BURBANK, Calif. -- For Houston Outlaws fans, the familiar sinking feeling began on Hollywood, the third map of the Overwatch League series.
With the Outlaws unable to push past Point B or stop the Paris Eternal's own attack run, Paris had run through Houston with ease, neutralizing the Outlaws' attempted fights. Though the 2-1 map score was still in Houston's favor, going into Dorado (Map 4), Paris seemed primed for a comeback.
Despite nearly beating the New York Excelsior and upsetting Stage 2 champions the San Francisco Shock in their first two matches of Stage 3, the Outlaws seemed to have finally run out of luck.
First of all, they hadn't.
Second of all, it wasn't luck.
"On Hollywood, we made a few key mistakes, and we honestly have not made those mistakes in the past," Outlaws flex support player Shane "Rawkus" Flaherty said. "To make those mistakes against Paris was really demoralizing in a sense because we know what we're capable of, and we know how bad it feels to lose that way, so we took a second to talk to everyone. We said, 'Look, guys, remember what we did. We lost because of these reasons, not because they adapted to us. It's going to feel really bad losing and going home, so just focus on what we can do.' And we did. That has to be the mentality."
Houston's mental fortitude is one of the key factors behind its surprising recent success. After failing to win a single match in Stage 2, the Outlaws are 3-1 this stage, their only loss coming to NYXL in their first Stage 3 series.
The Outlaws are one of the most popular teams in the Overwatch League, and due to that popularity have been a perennial target since the inaugural season in 2018, when they were outpaced by other teams, including hybrid lineups that grew together throughout the season. This year, the Outlaws were expected to start strong in the three-tank, three-support (also known as GOATS) meta. Their existing synergy in retaining their lineup and adding DPS player Dante "Danteh" Cruz from the San Francisco Shock made Stage 1 Houston's projected successful stage.
It wasn't, for two main reasons: a surprising lack of team coordination due to lineup swaps onstage and an insistence on sticking to the GOATS meta against teams that could execute it better. The latter reason is what casters, commentators and the community as a whole latched onto, but it wasn't the entire story.
"I think a lot of people think that 3-3 was the entire problem and [said], 'Just play DPS. Just play Sombra GOATS,'" Rawkus said. "But realistically having swapped so many people in and so many people out had put us behind in the 3-3. We had four different Zarya players, three different D.Va players, two different main support players, three different Brig players -- we just could not find our footing. The biggest thing was that sticking to what we thought was the best six or seven people and sticking to what we thought was the best strategy at the time is why we're now winning."
Stage 3 has seen a shift away from GOATS compositions for more teams than just the Outlaws, with other lineups willing to try a variety of DPS looks or at least dabble in "Sombra GOATS," in which the DPS hero Sombra takes the place of off-tank D.Va; that comp also frequently uses an Ana in a support role instead of a Zenyatta.
Some of the meta change is owed to the Chengdu Hunters, who stuck to what worked for them, DPS compositions with Wrecking Ball, for the majority of Stages 1 and 2.
"The only teams committed to 3-3 still are obviously the ones that are best at it. A lot of other teams that can't run 3-3 have adapted," Rawkus said. "Chengdu is a great example. They were winning games that they shouldn't have won, too, and it gave everyone hope because as a player you have that confidence thing. Like, 'I'm better than that guy. I'm better than this guy. If they can do it, we can do it.' And it just kind of escalated."
The Outlaws' epiphany came in their first Stage 3 match against NYXL, which marked the return of NYXL DPS player Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol over D.Va player Kim "MekO" Tae-hong in order to run Sombra compositions. While Houston had discussed not running GOATS compositions anymore, the Outlaws hadn't yet moved away from them.
"We were doing well with 3-3 and we were going even with a lot of teams," Rawkus said. "We thought that was what we needed to focus on with our core six-seven people and build synergy so we could figure out things that were going wrong previously. But after we played New York Excelsior we played 3-3 and they played Sombra GOATS. And we were like, 'Why are we not playing Sombra GOATS? We have the best Sombra in the league. We have multiple players capable of doing that.'"
The "best Sombra in the league" mention is for Danteh, who has proved to be a strong fit in this Houston lineup, especially now that the team is running more Sombra or DPS-heavy compositions. With their core starting players, the Outlaws have now been able to regain the team synergy that they were known for in previous stages and metas.
Rawkus credits the team's veteran core above all else.
"The biggest thing about our team is that we're really truly a family. We don't throw anyone under the bus," Rawkus said. "Our team specifically is special. If something goes wrong, we're there to bring each other back up. We don't have the negative toxic things you hear on other teams and it makes us so much more capable.
"I honestly want to say if any other team in the league went 0-7 they could not bounce back mentally compared to us. I've known them for so long and them being veterans just makes them more professional. Having this core, it's just really mature. If they're not playing, they'll help the other players and it's really a special thing to have."