Small Steps for the Outlaws

It’s good that we’re in Stage 2 of the Overwatch League. It’s handy. It gives us the history of Stage 1, while providing us with something to compare it to. This is how rivalries are born, and we enjoyed a top-tier treat on Thursday night with the Outlaws going up against the Spitfire for the third time in two weeks.

The two teams entered the match with a 1-1 head-to-head record. Houston got the victory that counted in the standings, but London won the heavier matchup, the one that sent them to the finals of Stage 1, from which they emerged victorious. It was a tough pill to swallow for the Outlaws, knowing they’re capable of taking out a team that wandered home with USD $100,000 in their collective pockets, and it was with that fire that Houston pushed London to a tiebreaker and an eventual victory on Thursday at Blizzard Arena.

But it’s easy to forget just how exciting this rivalry is at its core—the original roster of London was made up of two established, powerhouse Korean rosters, versus Houston, which at its inception was a ragtag group of talented players from the US and Europe who had not played as six before.

Houston’s rise has been influenced in no small part by their head coach, Tae-Yeong “TaiRong” Kim. Formerly a coach for Afreeca Freecs, TaiRong’s first foray on the international stage was actually as a player, taking gold in the first Overwatch World Cup in 2016 as a support alongside the likes of Seoul Dynasty’s Joon-Hyeok “Zunba” Kim and Je-Hong “Ryujehong” Ryu.

Now, having made his way to America to lead the Outlaws, TaiRong is soft-spoken and shy—“My English is so bad,” he said, in perfect English—but very levelheaded and thoughtful when he speaks.

“It is pretty good,” TaiRong said after his team’s win against London, “but we still have many steps to fix.”

The whole process for Houston has been a series of small steps. Stage 1, TaiRong explained, was an exercise in strengthening the basics and fundamental skills that were lacking in Houston’s roster.

“In preseason, in scrims, it was all a learning phase,” he said. “They needed education. So I focused on that [for the players] through Stage 1, especially individual things, and it has worked very, very well.”

Stage 2 has brought with it significant balance changes, notably to Mercy and Junkrat, but TaiRong believes they still have their place, and points to recent games as an example.

“Mercy is a custom option for many teams,” he explained. “Mercy and Lucio we will use in swapping—A point for Lucio, B point for Mercy, for example. Valkyrie is still good [due to] healing multiple targets. She brings a lot of options for a team.”

As for “Jakerat”—well, you saw him against London, and you’ll keep seeing him. “Junkrat is still okay, yes,” TaiRong said. “Most of Junkrat’s play is mid-range, he provides support, he does good damage to shields.” He paused before smiling a little. “But Jake uses him in another way. His own method.”

One of the bolder moves by Houston against London was having Jiri "LiNkzr" Masalin play Hanzo during a fast-paced attack phase on King’s Row. As the attack progressed, it became clear that LiNkzr could utilize Hanzo to the best of his ability due to the protection he was provided by his teammates. And that, TaiRong says, is key.

“It is simple—trusting each other,” he explained. “When I started [as a player], before coaching, I learned it was important to trust each other, like the players and the organization and the team. Even with personal things.”

It’s the open camaraderie between the players and staff that has not only launched the Outlaws towards the top end of the table, but endeared the team to their passionate, vocal fans. For them, TaiRong has a simple message, as he continues to push his students to be the best roster they can be.

“I will keep doing my job. Thank you for supporting us.”

Keep up with the Houston Outlaws and TaiRong on Twitter. Stage 2 continues today at 4 p.m., and can be watched on TwitchMLG.com and the MLG app, OverwatchLeague.com, or the official Overwatch League app.