Cal Overwatch continues defense of national title

Cal eSports (Overwatch)/Courtesy
From left to right: Kevin “SlurpeeThief” Royston, Alexander “PaiGwut” Dam, Isaias “izzyyyb” Barrera, Gandira “Syeikh” Prahandika, Daniel “Alined” Lee, and Andrew “Quantum” Huang.

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Winning consecutive championships is one of the most difficult feats to pull off in any sport. There hasn’t been a repeat NFL Super Bowl champion since the New England Patriots did it 12 years ago in Super Bowls 38 and 39. There hasn’t been a repeat MLB World Series champion since the New York Yankees did it 17 years ago. Even the Golden State Warriors, who had the best record in the history of the NBA in 2016, failed to defend their championship against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because it’s so hard to pull off, teams that do win consecutive championships often cement their legacies in history as sports dynasties.

That is exactly what the Cal Overwatch team is trying to achieve this year. “Overwatch” is a relatively new video game that was released less than two years ago in May 2016, but that hasn’t stopped it from quickly developing into a legitimate eSport.

Only four months after the game’s release, a team was formed through the Cal eSports organization to compete in the Tespa Collegiate Series. The team was composed of some of the best players on the competitive Overwatch ladder. In its inaugural season, the team won the entire tournament, earning the title of the best collegiate Overwatch team in the country and $6,000 in scholarships for each player.

Now, the Cal Overwatch team is back, this time as part of the brand new Cal eSports program. The team has three returning players from last year’s winning lineup: senior Kevin “SlurpeeThief” Royston, senior Gandira “Syeikh” Prahandika and junior Daniel “Alined” Lee, who serves as the team captain. The team promoted junior Alexander “PaiGwut” Dam and Andrew “Quantum” Huang from substitute positions and picked up senior Isaias “izzyyyb” Barrera to round out the starting roster that they hope will be able to defend their national title.

Even though the stakes are high, the team remains relatively calm and confident.

“There’s no real outside pressure. The team just really wants to win again,” Lee said.

About two weeks ago, the Bears completed the regional group stage of the tournament. They played 10 best-of-three matches against teams from colleges in western North America, finishing in third place with an 8-2 match record and an overall 17-5 game record. They swept teams from Gonzaga, University of British Columbia, University of Washington, Central Washington University, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Long Beach and UC Santa Clara.

Their first loss came against UC Irvine. The first game of the match was on a “control” map called Oasis, in which the winning team must control a rally point for a certain amount of time, similar to a king-of-the-hill style match. The second game was on an “escort” map called Eichenwalde, which involves one team escorting a payload to a destination in a given amount of time while the opposing team’s objective is to stop them.

“(The) first map was really close. I feel like we kind of threw that map,” Lee said. “We should’ve had it. And then on the second map, we had a somewhat predictable team composition, and they were able to counter our strategy.”

Their second loss was against Utah. It should’ve been a straightforward match, but two of the starting players, including Lee, had to miss the game because of a midterm conflict. The team ended up bringing in two substitutes to try to fill their shoes, but it wasn’t enough.

“If our full roster was there, Utah would’ve been an easy win too,” Lee said.

The only close win of the regional group stage was their second-to-last match against UC San Diego. The first map was Hollywood, another “escort” map, which they lost because of some individual misplays. The team then pulled together to answer back on the second map, Nepal, another “control” map. They carried that energy into the third and deciding map, Hanamura — an “assault” map that requires one team to capture two rally points while the other team tries to defend — and closed out the match for a 2-1 series win.

The Cal Overwatch team continued their season by completing the national group stage this past weekend. They played four matches against University of Delaware, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at Arlington and Clemson, sweeping all of them and securing the third seed for the single elimination bracket. They’ve automatically qualified for the round of 16, earning byes for all of the earlier rounds.

Looking forward, the team is practicing three to four times a week, two hours at a time, in order to prepare for their round-of-16 match. When looking at the field of competition, they only see a few schools that could stand in the way of a second national championship.

“We have a very strong chance to win again. The only teams that we’re worried about are UCI, UCSD and University of Toronto,” Lee said. “UCI got some transfer students from the same previous school, so their synergy was already there. Next time, it’ll be a close game, but we’ll beat them.”

Winning consecutive championships in esports is no easier than it is in traditional sports. In some regards, the rate at which the game evolves actually makes things harder, so players and teams have to be able to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant. Despite all that, Cal is only four wins away from winning a second-straight national Overwatch championship. As a result, the Bears have the opportunity to leave their mark on the freshly formed Cal eSports program.

Lawrence Zhao covers eSports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @CelticsWpn