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From Korea with love

Volamel 2019-09-24 06:16:07
  After the Overwatch Contenders 2019: Atlantic Showdown, Fusion University were on top of the world. And within 90 days they’re now trapped in a holding pattern, sat outside of the global finale for amateur Overwatch, Overwatch Contenders: The Gauntlet. Head coach for Fusion University, Chris "spazzo" Infante, gifted Esports Heaven a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their journey into South Korea for the majority of Overwatch Contenders 2019 Season 2.
“They’re so powerful!”  Overwatch Contenders caster Harry "LEGDAY" Pollitt exclaimed right before the eventual champions, Fusion University, crossed the finish line.
  And how could you debate that? They were a dynasty in North American, reigning dominant over the region since their first Overwatch Contenders title all the way back in the spring of 2018. Fusion University would go on to defend their title four consecutive times and emerge from the flames with gold in their hands. For a full year, not many teams could even come close to overthrowing what looked to be the best amateur Overwatch team in North America and at the head of it was head coach Chris "spazzo" Infante. After joining Fusion University in the winter of 2018, Spazzo has been apart of two title victories and joining that increasingly impressive resume would be the inaugural Atlantic Showdown title. His clinical execution of some of the best teams from North America and Europe left few meaningful questions to be asked. “I think the biggest takeaway for the guys is they finally felt like a real team,” Spazzo revealed in a post-game interview. “Playing in the same place is one thing but playing at a LAN together really brings the feelings of what being a pro gamer means. It was awesome to see these guys realize their true potential without any setbacks in their way, and they did extremely well.  “We leveled up as a team.” He continued, referencing their hardships in getting to this event. “From the ping and time difference issues to main tank swaps, I’m extremely proud of how the guys put everything aside to win the regular season,” he said. “It was a breath of fresh air to play LAN together with none of the setbacks in our way.” “Also, shout out to Carson (Carcar), he improved so much with his time in the team. I hope he showed the world how capable of a player he is. We miss you, buddy.” Throughout the event, Spazzo was incredibly open to conversation and in one instance he mentioned something that encapsulates what it truly meant to play in front of a live audience. “Live experiences are what really drive player growth.” It wasn’t the hundreds of hours of practice, it wasn’t the pressure of elimination, it was in-person interaction not only with your team but with an audience that really put players in a position to grow. Shortly after, I asked him what he meant by that. Player growth happens in many ways but playing at a LAN event and having that type of pressure really puts players in a position to grow,” he said. “The best way to learn is to do. The environments these events give players is almost like the final test. If they can perform to their best in this setting then their value as a player obviously skyrockets. So it’s nice to see Tier 2 players get this experience before being thrown into Overwatch League. This type of development is really crucial for a healthy player base.” And just as the bell tolled for the event and the Fusion University players finished celebrating, an announcement was made. Not only did they breeze past their peers to win the inaugural Atlantic Showdown title, but they were leaving North America for Season 2 to test their hand in the mecca of esports, South Korea.  As shocking as it might seem, this wasn’t completely unheard of at the time. Rare, yes, but this wasn’t groundbreaking. Throughout esports history young, talented players would make the trek to South Korea to either compete in events or outright try and join South Korean teams. If we think back to the beginnings of Overwatch, some of the biggest matches within the last few years happened because of OGN’s Overwatch APEX league and had western players win their first event and feature many teams on its undercard.  The journey wasn’t in itself unique, but what was special about it was the circumstance. The best team from Overwatch Contenders North America found such little competition domestically, it had to look elsewhere for a meaningful bout.  And they certainly found equal opponents. 
