Between covid-19 and countless other difficulties, Overwatch League’s make-or-break third season has gone as far off the rails as anyone could have imagined. Now, after losing a star player to Valorant last week, the league has lost one of its top teams. At least, temporarily.
Today, the Vancouver Titans, last year’s second-place team behind championship winners the San Francisco Shock, announced that they’ve parted ways with nearly every member of their roster—one made up largely of players from beloved Korean team RunAway. Specifically, HyoJong “HakSal” Kim, Minsoo “Seominsoo” Seo, Seongjun “Slime” Kim, Chunghee “Stitch” Lee, Juseok “Twilight” Lee, Jehong “RyuJehong” Yu, and Chan Hyeong “Fissure” Baek have all become free agents, as have coaches Yang-won “Yang1” Kweon and JaeHong “Andante” Hwang. According to the Titans organization, all of those players and staff “agreed to mutually part ways” with the team, except for Baek, who the Titans “released.” Last week, tank player and season two MVP contender Hyeon-woo “Jjanu” Choi and head coach Jisub “Pajion” Hwang also parted ways with the team.
In a post on the Vancouver Titans website, the organization chalked the sudden implosion up to logistical issues stemming from covid-19. As the season began, the team was set to operate out of a facility in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, but that plan fell apart when countries began to grasp the full scope of the covid-19 threat. The Titans’ players, all of whom are Korean, were forced to return home. After Overwatch League reshuffled a bunch of matches and switched over to an entirely online format, the Titans hoped to continue in a division that matched players’ timezone. It didn’t work out.
“Our initial plan was for the team to join the Asian division and continue to play the new schedule from the comfort of players’ homes, but it was quickly apparent that this created a whole new set of challenges,” the Titans organization wrote. “The time difference made it difficult for management and the home fanbase to connect with the team and technical challenges for the players playing from home further exacerbated the situation.”
And so, “after much deliberation and conversation with the players,” the organization decided to find a new roster and move the team back into the North American division. The Titans will announce a new roster “in the coming days.”
As for the ex-players, many have taken to Twitter to say that they’re now looking for new teams, though some, like professional Overwatch longtimer Yu and tank player Baek have announced that they’ll be taking breaks before resuming their careers. Baek also said that players will not receive pay for the remainder of their contracts with the team.
Speaking to Kotaku under the condition of anonymity, two sources with knowledge of players’ interactions with the Vancouver Titans and their owners, Canucks Sports & Entertainment, said that the player roster’s departure was the culmination of a larger pattern of mismanagement. Even before the pandemic, the sources said, players were not satisfied with season three accommodations, which were akin to small hotel rooms with concrete walls and little else, as opposed to the state-of-the-art facility the Titans organization described in today’s post, and far nicer housing provided during the previous season.
The team’s core roster was also dissatisfied with their contracts, which the organization neglected to renegotiate in a significant way despite an excellent season two performance, preferring instead to spend a disproportionate amount of money on two big-name new players, Baek and Yu. Timely payment, in general, was an issue, though it got better over time. Still, one source said that players were planning to “strike” and refuse to play before the pandemic hit. Then, according to both sources, when it did hit, players were forced to find their own housing back in Korea, instead of having it provided by the organization. This, said one source, is in stark contrast to how some other teams handled the situation.
“Many teams were required to make spur-of-the-moment decisions this year when it came to accommodating their players amid the pandemic,” the source told Kotaku. “Chinese OW teams had to move to Korea temporarily. The lengths those orgs went to make sure their players had the most ideal situations possible (even if they weren’t perfect) living [in] Korea were massive. Vancouver did nothing to try and accommodate the players when they returned home.”
Communication was also an issue, with one major point of contact going incommunicado for a month, according to one source. In general, said the other, the North-America-based organization just didn’t seem equipped to run a team made up of Korean players.
“A lot of these teams, especially the Korean ones, have/had support staff on-site who were capable of helping the players to adjust to living in an unfamiliar area,” the source said. “The Titans really didn’t have that. I think the easiest way to describe it would be that it [was] like the org wanted to get involved in esports but didn’t take day-to-day ownership of their investment. They treated it like it was something you only had to invest time in at the beginning of the season, and the team would operate itself.”
In the end, given the conditions, many players agreed to leave the team, precluding them from receiving the remaining payment on their contracts. Baek did not, so, according to one source, “instead of releasing him and paying out his contract, [the organization] claimed he breached his contract so they could release him without paying him.”
Kotaku reached out to the Vancouver Titans and Overwatch League for more information, but as of this publishing, the league pointed Kotaku to the Titans’ initial statement, and the Titans did not reply.
[Update: 7:08 p.m.: A source with the Vancouver Titans disputes some of these characterizations of events, saying in response to a question about payment timing that “players were paid in agreeance with their contracts.” The Titans source also stressed that professional sports teams like the Toronto Raptors spend training camps at the same facility the Titans were housed at the start of the season. The source added, however, that there were “ongoing discussions around the players and their living conditions” with the team’s general manager prior to the covid-19 outbreak. The source also said that Yu and Baek were, indeed, making more money than other players, but the amount was not, in their eyes, “substantially higher.” As for living arrangements in Korea, the source said that players had accommodations in which they “agreed” to live and play. Lastly, while they declined to disclose the exact terms of Baek’s release, they said that his contract was terminated “for cause”—that is, as the result of some kind of breach—today.]
Last week, Overwatch League VP Jon Spector published a letter to fans acknowledging that season three has been “a bumpy road,” but also touting future plans like a tournament structure set to kick off this month, improved production values, and playoffs later this year. He also said that token drops, a Twitch feature that allowed players to earn in-game currency by watching matches, will finally be part of OWL’s current offering (at least, on OWL’s website and mobile app) in “a few weeks.” A YouTube equivalent is “still being worked on.”
In his letter, Spector also acknowledged player departures and retirements.
“We know from talking to our players and teams that covid-19 has placed an incredible amount of stress on many of them,” he wrote. “We and our teams have worked hard to support players, including things like providing free world-class health and wellness resources. But I do expect more players will make difficult decisions to prioritize things other than their professional careers in this environment. We wish them all the best and understand and respect those decisions. They’ll always be a part of the Overwatch esports family.”