Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
One of my favorite things to watch in esports is an underdog that understands their win conditions. They don’t make the mistake of falling under the delusion that if they learn the meta that they will somehow beat the better players or teams who have already mastered the meta. Instead they strike out on their own, they delve into their unique characteristics and use their individuality to break through and find victories that are otherwise impossible. Among the various games and regions I’ve watched, Chinese esports seems particularly adept at this, especially in games where they have a small presence. They look at the resources or skills they have and come up with the best game plan possible to take wins off better teams. We’ve seen this across various esports. Has in SC2, TyLoo in CS:GO, and now the Chengdu Hunters in Overwatch.
Has, the man with a cannon
Many of the Chinese players had unique attributes in Starcraft 2. The most notable and successful among them was Cao “Jim” Jinhui He was some with legitimate skill and flair, but was forced to play on the Chinese servers with 200 ping. As that was the case, he recognized the fact that he couldn’t play the typical colossus/high templar style as all of his storms would miss. Because of that he innovated a colossus/phoenix play that became one of the styles of play throughout Heart of the Swarm.
While Jim is a good example of an underdog who made the most of his circumstances, the foreigner player that has come to epitomize this ideal is the Taiwanese player Ke “Has” Yu Feng. There are no comprehensive statistics that can objectively break down the mechanical ability of any single player, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Has is the mechanically one of the absolute worst players I’ve seen across any game I’ve watched (League of Legends, Dota2, SC2, FGC, CS:GO, OW).
Even with that caveat, Has was able to make a career of upsetting far better players and in 2018 managed to make it to the finals of WCS Valencia. How did he do it? If I had to describe Has’ process, he was a player who recognized early on that if he played the same game as everyone else, he’d never make it as a pro player.
So instead, Has honed in on cheesy unorthodox tactics that fundamentally changed the win conditions of the game. When SC2 players play Has, they don’t truly play standard Starcraft. There is no early game, mid game, or late game, there is only Has’ game. In HotS, Has did the most ridiculous cheese. The best anecdote of what Has really is comes from SC2 player Ethan “iaguz” Zugai who recounted a Has game against legendary SC2 player Mun “MMA” Seong Won,
“True story about Has.
If he goes proxy oracle and you’re going mine drop, he won’t expand. He’ll add gateways, and you’ll scout his lack of expansion. You’ll add tanks (void ray bust inc), and he’ll make one or two. Then he won’t bust. And you’ll sit up your ramp and wonder what’s taking him so long.
Then you’ll go to move out and you’ll find the bottom of your ramp full of cannons. Cannons? But I have siege tanks! I can siege them! And then his tempests open fire.
He’ll expand to your low ground natural afterwards, when his main starts to run a bit dry.
There’s a vod on youtube of him killing MMA with this, I shit you not. I really hate Has. I fucking do.”
In Legacy of the Void, Has was forced to do macro cheeses as cannon rushing was no longer viable. The build I’ve seen him use the most is the mass oracle builds and despite everyone knowing they were coming, he was still able to have a moderate level of success with it. If there was ever a player in the history of SC2 that could convince you that anything was possible, it was Has. He had no mechanical talent. His mid/late game decision making is fairly horrendous. He has no macro or concept of the meta. However he realized all of this and created a playstyle that gave him the highest percentage chance to win games. While Has will never be one of the top foreigner players, you have to respect that fact that he took what little resources he had and gave himself a fighting chance.
Speaking was overrated anyway – TyLoo
This ability to make something out of little resources was mirrored in TyLoo’s CS:GO squad. CS:GO isn’t a big game in China. As that’s the case, they had to make do with what resources and players they had to create a fighting chance. This was best exemplified in the lineup that went to the FACEIT Major. That lineup consisted of: Ke “captainMo” Liu, Hiu “DD” Wu, Haowen “somebody” Xu, Hansel “BnTeT” Ferdinand, and Kevin “xccurate” Susanto.
The Chinese scene didn’t have enough talent to create an all Chinese squad that could be competitive on the world stage. As that was the case, they united some of the best players from the Chinese region with the two best players from Indonesia: BnTeT and xccurate. It was a brilliant move given the inherent problems of the Chinese scene.
China is a world apart so they are unable to play and train with the better regions like NA or EU. This naturally meant that Chinese CS:GO was always lagging behind the meta, especially as they entered the game late. So when looking holistically at CS:GO, the three pillars of how to create a good team are: individual skill, tactics, and teamplay.
