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On January 12th, three players of the former XL2 Academy roster, Cloneman16, Mangachu and Goliath, announced that they had been let go by the organisation. Most of them cited the same reason: the intention of the organisation to sign representation from the New York metropolitan area. The academy team had just finished 3rd-4th in North American contenders despite losing both Nenne and Fl0w3R to the NYXL main roster. Logix announced his free agency three days later but didn’t disclose a reason.

 

Contenders NA had previously faced criticism as a talent development system from participating players, organisations, and fans for various reasons, such as high barrier of entry with low career prospects, questionable sustainability, and low viewership. Matt “flame” Rodriguez, General Manager of the Houston Outlaws (that recently ceased the operations of its academy system), recently wrote in an AMA that “Contenders is a really weird spot right now.” He continued, “I personally don’t think the state of it is sustainable”. Another example is the Los Angeles Valiant, who has never had an academy team and has again turned down the opportunity for one in the first season of Contenders in 2019.

When the announcement of the XL2 players reached the public, fans and even experts were primed to interpret this move as a most cynical approach to making their academy team investment worthwhile. Other academy teams such as the British Hurricane, the academy team of the London Spitfire, had seemingly tried to attract and sign British talent, but only where prospects of fitting calibre were available. Most importantly, no existing rostered players were put at risk in the process. On the surface, XL2 Academy appeared to have a more severe strategy. XL2 had let go of all but one of its Western players and were prepared to rebuild by focusing on scouting competitors from the tri-state area with a talent pool of unknown quality.

 

Esports, at its core, is built upon the values of merit; it treasures the hard-working dreamchasers.  As a result, the community responded with outrage to the seemingly implied message that marketing was promoted over performance. From the outside, it looked like, despite XL2’s historically solid performances in Contenders, Excelsior saw it merely as an incubator for Nenne and Fl0w3R. Now that this purpose was fulfilled, the rest of the players could be readily discarded. They had failed to sell the remaining members of the team into an Overwatch League franchise and so the implication was that NYXL had now found it to be financially unsustainable. Not only would they be replaced by lesser skilled New Yorkers, they’d also be able to save on salaries by having to pay less to these unproven rookies than their seasoned players, like Goliath and Cloneman16, who had been with the team since its creation. NYXL had a splendid record of marketing their roster, despite having to overcome the language and cultural barriers of their all-Korean main team. They led the league by example in branding and flair of content and carried themselves with grace in public interactions. However, the XL2 roster announcement had dropped the ball for reasons that seemed to ignore the values of the esports community at large, and the crowd was out to let them know.

 

Community backlash

 

The frontpage of r/competitiveOverwatch was flooded with the tweets of the released players and hundreds of angry comments poured in. Even former XL2 coach ioStux, who had previously worked with all members but Logix, was taking a public stance, quote-tweeting the official statement and asking if it was a joke.

 

XL2 provided application forms on their social media platforms and reportedly they received “over 300 applications, 190 over 4000sr, which 36 will be selected for trials”, again a figure so vague and wide-ranging that it was sending mixed messages.

 

Veteran esports journalist and New Yorker Slasher, who had participated in minor competitions in Overwatch two years ago and is twice the age of the average OWL player, sent in an application implying that he probably had a shot to be selected under the tri-state restrictions because the quality of players would be this poor.

Eventually the discussion landed in the private discord channel “protalk” and a lot of personalities with vested interest in the T2 scene took part. Head of events and business development Ben “Mr.Bitter” Nichol faced the enraged crowd by responding to questions, yet failed to soothe them. The conversation escalated to a point where it dropped to name calling between Nichol and ioStux and the latter later apologized publically. I, too, joined in and called the policy “rotten”, a statement that after having done more appropriate research of the situation I have now grown to regret.

 

Sifting through

 

Internally it was communicated that this move had been thoroughly considered, and only after careful sighting of the already existing talent pool had the decision been made. For those who had previously taken a spin in esports and seen these platitudes before, it sounded like a PR speech red flag used to mask an unpopular choice.

 

Additionally, there had never been much community interest in knowing the regional origin of a player in the Overwatch scene. In the case of XL2, promising up-and-coming players from the tri-state were already competing in the Tier-2 scene, so the decision to seek out this talent appears far more realistic in hindsight.

