From the moment they entered the Overwatch League in 2019, the Chengdu Hunters were one of the most exciting teams to watch.
They weren’t the most disciplined or the most coordinated; in fact, during their first two years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d describe them that way. You never knew what you were going to get with the Hunters. The only thing you could predict was their penchant for unpredictability, something they wielded expertly to befuddle opposing teams and snatch improbable victories. A common saying was that the Hunters “could beat anyone, and lose to anyone.”
All year the Hunters have been the second-best team in the East Division, behind the mostly dominant Shanghai Dragons, for very good reason. Everything about them is better now, from their strategies to their discipline to their individual play. Chengdu’s development has chiefly been brought about by head coach Wang “RUI” Xingrui returning to the team after taking 2020 off for medical reasons.
The changes RUI made have strengthened his claim to being one of the best coaches in Overwatch. The Hunters don’t rely on the novelty of unconventional strategies and catching other teams off-guard anymore. They’re a force to be reckoned with now, a team that can play meta compositions and legitimately contend with the best of them – while still being the bringers of chaos we know and love.
The Hunters made it to three out of four tournaments and made to the finals twice. Both times, though, they were defeated, once by the Dragons and once by the Los Angeles Gladiators. Flex tank Ma “LateYoung” Tianbin said the loss against the Gladiators in the Countdown Cup that stung the most.
“The Countdown Cup hero pools were actually quite good for our team, so there was a lot of regret about not being able to become champions,” LateYoung said. “After the match, everyone was in low spirits. But there wasn’t much time to be sad about it because we quickly threw ourselves into preparing for the more important playoffs.”
The Hunters can make it far, but their biggest problem is closing out matches. This year, they’ve lost every tiebreaker map they’ve played during tournament playoffs. On paper, it doesn’t seem like that sort of thing should be a problem for them, especially considering the high caliber of players on the team. MVP frontrunner Xin “Leave” Huang in particular has dazzled all year with his ability to turn around seemingly impossible situations. He’s not the only one. Every player on the Hunters is capable of making clutch plays. It’s just never been quite enough to push them over the finish line.
“Our team has very good synergy,” LateYoung said, “but in order to get a good result in the playoffs, we’ll need to have better coordination so we can show what we’re best at.”
Unpredictability is the name of the game
The Chengdu Hunters enter an Overwatch League playoff field that looks wide open. It feels as if any team playing any style could win the whole thing, and it’s in that unpredictability that the Hunters shine. Players from other teams have said as much, too. San Francisco Shock damage dealer Lee “ANS” Seon-chang called them “the most underrated team,” and Philadelphia Fusion main support Daniel “FunnyAstro” Hathaway said the Chengdu Hunters are his pick to win the Overwatch League playoffs.
“They look really strong, and they’re incredibly difficult to prepare for,” FunnyAstro said. “A lot of the other teams have their own style which you can predict and pick a counter for, but you can’t pick a counter to them.”
The Hunters’ first-round opponents will be the Atlanta Reign, who have similarly made three tournaments this season. The two teams faced off in the Countdown Cup, where the Hunters won 3-0. Based on their previous experience playing against the Reign, LateYoung said that the Hunters were always planning to choose this matchup.
“We wanted to pick Atlanta from the very beginning because we’re familiar with their playstyle and we’ve played them before,” LateYoung said. “They’ve entered the final four of tournaments many times and are a very strong opponent, especially their damage dealers.”
Atlanta may have individual talent on its side, but the Hunters have that in spades as well. Their support line was arguably the strongest in the league during their Summer Showdown run, and both of the team’s main tanks, Ding “Ameng” Menghan and Qiu “GA9A” Jiaxin, may well be the best Wrecking Ball players in the world. LateYoung said the team’s greatest strength is the way their key players perform their roles to the fullest.
“Leave can help us create openings at crucial moments, and GA9A can provide cover for everyone,” he said. “They’re the sword and shield of our team.”
It’s 2021, and the Hunters aren’t the volatile, reckless team we used to know anymore. But that element of chaos – the thing that made them so exciting to watch in the first place – is very much still there. It’ll be their biggest advantage in playoffs. If they can sweep the other teams up in their momentum, there’s a good chance they could run away with the whole thing and finally become the best.