How the Vancouver Titans collapsed and are rebuilding from scratch

Vancouver Titans celebrate a victory at Blizzard Arena. (Ben Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment)

Just one win away from climbing the top of the mountain, the Vancouver Titans had a near-perfect start in their inaugural season.

“I was just with the guys and I couldn’t be more proud of them, and I know Canucks Sports & Entertainment couldn’t be more, either,” Tim Holloway, director of esports at Canucks Sports & Entertainment, told Sportsnet shortly after the Titans fell to the champion San Francisco Shock last September in the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals.

“We’re a first-year team in a league and everybody was a first-year rookie and given the incredible success we had during the regular season and to make it to the championship we’re all looking forward to Season 2 and building off this.”

Unfortunately for Holloway and the Titans organization, however, this dream-like beginning quickly turned into a nightmare this season.

As with everything, COVID-19 impacted the Overwatch League in a big way, forcing the professional esports league to suddenly shift from a homestand schedule that saw specific teams hosting league matches in their home markets (such as the New York Excelsior holding the opening week’s matches at the Hammerstein Ballroom) during the first five weeks of the season to suddenly shifting to an online model that started in Week 8.

A challenge for every team involved, but for the Titans, in particular, it proved to be very problematic.

After looking as though they were going to pick up right where they left off with a 2-0 start in the first week of the season, the Titans weren’t scheduled to play another match until Week 4 as they would they were slated to do a tour in Asia, playing in Hangzhou, China in Week 4, then Seoul, South Korea in Week 5 and Guangzhou, China in Week 6.

Since the Titans are based out of the Pacific Division in the Overwatch League, one that features five different teams in China and South Korea, an Asian trip was going to be unavoidable for the club, despite being based in Vancouver.

The earlier outbreak of COVID-19 in Asia mandated that any Overwatch League matches that were scheduled to be played there had to be cancelled, suddenly throwing the Titans’ season into disarray.

It wouldn’t be until Week 10 that Vancouver would manage to play another set of matches, this time online. They ended up falling to the Guangzhou Charge and Chengdu Hunters on April 11 and 12, losses that were the last time we’d see the Titans as we knew them.

The Titans haven’t played a match since those mid-April defeats, and for good reason. The team has broken up.

In a letter to the fans Wednesday, the Titans announced that DPS players HyoJong “HakSal” Kim, Minsoo “Seominsoo” Seo and Chunghee “Stitch” Lee, supports Seongjun “Slime” Kim, Juseok “Twilight” Lee and Chunghee “Stitch” Lee and assistant coaches Yangwon “Yang1” Kweon and Jae Hong “Andante” Hwang all mutually agreed to part ways from the organization.

Additionally, the Titans also released tank player Chan Hyeong “Fissure” Baek, and just last Thursday announced the departures of star tank, and MVP candidate from last season, HyunWoo “JJANU” Choi and head coach Hwang ‘PaJion’ Jisub, as well as the team’s general manager Anthony Muraco a few weeks before that.

In other words, that was the entire eight-man player roster, three-man coaching staff and team GM all gone from the Titans organization in less than a month.

For anyone paying attention, however, the writing was on the wall for this eventual outcome weeks in advance with many players and members of the coaching staff removing any mention of the Titans from their social media profiles, suggesting there might have been bad blood between the players and organization.

As the Titans would have it, however, it was more a case of bad circumstances that led to an inevitable rift between the two.

When the COVID-19 pandemic became more serious in North America, the original plan was to keep the team in Vancouver, where they’re housed and trained at Adamas Esports Training and Performance at Fortius Sport & Health, a high-performance sports facility that the Toronto Raptors have used for training camp in British Columbia.

Unfortunately, the setup at Adamas wasn’t working out with the team unable to separate computers six feet apart from each other to keep in line with the stricter social distancing practices that were being put in place at the time.

This led to then-GM Muraco suggesting to the team if they’d like to go home back to South Korea.

With a roster and coaching staff made up entirely of South Koreans, the club accepted the offer, but was ultimately disappointed in the remote structure of how everything was handled.

