Perhaps the writing had been on the wall all along. In last years pre-season, Houston Outlaws faced off against state rivals Dallas Fuel. In a close five-game series the Outlaws lost it on the last submap of Lijang Tower and had to hand the first Texas Showdown to the Fuel. While they got back at them in the regular season and at times had a dominant 20 map win-streaks, the teams Achilles heel always seemed to be that fateful game 5.
In the first season, they missed had missed season playoffs by merely two wins. Perhaps that minor difference wouldn’t have stung as much, had the Outlaws not gotten into twelve tie-breaker situations of which they had lost a daunting eight of them. Worse yet, three of them had been against the Fusion, their direct competitors for 6th place. Winning just one of those most important game 5s against Philadelphia would’ve meant that the Outlaws would’ve made it, shining a very different light on their first season.
In the aftermath, General Manager Matt “flame” Rodriguez addressed the issue in a recap video of his team’s season. In it, he described their phobia of tie-breaker situations, jokingly advising his team to just not go to game 5.
Expanding on the nature of his team, flame mentioned that he saw the team as an emotional one that was prone to shuting down mentally in high pressure situations. Repeatedly he also addressed the importance of mental health on several occassions, elevating its importance even above “being on point” in one’s game, a sentiment now increasingly echoed within the Overwatch League.
In an AMA on the subreddit r/Overwatch, flame put some of the blame on their generally bad performances on the Control maptype, explaining that “some people were on roles they shouldn’t have been on” and that their new import Danteh (formerly of San Francisco Shock) should help alleviate those problems.
Looking at the numbers
Taking a look at the numbers, however, and more specifically at the total map win rates of Houston Outlaws in season 1 paints a slightly different picture. While it is indeed true that their winning record on the maptype was indeed below 50% at a sobering 26 – 28 for the first season, the score looks significantly less problematic when taking away all tie-breaker scenarios.
Suddenly the record is at a positive 22 wins to 20 losses while Assault sits at 19 wins and 20 defeats, making Control not even their worst maptype. In percentages, game 1 King of the Hill maps for the Outlaws had a 52.4% winrate, game 5s sat at 26.7%. While the sample size is low, perhaps more than just mediocrity at was at play.
New year, old problems
As fate willed it, the start of OWL 2019 would put the Outlaws once again into two tie-breaker scenarios.
In their first match they were pitted against Toronto Defiant, a team predominantly fielding rookies against them. It would be expected that the Canadian team would feel the pressure themselves and indeed the first two maps indicated a clear nervousness of its Korean players, which culminated in one of the first “C9s” on of the season as they failed to touch the cart in overtime, merely one fight away.
The Outlaws went into the half with a 2-0 lead, though the match itself was riddled with mistakes on both sides. Nevertheless, the Outlaws should’ve felt confident, given that they had rarely given up such an advantage before.
The Defiant clawed back into the series and once again brought the nightmare to Houston. Another tie-breaker would have to be played and once again Houston Outlaws had won the first Control map. In a hard-fought last map on Busan, the Outlaws would again succumb to pressure, losing yet another game 5. The scenario would repeat itself again a day later against the Boston Uprising in the same pattern – win the first Control Map, lose the decider. While he played a good series, Danteh didn’t seem to have caused the desired change.
In a chokehold by themselves?
The pattern, now sitting at an all-time organisational record of four wins and eleven losses (26,6%), seemed increasingly likely to be more than just statistical variance. In a short interview, I asked former LA Gladiators performance coach Blake “Raistlin” Panasiewicz for his opinion on the matter.
It seems reasonable to the layman that a team made up of new players would have mental issues when first competing on the big stage. For the Houston Outlaws, every player is a veteran. Why is it that they can still seem to have issues when the pressure is the highest?
The first thing I would highly encourage people to not do, is to be careful about the assumptions you are putting on the causal effect of poor performance. Mentality issues seem to be one of the major, easily attributed, subjectively measured causes of poor performance. In reality, bad mentality doesn’t lose games, poor decision making does.
Poor decision making can have a factor of bad mentality but it is only one part of the puzzle. One way to help fix that is by having good foundations and practice that are autopiloted thereby less effected by emotional decision making.
Secondly, just because you have experience does not necessarily make you better at it than someone else. It means you are more likely to be better at it. If you think about relationships as an example, getting into a lot of relationships does not necessarily mean you grow to handle those relationships better, and hypothetically someone in their first relationship could have better skills built up, if the person who has been in many has never worked on growing and improving.
If it in fact a mentality issue it would seem weirder to me that they all have the same problem. That seems highly unlikely that every player has a mentality issue. A couple of them maybe, but I would find it unlikely a full roster of players does. You are better off looking at the decisions that players made in-game and figuring out where these decisions came from.
Were they poor teachings? Did they understand things wrong? Is it a mentality issue?
Are issues like the ones that the Outlaws face usually something that is within the social fabric of the team or within each individual player?
The answer could be one or both. Without seeing the inside of the Outlaws, I don’t know if the issue is mentality or other factors. Let’s go on the assumption it is a mentality issue, it could be a couple of individual players and not being able to control feelings of frustration and helplessness. Those are some of the major factors when we look at tilting generally.
Whether or not it becomes part of the social fabric depends on how their behaviors manifest and how others react to them. Some people have defense mechanisms that make it harder to notice such as trying to keep the mood light and joke, while others completely shut down and stop communicating. How people respond to these defense mechanisms is another layer in the social fabric.
When player X notices player Y shut down, does he shut down? Does he yell? Does he try to convince him to come back? You can start to see how the circle could go through. This is why it is important to start with stable factors that happen that are easy to objectively measure and work from there. Why did this person not make this call? Did they notice it? Were they tilting?
Other esports such as CSGO had notorious cases of tilt, such as Astralis way back in the day. Their star player device had severe issues when the pressure was high. Nowadays they are ice cold and currently are seen as the most dominating team in the world, seemingly making mental fortitude one of their strengths. What can be done against tilt issues?
I mean you could start off by hiring me. Haha, I’m just kidding, kind of.
Realistically, there are a couple of different approaches you can take towards fixing tilt. You can do what is called emotional displacement. Where you functionally become semi emotionless and try to utilize the logic parts of your brain. This takes a fair amount of training or self-awareness to achieve. It is also utilized in other professions.
The second thing you can do is learn to be okay with uncontrollable variables and have knowledge of all the variables you can control. Focus on what is within your control, and don’t let the other things take mental focus away from you. You need to accept that which is beyond your control.
One of the major differences between OW and CSGO is roster moves and the way they happen. When your team is finally locked in OW or budgets restrict getting more players, you becoming emotionally frustrated and making poor decisions of things you cannot control is not going to help you. The only control you might have is trying to teach and improve and you need to have an acceptance of that.
Lastly, if it is nerves that are bothering you, you need to learn to shift it from being a nervous feeling to an excited feeling. If you think about the biological response our body has with both nerves and excitement, they are almost identical. Shifting your perspective and learning to view things differently from “I am feeling nervous” to “I am very excited” takes a lot of time but can be helpful.
Something I would like to add on as well is that if I were the Outlaws and map 5 was specifically an issue, I might want to grind a ton of that map so everything becomes so normal. This allows players to focus a bit more time on calming their emotions than having to worry about the map. Until they get used to handling those emotions.
Featured image courtesy of Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment.