Hunters bank on Chinese talent for Overwatch League debut

Chengdu Hunters off-tank Ma "LateYoung" Tianbin, left, got some crucial stage experience with Team China at the Overwatch World Cup in November 2018 at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

When the Shanghai Dragons revealed their all-Chinese Overwatch League roster in October 2017, the announcement was met with considerable confusion.

At the time, Chinese and Western fans alike wondered if a team built off entirely Chinese talent could contend with top Overwatch League rosters. Despite drastic mid-season roster and coaching changes, the Dragons would ultimately go winless in their inaugural season, their 0-40 record becoming an unfortunate blemish on the reputation of the Chinese Overwatch scene.

Since then, Chinese Overwatch has slowly but steadily grown, with teams and players determined to prove the Dragons' results are not indicative of the region. China's most notable success so far came in the 2018 Overwatch World Cup, with the Chinese roster making it to the finals by beating favorites like Team Finland and Team Canada in dominant fashion before losing to three-time champion South Korea.

Coming into the 2019 season, all eyes are on the region and its players to see what surprises it will bring next.

The Chengdu Hunters are one of three Chinese expansion teams joining the Overwatch League in its second season. The team is owned by Huya, a Chinese live-streaming platform, and operated by Royal Never Give Up, a Chinese esports organization best known for its internationally successful all-Chinese League of Legends team.

The Hunters' roster has followed this example. All of the team's players and staff members are Chinese, with the exception of two Taiwanese members: DPS player Lo "Baconjack" Tzu-Heng and assistant coach Chang "Ray" Chia-Hua. Though the Hunters are perceived as the weakest of the four Chinese Overwatch League teams, the lack of a language barrier could prove invaluable for their growth.

"Since everyone on our team speaks Mandarin, there won't be any problems in communication," Ray said. "The other Chinese teams will still have to adapt, and it may affect them, so this is our advantage. However, the teams that picked up full teams of Korean players are definitely better since they've been playing together for longer, so we still have to work hard on our synergy."

Despite the largely unproven roster, there's still much to be excited about, especially for older fans of Chinese Overwatch. Before the Overwatch League, the strongest Chinese team by far was Miraculous Youngster, a squad that enjoyed huge success in tournaments both domestic and international. They were forced to disband in December 2017 after none of them were selected for the Shanghai Dragons, with most players retiring or moving to other titles.

Now, one year later, the Chengdu Hunters have orchestrated a Miraculous Youngster revival of sorts. Three former Miraculous Youngster players -- off-tank Ma "Lateyoung" Tianbin, DPS Zhang "YangXiaoLong" Zhihao and main tank Wei "Jiqiren" Yansong -- are on the roster, along with head coach Wang "RUI" Xingrui, who coached the Shanghai Dragons briefly in Season 1 of the Overwatch League.

RUI, who coached Team China and current Chengdu players Lateyoung and support Li "Yveltal" Xianyao in the Overwatch World Cup, said he is confident that he can lead the team to greatness.

"I'll use my previous experience in the League to help everyone get acclimated to living in America quickly," RUI said, "so we can work on achieving our goals properly."

The few players who have played to international audiences have garnered significant acclaim. Baconjack notably represented Taiwan in the World Cup in 2017, making his name as a top-tier Tracer player. He left Overwatch for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds in early 2018, but has since returned to play in the Overwatch League, which proved exciting news for fans of the Pacific region.

The Team China roster that unexpectedly stormed through 2018's Overwatch World Cup also raised some eyebrows, with Yveltal in particular receiving praise for his skillful play on Mercy and Lucio as well as his intelligent shot-calling and in-game decision-making.

Fellow Chengdu support Li "Garry" Guan joked that Lateyoung and Yveltal picked up an important on-stage lesson during the World Cup as well.

"They learned not to go to the bathroom," Garry said.

His teammates laughed. Due to time constraints during the tournament, including matches, practice and press appearances, there were barely any breaks for Team China to take care of other business.

"Well, not going to the bathroom was one thing," Lateyoung said. "Another thing was that trying to display my skill in front of such a huge crowd was very nerve-wracking, but being able to face off against such strong opponents taught me a lot, too."

The Hunters appear to share the mindset of striving for constant improvement going into the 2019 season, and although people doubt them, they seem unfazed by the prospect of facing strong opponents.

"Since we have to play every team anyway, there isn't a team that I particularly want to face," Yveltal said.

Conversely, Yveltal's support counterpart, Chunting "Kyo" Kong, has his sights firmly set on the top.

"I want to play against the defending champions, London Spitfire," Kyo said.

The Chengdu Hunters' focus on steady growth rather than immediate results runs contrary to the general perception of Chinese Overwatch, which is that of impatience and unorthodox approaches to the game. Though many believe the team will not find much success in 2019, the coaching staff and players remain optimistic.

"I hope we can improve as the season goes on and place high in the end," Ray said. "We're going to take it slowly instead of being impatient for success. RUI and I have a lot of faith in our players, and I believe that if you give us enough time, our synergy will only improve. We have a goal, but I hope we can be patient and steadfast in achieving it."