It is 2021, and the Houston Outlaws are undefeated to start the Overwatch League. Outlaws hasn’t been considered a true contender since the dawn of the inaugural season, but through four games this season, they’re looking every bit of one. The team has ridden the momentum from its opening day victory against Dallas Fuel in the most recent installment of the Battle for Texas and has since triumphed over two-time OWL champions the San Francisco Shock, Paris Eternal, and London Spitfire, each win more convincing than the last.
What factors have led to the Houston Outlaws’ red hot start? Let’s take a closer look at the factors that have re-established the squad as a contender in the 2021 Overwatch League season.
Houston Outlaws re-tooled the majority of its roster after the 2020 season’s end. Only DPS duo Dante “Danteh” Cruz and João Pedro "Hydration" Goes Telles remained and at the tail-end of 2020 Houston signed six new bloods as they rebuilt around Danteh and Hydration. The mastermind behind the off-season rebuild? None other than Houston Outlaws’ general manager Matt “coolmatt” Iorio, who stepped into the role on Oct. 19, 2020.
Outlaws and coolmatt go way back — he was the team’s starting off-tank player in the first two OWL seasons and remained in the org as its logistics manager after retiring. There were big shoes to fill in the GM role following the departure of Matt “flame” Rodriguez, who had served as general manager for the entirety of the organization’s existence, but if the early results are any indication, coolmatt can navigate those waters more than well.
As general manager, coolmatt not only filled out the rest of the Houston Outlaws roster with established talents like DPS Lee “Happy” Jung-woo and support William “Crimzo” Hernandez, but also struck gold in the new talent department. Outlaws signed the tank line of Talon Esports — tank Cho "JJANGGU" Myung-heum and off-tank Shin “PIGGY” Min-jun — and in addition to the South Korean duo retaining its synergy on a new roster, JJANGGU has been the best performing tank in the young 2021 Overwatch League season.
coolmatt’s roster boasts depth, too. In Outlaws’ most recent game, Danteh was unable to play due to emergency testicle surgery, but flex DPS Kyle "KSF" Frandanisa slotted right in on no notice and contributed to a 3-0 sweep of London Spitfire without missing a beat.
In tandem with the leadership of co-head coaches Harsha "Harsha" Bandi and Choi "Junkbuck" Jae-won, coolmatt has constructed a roster that is well-rounded on paper, has already shown impressive synergy in and out of game, and features multiple players who have been coached by Harsha and/or Junkbuck in the past, which bodes well for the team’s development down the stretch. Of course, before the start of the season, coolmatt had one more move to make before properly completing the Houston Outlaws roster…
On Jan. 21, Houston Outlaws announced that former franchise face Jacob “JAKE” Lyon was coming out of retirement and would be re-joining the team for the 2021 Overwatch League season.
JAKE retired following the 2019 season to pursue casting, analysis, and other broadcast work in a more serious context, but one year later, has returned to the bedrock of his professional Overwatch journey in a unique new role.
JAKE is a player coach for the Houston Outlaws. More often than not, JAKE is helping individual players on the squad or assisting Harsha and Junkbuck, but he’s also been substituted into the roster to play the DPS role he was known for in his prime as well as the support position to play Brigitte, a hero that essentially defined his role on the Outlaws throughout 2019’s GOATs meta.
With their new roster, Outlaws have reached the top of the NA power-rankings for the first time in their history. Their rising stonks were driven by their mastery of an aggressive Reinhardt composition, spearheaded by new tank duo JJANGGU and Piggy. Their rush compositions have translated into some serious results due to their next-level team work.
The composition Outlaws have been playing consists of Reinhardt and D.Va or Sigma for tanks, Lucio and Baptiste for support, and Mei and McCree or Symmetra for DPS. This composition has been the meta throughout the opening weeks of the Overwatch league, and no one is playing it with more team coordination than the Outlaws.
Take for example the final fight of the Outlaw’s recent victory over reigning OWL champions San Francisco Shock. Shock arguably had more individual talent on their team, playing actual MVPs and world champions like Hyo-bin "ChoiHyoBin" Choi, Joo-seok "Twilight" Lee, and Minki "Viol2t" Park. But the individual skill of those players couldn’t overcome the superior team coordination and fight strategy deployed by Outlaws.
JJANGGU navigated the battlefield perfectly, finding the one weakness in the Shock frontline, while Danteh used his Blizzard ability to zone the enemy into a Piggy’s D.Va Bomb. There is no more definitive way to defeat the Shock than with this incredible Outlaw teamplay that exemplifies why they are doing so well right now.
It’s easy to dismiss the Houston Outlaws’ hot start as just that — a 4-0 is still only four matches, and those first two matches against Dallas Fuel and San Francisco Shock could have gone either way — but the organization’s best start to a season in history is a result of a cohesive, well-rounded roster from top to bottom, complete with exciting rookie talents and a few familiar faces succeeding in new roles.
Houston Outlaws won’t be undefeated forever, but for the first time in nearly three years, the team looks like a contender for the Overwatch League title, and the nature of its early season dominance points towards a true turning point for the organization. Ante up, indeed.
All images by: Houston Outlaws
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.