Last year, Dallas Empire was busy becoming Call of Duty world champion, while in 2021 it is sliding down the CDL standings and has lost a star player. Conversely, this year has been a success story for Dallas Fuel in the Overwatch League, which won its first tournament at May Melee after a few seasons of mediocrity. And where there were once very few content creators under the Team Envy banner, you can now find several following a significant hiring spree of well-known talent over the last few months.
2021 is a year of change for Team Envy and its franchised teams, with fortunes shifting and approaches altering, and the man overseeing it all is founder and chief gaming officer Mike ‘Hastr0’ Rufail.
The Loadout had the chance to dive deep into these ups and downs with the man himself, and pull apart both the successes and the stumbling blocks of the year so far.
Here we discuss with Hastr0 the secret behind the Fuel’s rise in the OWL, what 5v5 gameplay in Overwatch 2 means for the team’s tank lineup, Dallas Empire’s rough patch in the CDL, and why he doesn’t mind “being late to the party” when it comes to content creation.
The Loadout: Is it good to finally see Dallas Fuel finding some real success in the Overwatch League?
Hastr0: The Overwatch League has been around for three seasons so far. Prior to that, we were on top of all of Overwatch, right. I think people tend to exaggerate the time periods that we’re operating in esports. We think we’ve been extremely successful in the [entire] history of Overwatch… Team Envy was essentially the number one or number two ranked team in the world for those few years and then with the Overwatch League, we just had a few rough seasons. Now we find ourselves being very competitive, at the top of the league, and we’re very excited to be with a winning team again.
Outside of the obvious answer, which is the change in personnel on the roster before this season, what are you doing differently in 2021 behind the scenes with Dallas Fuel?
We are using a lot of our experience having operated in the Overwatch League for three seasons. And there were certain things that we did [before] that I would certainly call errors in our thinking, like the way we wanted to sign our players. We had guaranteed contracts for a lot of our players that really inhibited us from being able to make roster moves. We just really weren’t able to fix the team dynamic for a couple of our teams.
Nobody else is to blame [for that] other than us. But at the same time, you’re not going to go through operating a major esports team without making a few mistakes and learning along the way. What you’re seeing now is just the result of us doing a great job of learning from some of our mistakes and working to make sure that we create a culture and environment that’s conducive to winning and bringing in the right players and coaches to do that.
Do you think you’ll be able to keep this form up heading into June Joust and make it back-to-back tournament wins for the Fuel?
Yeah, you have to keep the momentum going, you have to keep the motivation going, you have to keep the improvements coming. I mean, that’s probably the most important thing, you have to continue to improve. And one of the things that I’ve been telling our teams for quite a few years is that as long as you’re making progress, you will win championships. Even then when you win a championship, you have to continue to make that progress to stay in that seat, right? Because other teams are always going to try to make that progress too.
I think we’re certainly there with the Dallas Fuel and we’re doing nothing but trying to make progress every day.
— Mike Rufail (@hastr0) May 28, 2021
One of the big challenges you faced as an owner last year was having to drop James ‘Clayster’ Eubanks from Dallas Empire as the Call of Duty League went from 5v5 to 4v4. With that in mind, what was your reaction to the announcement that Overwatch 2 will also shrink from 6v6 to 5v5?
I actually favour 6v6 Overwatch a little bit more. And I also favoured 5v5 Call of Duty. That’s just my personal opinion, but I had actually been one of the more vocal people for 5v5 CoD before that change [was even] made. I was actually a big fan of the Promod days back in Call of Duty 4 PC competition, which was Search and Destroy played 5v5. And I really enjoyed watching that.
I don't see us necessarily having to get rid of a player like we had to in Call of Duty.
So I was always at the forefront of the conversation saying we should be playing 5v5 Call of Duty in the console professional scene. And when we finally did it, I quite enjoyed it. And then yes, we switched back to 4v4, and it affected the team dynamic we had built with Clayster. Having to remove a player was tough. Now we have to potentially do something similar in Overwatch.
I don’t know if it’s quite the same, though, because Overwatch is more role-based. And so in this scenario, you still need personnel that can play different tank heroes in the game. We have two great tanks on our roster now, Choi ‘Hanbin’ Han-been and Lee ‘Fearless’ Eui-Seok, arguably two of the best in their roles in the entire league, and I don’t see us necessarily having to get rid of a player like we had to in Call of Duty.
Is this something you’ve told those players then to reassure them, and how did Hanbin and Fearless react when the 5v5 announcement was made?
I haven’t really talked to them about that specifically. We don’t even mention it, to be honest. I think what [management] is projecting down to the players is that nothing’s really changing for us. I think as it is right now, we’re completely willing to maintain the entire roster that we have, even in a 5v5 environment.
Do you think the gameplay changes coming to Overwatch 2 will be beneficial for the Overwatch League?
Well, there’s no perfect videogame – there’s never been a perfect videogame. And there’s never been a perfect game for esports either. Honestly, I love that, because one side of me definitely likes 6v6, but I will say that for us to improve the entire industry, experimentation has to be at the core of that. Experimenting and trying new things often leads to innovation. And if it becomes worse, then at least you learn from that, and you can mark it off as an experiment that you don’t need to try anymore. Eventually, you end up with a product that feels good and is superior.
For us to improve the entire industry, experimentation has to be at the core of that
I really applaud what they’re doing with Overwatch, trying to tinker with it and try new things. On a micro level, they’ve been doing that [for a while already] with changing metas and hero bans at the league level and things like that. And so all you’re seeing is just more experimenting and research into how we make [competitive Overwatch] better – that should be applauded.
Did OWL teams find out about the 5v5 plans at the same time as everyone else and have discussions and preparations already begun with the league?
Yes, we found out like everybody else. We’re discussing it already and I think that’s important and healthy. I don’t think by any means this is like a 100%, ‘has to be this way’ all the time, and who knows what will happen down the road. But I think it’s all healthy to try things and can make things very interesting.
And if the sentiment from the large majority of the crowd watching and playing Overwatch is that it isn’t good, I’m sure there could be a chance to revert that in the future.
Moving away from OWL and to the CDL, it’s been a bumpy season so far for Dallas Empire. Recently we saw Cuyler ‘Huke’ Garland leaving the Team Envy family, with Reece ‘Vivid’ Drost coming in to replace him on the Empire roster. Some saw this as a downgrade, on paper, so explain to us the process behind snapping up Vivid after he was dropped by LA Guerrillas?
For me, it’s always just about the chemistry of a team. And sometimes, people won’t understand all the variables and the dynamics that we have to go through and [what happens] when the chemistry of a team is not right.
— Mike Rufail (@hastr0) May 21, 2021
The team didn’t feel championship-calibre, even though we were placing pretty much top two and top four in just about everything, except for Stage 3 after Huke left.
I don’t expect a lot of people to understand why things happen or how difficult it is or the pieces that are moving to improve the team, but all I can say is that we’re we’re trying really hard to make it work with the situation we’re in and we’re always gonna try our best to put out a winning team. Hopefully, Vivid is going to help us do that. But it’s not a guarantee. So all we can do is work hard and make progress.
I think it’s fair to say that some probably expected Empire to maybe aim a little higher in finding a Huke replacement. Were there other options being explored?
I’m a straight shooter, so I don’t mind telling you how it is. We looked at a lot of different options and tried to pursue the best options for us. I think we’re all happy that we landed with Vivid, and it was something we didn’t take a terrible amount of time [to decide on].
There are always things that you might perceive as being a better option, but that doesn’t mean you have that option, because players are committed to contracts or have certain situations. Vivid was available, and we’re super happy that he was as he’s a quality player, and we think that we have a really good shot at winning tournaments with him – we wouldn’t have signed him if we didn’t.
We have a lot of work to do with Dallas Empire and everybody knows that
So with the roster situation now sorted, are the players looking forward to getting back to LAN for the Stage 4 Major? I can imagine a veteran like Ian ‘Crimsix’ Porter is especially keen after all of this online play?
