.
Taylor acknowledges that managing the Fuel has been a long-term effort with no small amount of exhaustion, and a new goal has emerged: a consistent roster that can work together and remain fundamentally healthy in communication.
“We know we have to keep working hard, and player-wise, keep their head straight,” Taylor said. “Honestly the roster we have right now, I believe can win and do well in the League. We’ve shown moments of greatness even with the changes. Mentality wise, our team is trying to get in a good state, we’ve been focusing on that.”
While the team shores up its infrastructure staff, they continually work with the players. Taylor notes that he lives in the same apartments as the players, and constantly offers advice. The incoming infrastructure is specifically meant to target the compounding stress issues. In the meantime, there are perks like a maid service and personal training, and services like life coaching and counseling, and constant access to management.
These are things meant to soothe the time that isn’t spent scrimming and playing, a constant stressor.
“Going from scrimming to months and weeks on end to a three day tournament to [the inaugural season of the Overwatch League] is a whole other deal,” Taylor said, but he feels as though the League is a “great thing”. He acknowledges that the organization made mistakes that compounded the issues, and notes dryly: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I’ve always said that.”
While its tempting for many people in the Overwatch League to write the Fuel off as a one-off, it seems as though the team’s long voyage of introspection and chaos could happen to anyone in the Overwatch League. Taylor notes that other teams in the League have struggled with the same issues, just on a smaller scale. The reason why things boiled over for the Fuel?
“The Fuel as a team and organization we’ve had our problems and issues regarding stress and the season, but it’s compiled with how we’ve been performing. You’ve seen this in some other teams, if you start losing and you shouldn't be losing, you second guess yourself.”
The concept of a roster trying to succeed, failing and falling victim to inner turmoil as a result is a tale as old as time in sports. Add in the fact that social media and Overwatch news sites carefully catalogued each and every incident, and it becomes easy to see how the Fuel got to their current spot.
Despite all of that, Taylor is optimistic. The players have started smiling on stage, and there’s a sense that they’re rallying, emotionally.
“We have the largest fanbase still if you look on Twitter, and our fans are pushing—they WANT to see the Fuel succeed.” he said. The key to winning may be... to stop thinking about winning. “For all these guys who were known for winning for so long, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but at the same time we want them to relax a bit. When they have fun on stage, which is genuine, they play better at this point.”
While players like Dylan “aKm” Bignet have gotten flack for their subpar performances, Taylor sees that as progress—aKm played Genji to benefit the team and so the Fuel could play as a cohesive whole. While they’re not picking up wins, they’re building the foundation necessary for wins and removing the dark cloud of persistent stress that has plagued them. “I think they’re realizing that when they’re enjoying the game, wins can come.” notes Taylor.
Taylor is under as much stress as the rest of the team, but he sees stage four as a possible turnaround for the Fuel, especially with changes still to come for the organization, coaching staff and roster.
“My goal for the end of the season is to end on a high note, not a low note. There are still glimpses of potential, and I think even the fans have noticed that,” he said, and then sighed. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but he acknowledged they’re not there yet: “We’re all under a fair amount of pressure and stress, but at the end of the day we’re getting through it.”