“The unfortunate part of the story is when they got home there was an expectation from them that there would be a similar infrastructure in South Korea for them,” said Alfred de Vera, head of esports team operations at Canucks Sports & Entertainment, in a recent telephone interview.

“The truth of the matter is, from a budgetary standpoint and from a feasibility standpoint, Tim and I and our management team are all based in Vancouver and we don’t have anybody on the ground in Seoul. So the feasibility of being able to create a facility, given the budget constraints that are happening because of COVID, it just wasn’t feasible and wasn’t something we could do and, unfortunately, the players weren’t thrilled with the idea of having to play the rest of the season out from their homes.”

This remote setup was a major contributing factor in those Week 10 losses to Guangzhou and Chengdu, as the Titans players struggled playing online from their homes.

Additionally, the announcement from the team that they would be playing in the North American bracket in the forthcoming tournament at the end of May upset the Titans players who were now all living in South Korea and didn’t understand the need to do so when there was already an Asia region tournament lined up. Other teams such as New York and the London Spitfire, that also feature all-South Korean rosters, temporarily relocated to the country.

Without any support staff on the ground in South Korea, however, it just wasn’t to be for the Titans, and the end result was as you see it now.

A bitter end to one of the best stories going in esports.

The original Titans roster was actually made up almost entirely of a team that won a Contenders (Overwatch League’s minor league) title in Korea called Runaway and then came to the Show and utterly dominated in their first season, coming inches away from winning it all.

Despite getting so close from the ultimate goal in that inaugural campaign to then now returning to square one, Canucks Sports & Entertainment can take solace knowing they’ve learned a lot through this experience. New to the esports game, they’ve taken their lumps and now and seem poised to not make the same errors.

“I’m not gonna say something that’s not factual,” said de Vera. “Korean players are the best Overwatch League players in the world and I think that’s an objective fact here … But I think for us, these guys didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Korean. We had a translator that we hired later on in the season of last year. He was in place as of June of last year. So there were mistakes made, for sure. If I could do it over again it would probably be in everyone’s best interests if, just to ease with the cultural assimilation on both sides, just to have, perhaps, English lessons for the players and Korean lessons for our staff. …

“I just think somewhere down the line, and perhaps in just relying on one translation and one translator, probably wasn’t the most optimum thing, but I think there’s probably lessons definitely from our side. What does it mean to be an esports athlete performing at that highest level? To be playing these games in a place 4,000 kilometres away from home, once you encapsulate what that’s like then maybe, on both sides, you can put yourself in each other’s shoes.”

Starting from scratch now, the Titans announced Friday, that they’re signing six new players, three of which come from North American Contenders team Second Wind in Canadians Abtin “Shredlock” Shirvani and Randal “Roolf” Stark, as well as American Dalton “Dalton” Bennyhoff.

Here’s a complete look at the new Titans roster:

• Randal “Roolf” Stark (Support) – Canada
• Dalton “Dalton” Bennyhoff (DPS) – USA
• Samir “Tsuna” Ikram (DPS) – France
• Atbin “Shredlock” Shirvani (Tank) – Canada
• Alhumaidi “KSAA” Alruwaili (Off Tank) – Saudi Arabia
• Carson “CarCar” First (Support) – USA

Additionally, an all-new coaching and support staff were announced Friday, with Steven “Flubby” Coronel taking the helm as head coach and fellow Americans Ali “Pew” Anwar and Eric “Wheats” Perez acting as his assistants. Justin Hughes will now also take over as assistant manager of team operations.

“We’re really excited to get started with the next chapter,” Holloway said. “We’ve identified a very highly touted and highly ranked North American Contenders team for the majority of our core roster and we’re really excited to make more and uplifting announcements in the coming days as we introduce our new players and our new Titans.”

The team won’t have much time to get acclimated to the new setting they’re being thrust into as their next matches are this Saturday and Sunday against the Washington Justice and Florida Mayhem. They’ll try to rack up wins for better seeding before the start of the North American region tournament beginning May 23.

The jury’s still out on whether these new Titans can even come close to the bar the Runaway incarnation of the team set.

The climb back to where the Titans were not even a full calendar year ago begins once again Saturday.

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