  After coasting through the promotional tournament,  Fusion University debuted against defending champions RunAway in a set that surprisingly went all five games. Ultimately the series went to RunAway, 3-2, but this was a good first showing for the western hopefuls. The next day, Spazzo shared what the environment was like in the team. “Everyone was pretty emotional but by the next day, but it was okay,” he said. “We still feel we are the better team, we didn't play our best both an individual [level] and [in] team play. Runaway was simply the better team that day.”  When asked about what could have been improved upon from the match he thought for a moment, undoubtedly having an internal debate “It's hard to nail it down to one specific thing,” Spazzo said. “Communication and timing weren't on point for us. I think had we finished out Volskaya properly the series would have taken a different turn. One series isn't indicative of a team's power level and I'm excited to face them again in the future.”  The loss was understandably painful. No one wants to lose their debut match in a new region. But Spazzo kept the troupe in order and held steadfast in his approach. Losses were nothing more than learning experiences to him. “The mistakes are tangible and we know what we need to fix in-game and on communication.” After the best from both sides of the globe had clashed, there was a clear delineation of styles. A big factor, Spazzo explained was the introduction of Sombra. In the midst of the 3-3 metagame, there was little iteration to change what exactly was being played until slowly more and more teams started to rotate out their D.Va in favor of Sombra. This allowed for a more streamlined team fight planning with EMP and later she was used to shut down an enemy Lucio’s Sound Barrier as Sombra’s team forced an engage. “There are some teams who stick to GOATS and some teams who like to experiment slightly more,” Spazzo said. “Korean teams do punish your mistakes more often though which is a result of their team play. I’m mainly talking about the top half of Korean Contenders though.” This prompted a dive into his coaching style. If he was able to pick a school of thought in GOATS, was that due to his players or his own view of the game? Was he you more of a “sit back and manage” or are a “super hands-on and opinionated” coach? It turns out--like most things--a little bit of both is required.  “Having the ability to mix both styles and know when to use each is important to me,” Spazzo explained. “Being able to understand your players from a personality level, see how they’re interacting with each other, their mental weaknesses and strengths is highly undervalued.” “This game is extremely mental and I honestly think the best method for me personally is keeping everyone on the same page in-game and mentally. I’ll always say my opinions for anything. Understanding issues and then translating it into a solution that isn’t just we need to fix X and Y always. There’s always more to situations so I try my best to see that to make sure everyone is working together holistically.” This conversation gradually transitioned into fanciful scenarios of how Spazzo would like to have the Gauntlet pan out. Spazzo gushed that “the anime-style ending would be us versus RunAway but I would be excited to play Element Mystic as well.  “Of course, it would be us going to Map 7 and winning it all.”     His words were tightly packed with excitement and a true belief in that hypothetical, but they carried respect. Respect for two of South Korea’s best amateur teams at the time, RunAway and Element Mystic. Spazzo explained that their names alone carried weight in Korea. Much like Fusion University built a dynasty in North America, RunAway was in the midst of their own, and Element Mystic tailed right behind them. Putting their legacy on the line against an equal would be captivating. Title versus title, East vs. West, imagine the storylines that could have created! Sadly, Fusion University would not be given that chance.  Throughout the following weeks, the team floundered about making the playoffs as the 5th seed with a match record of 3-4. This would put them on a collision course with an incredibly familiar opponent. They were tasked with defeating the defending Overwatch Contenders Korea Champions, RunAway. Spazzo and crew looked to improve on their initial narrow loss to RunAway but fell short at the hands of the eventual champions and would unceremoniously bow out of the playoffs with a 5-6th place finish. Shortly after the match, I asked Spazzo if there was anything he’d go back and fix. His answer was equal parts candid and brave.  “I think our preparation going into it could have been better, especially in terms of the Widowmaker aspects on Ilios,” he said. “I don't think there are many specifics other than that I would go back and change.” We often see coaches step into the line of fire for their players and this was no different. But this was different. Strategically things were sound, but Spazzo went out of his way to deter any blame or criticism be placed on his players. “Just better preparation from my end but the players did their best given the circumstances.” With their playoff dreams dashed, the team now lies in wait. Fusion University are beached as their peers from around the world set sail for the grand finale for Overwatch Contenders, The Gauntlet. With this in mind, one has to wonder where a head coach's mind is at now that their fate is in a weird state of purgatory. However, Spazzo’s work ethic and generally positive outlook were unmoved. “I just do what I have to do,” he explained. “That keeps me motivated and it's more habitual by now. Be the best version of myself for my future teams [and] players, so putting in the work required is just like a player grinding the game.” Those same players wade forward into the postseason submerged in waves of uncertainty. Waves that will undoubtedly erode and alter the dynasty that captured the hearts and minds of the Overwatch Contenders community.  Tasked with writing a touching note for any departing players that may be transferring or being called up for the 2020 season of the Overwatch League, coach Spazzo doted on his brothers-in-arms. “It was a pleasure to watch your passion and efforts within this team from practice to playing at LAN. I wish all of you the best in your Overwatch League careers and I'll always cheer you on.” Signed “From Korea with love, Chris "spazzo" Infante.”
Joseph “Volamel” Franco has followed esports since the MLGs of 2006. He started out primarily following Starcraft 2, Halo 3, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. He has transitioned from viewer to journalist and writes freelance primarily about Overwatch and League of Legends. If you would like to know more or follow his thoughts on esports you can follow him at @Volamel. Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

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