TyLoo realized that their teamplay could never catch up to the EU teams. Their tactics would always be a step behind as they weren’t inoculated into the meta. As that was the case, they all-ined in individual skill. In order to do so, they recruited BnTeT and xccurate. The cost of doing so was that BnTeT had to become the in-game leader and call in three different languages.
To overcome this inherent disadvantage, TyLoo crafted a game plan that gave them the highest chance of winning. They played an aggressive loose style that relied on every player trying to win individual duels. Among them, somebody was a totemic player as he was one of those crazy risk takers that never backed down from a fight and could throw opponents off guard. In terms of tactics, TyLoo formulated a double pack style. They split the team in two and then had both sides attack each site in tandem. The essentially dragged the game into a scenario where they either lived or died off of their skill and tactics rather than teamplay and communication.
It was a brilliant strategy that gave TyLoo the best possible chance of winning with the least amount of resources.
When all you have is a Hammond
The Chengdu Hunters are another squad that follows this pattern. While it is a completely different game and scene, the inherent philosophy behind their decisions mirrors both Has and TyLoo. Like those two entities, Chengdu Hunters realized that they had no chance of getting anything done if they followed the meta.
Instead they used their distinct individuality and history to create a battle plan that gave them the highest possible chance of winning. Chengdu Hunters have gone with an all Chinese team. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have all of the players they need to create an elite Chinese squad. Xu “guxue” Qiulin and Shilong “Krystal” Cai play on Hangzhou Spark. Huang “leave” Xin and Zheng “Shy” Yangjie are still too young to play in Overwatch. The Hunters were working with a limited talent pool.
That is what makes their run through Overwatch so interesting. They’ve polarized the team around Menghan “Ameng” Ding’s Hammond play. By playing Hammond and four dps comps as their primary strategy, the Chengdu Hunters have created a potential win condition for themselves. This is clever in a multitude of ways. First it takes advantage of the fact that Ameng is currently the most knowledgeable player on Hammond. Secondly, no other team uses this style of play so the Chengdu Hunters have a natural information advantage. Finally, it takes a level of critical self-evaluation to recognize one’s own weaknesses and come up with a plan to sidestep the issue.
This was what teams like the British Hurricane and Element Mystic did during Contenders Season 3. Both teams realized that they could not play GOATs optimally and if they forced themselves to play that style, they’d limit themselves. Instead both teams focused on the Doomfist GOATs as it took advantage of their player’s particular strengths and allowed them to dictate the game on their own terms, even though the meta was against them.
That is what the Chengdu Hunters have done with their Hammond style of play. That style in turn has created a unique metagame around the team that naturally puts opposing teams off guard. We saw this in the Chengdu Hunters match against the Vancouver Titans. The Vancouver Titans are currently the second best team in the league and have proven themselves to be the masters of GOATs in OWL.
Every other lower ranked team faced fought them head-to-head in the GOATs mirror and lost. Chengdu Hunters continued to push their style of play and then pulled out their own GOATs play to blindside the Titans. While it sound counterintuitive, it makes a certain logic. As Starcraft 2 commentator, Daniel “Artosis” Stemkoski once famously said, “The cheesiest thing a cheesy player can do is play standard.”
The switch up into normal play threw the Titans for a loop. At the same time, Ameng unveiled that he could play Reinhardt at a high level. With the surprise factor and Ameng’s Rein play, the Chendu Hunters nearly stole a series from the Vancouver Titans. In the end they fell short as they lost the series 2-3, but it was an admirable effort and one that only the Chendu Hunters could have made happen.
Making the most of what you have
What makes competition so interesting is that the playing field is rarely even in all things. There are differences in players, teams, and regions across the world. Things like money, infrastructure, culture, or player pool is distributed unequally. As that’s the case, success is relative. For a team like the Seoul Dynasty, ending mid table in the Overwatch League is failure as they can draw from the best talent pool in the world. In the case of Has, TyLoo, or the Chengdu Hunters, they are actually punching far above their weight class. They each have significant factors that stop them from being the best in their games.
Has is mechanically a terrible player with low understanding. TyLoo don’t have the resources, player pool, or understanding to match the best squads in CS:GO. The Chengdu Hunters are outclassed when it comes to roster strength in OWL. Yet each of them has used their individual traits to make the most of what they have. There is something beautiful in that and perhaps that is why each of them draws such fanfare in their respective games. No one expects them to win, but they will give you a show. They use their individualism, hone it to a fine edge, and do far better than you can ever expect. That even though we are separated from their through cultural and language barriers, these players are still able to leave an indelible mark through their personal expressions in the game.