We’re definitely looking to get back to LAN events – it’s a place we still feel very confident in and somewhere we can thrive. Last year, we thought it would have been worse for us [moving online] in terms of being able to beat other teams, but that wasn’t the case. We didn’t get to [show our potential] on LAN, yet we still won a world championship online. We feel comfortable doing that again this year, we really do.
It’s gonna be tough. There are definitely some good teams in the league this year. And some teams that are really, really tough to beat right now. So we have a lot of work to do with Dallas Empire and everybody knows that.
Would you say that the quality of opposition is a lot tougher than it was last season and that there are more teams capable of winning Majors and even Champs?
Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with that. It really does look like this year, the talent is a little bit more condensed. I think other teams got better from that 5v5 to 4v4 change and I also think just the level of preparation has gone up. And there are some teams that are clicking and their team chemistry is really great right now so we have to really work hard to catch up.
With the talent being condensed, we’ve also seen a lot of high-profile or experienced players being dropped or miss out on a CDL spot this season. I was talking to Atlanta FaZe’s Tyler ‘aBeZy’ Pharris recently who believes the online era has bred a lot of complacency among some of those pros. Do you agree?
If you want my honest opinion, I think they’re just getting older and the younger players are playing better than they are…
So it’s more a mechanical or technical thing then, rather than attitude?
I don’t know if it’s technical, motivation [might be a factor] but I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it’s just a fact that the younger players are just playing better. It’s probably a combination of multiple variables, whether it be slowing reflexes as you get older, or just being tired of the monotony of playing Call of Duty – whatever it is, the same can go for any other sport.
It’s tough to keep yourself motivated, but it’s probably a combination of technical ability, emotions, and the means to keep going. I can’t tell you what it is specifically, but I do notice that the younger players are starting to make more of an impact than they had in the past.
I know you won’t be able to talk specifics, but are you optimistic that next season could be when we finally see some expansion in the CDL?
I really don’t know much about what’s going on in the market for expansion teams in the CDL at the moment, other than the fact that I’ve heard there’s a lot of interest from new ownership groups. It’s not something I can really speak on, but I hope that’s the case. I think it’s super healthy for our league to continue to expand with new teams.
What would your personal, ideal expansion scenario next season look like? How many teams, which markets, etc.
I would like to see probably somewhere between two to six teams – any more than that would be just way too much. Four would probably be the sweet spot. And I’d like to maybe see some more global presence. But at the end of the day, it’s really up to new investors as to where they want to base their team and what markets to target, and how they foresee creating a business around it.
There’s an incredible amount of money that goes into operating a CDL team – it’s an investment and it’s a business, and you have to be mindful of that. While we all might want certain things for the league or for the fans, a lot of it is driven by what makes a feasible environment to operate a team in this league and take care of players and staff.
We’ve talked a lot about Team Envy’s franchises in CDL and OWL, but I also want to talk about content. Teams have been signing up armies of content creators for a while now, but this is something Envy has only really invested in heavily in recent months. Why was Envy a bit late to the party on this, compared to some of the other big orgs?
Well, the other orgs are late to the party on winning! You just have to pick and choose what you focus on, right, and we [prioritised winning in esports].
Other orgs are late to the party on creating a winning tradition and putting their name in the history books
Here’s what I’ll tell you, though. There are some things that we’ve been working on at Envy that aren’t even public yet, that will prove that many other teams are actually late to the party. We’ve always been able to pioneer in certain ways here.
I would say, other orgs are late to the party on creating a winning tradition and putting their name in the history books and winning actual esports competitions. And across multiple games, we’ve done that, and maybe that doesn’t drive the biggest audience, but for me, that is a success. And there are other things that we are doing from a business standpoint, that completely put us at the front of starting the next party.
We’re gonna start the party on a couple things… so I don’t mind being late to the content party. That’s ok. You’ve got to kind of pick and choose your paths, and there are numerous ways to create successful esports businesses in this industry. I’m really happy to see some of my peers finding success through content, but I’m joining them now and will join them and create even more content at Envy.