 

Second Wind, a team that placed on the same spot as XL2 last Contenders season,, has two players from the area. Both DPS players RinaVX and Frill would not have a buyout fee and had proven during the season that they were players of the calibre an academy should be looking for. It has been reasonably argued to me that Frill might be a better opportunity for XL2 than Logix, seeing how the Belgian likely commanded a higher salary and would take one of the three important import slots that become relevant next season. Most notably, Logix had signed too late to the team to be eligible to be grandfathered into the first season of Contenders in 2019.

 

It’s also worth noting that the XL2 players in question had been informed months in advance of the team’s new plans. The team also allowed the players to play out the remainder of their contracts, which were set to expire in early 2019.

 

No possible upgrades?

 

The notion that the team would either strictly or mainly consist of tri-state players was an understandable assumption by the community based on what we had been given by the public channels of the team. This proved to be false.

 

Jer, the last remaining member of the team, wasn’t even from the area. According to his twitter account, he resides in California and is merely a high quality North American main support in a market where there are very few (if any) available in comparable quality and without sizeable buyout fees.

 

Cloneman16 had been one of the less promising players on the squad and, at least on XL2, was unlikely to make it into OWL based on his current performance trajectory. Woohyal and TiZi, the two Koreans who had been cut from London Spitfire in season one and eventually swooped up by the New Yorker academy team, were no revelations and didn’t manage to gather enough attention from OWL teams to be signed. Kirby (formerly Bianca) arguably brings more momentum than Woohyal and should be an upgrade over the fading star from GC Busan who never really seemed to acclimate to the defence matrix changes. TiZi also never had the expected impact and is likely to be replaceable by at least a North American player, further freeing up a non-resident spot,. On the bright side, it can be argued that by releasing them, the players are now more likely to find their way into OWL as certain teams prefered or exclusively took on players with no or low buyouts.

 

Yaki and Kirby were then signed to the team, and both players are highly talented but currently ineligible because of their age. Based on their skill level, it is highly likely that we would’ve seen both of them in OWL had it not been for the age-lock. Both are prime prospects to be either promoted to NYXL or sold to an OWL team in OWL 2020. Yaki in particular has to be considered a step above Mangachu and would therefore twice fail the narrative of a downgrade for tri-state exclusivity.

 

The only question mark left is the replacement for Goliath. Several experts have described him to me as a cerebral player with solid fundamentals and the uncommon ability to shotcall from the flex support position. Many of them were surprised to learn that Goliath hadn’t been picked up in either season of OWL.

 

A lesson of allowing assumptions

 

Upon hearing the news about the Korean youngsters being signed, social media channels condemned XL2 for being untruthful to a policy they never explicitly committed to, yet had failed to effectively correct or indeed prevent. They had let the players come out with the news first and those framed it in a way that unfortunately communicated more disgruntlement with the decision than was even intended by those affected. This had set the tone for how all future information would be perceived and left plenty of room for interpretation, now primed to be negative. 

Afterwards they had failed to communicate concrete plans for the roster in a timely fashion. The story festered to the point where it was generally believed that XL2 Academy would be an exclusively tri-state team. Worse yet, it was assumed that their PR had communicated just that and consequently the signing of Yaki and Kirby was interpreted as a bold-faced lie. No public statements were made to rectify the situation. In fairness, these situations tend to end in a losing battle in which the alleged perpetrator upon setting the record straight is accused of having changed the decision instead of just more accurately describing it.

Taking additional internal information into account, I’ve come to the conclusion that XL2 Academy did consider future success in Contenders and on the transfer market as top priorities; tri-state affiliation for their players was merely secondary. Even my initial fear of Yaki and Kirby wasting away their talent with low skilled peers because of the tri-state limitation looks to be largely unfounded.

 

What transpired was much more of failure to anticipate public perception than a violation of esports ethics. Where assumptions can be made by the public, expect them to be the most negative interpretation of the information you’ve put out and in this case the community didn’t have to reach very far based on the way the message was put forward. This responsibility should be assumed by their management. Fortunately Mangachu has already found a new home in Mayhem Academy and other players are also in talks with other academy teams. 

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