Examining the struggles of Dallas Fuel

The Dallas Fuel head into the Overwatch League stadium in Burbank, California. Robert Paul/Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

"More changes for the Dallas Fuel. They just can't catch a break," Salome Soe "Soe" Gschwind Penski said onstage at the Overwatch League arena in Burbank, California.

She was referring to the team's recent dismissal of DPS player Kim "Rascal" Dong-jun and head coach Kyle "KyKy" Souder.

The announcement itself was posted last Sunday, raising more questions around the team. Based on the Fuel's prior performances as Team EnVyUs, and a good preseason showing, the team entered Season 1 of the Overwatch League with expectations to contend for not only stage playoffs but season playoffs in July. Instead, the Fuel have had a quagmire of roster changes, role swaps and inconsistent onstage performances, all of which happened in the glaring spotlight. Currently, the team has only one match win in Stage 3 (over the winless Shanghai Dragons) and sits at 6-19 with a -32 map differential. It's been incident after incident, out of game, that accompanied the Fuel to a disheartening 10th place spot overall in the standings.

Transparency is a word that is frequently thrown around by esports organizations and fans, especially when a team loses, makes a lineup substitution, or some sort of off-the-field issue occurs. Before the Fuel's most recent dust-up, LA Valiant CEO Noah Whinston received heavy criticism (and memetic responses) for broadcasting an important conversation with Brady "Agilities" Girardi about his future on the team. Whinston explained his philosophy days later in a Reddit AMA after the scene had already gone viral in the competitive Overwatch community.

"We want a real identity, even if that identity is polarizing and controversial," Whinston said. "There's a balance to strike with transparency."

While he lamented there wasn't an easy way to navigate situations like this, he also admitted that he and the Valiant could have presented it better. Ultimately, he stood by the decision.

"Concealing that conversation and leaving people to wonder the results of it and what led to it in the first place isn't great," he said.

In esports, the lines between the head of an organization, player and the community can seem razor thin, especially as "real life streaming" on platforms like Twitch continue to grow in popularity. For fans, Whinston's conversation with Agilities is already water under the bridge now that the Valiant are off to a 5-0 start in Stage 3 with its new lineup.

The Fuel's release of Rascal and KyKy was sudden -- despite its Stage 3 record, the team had looked much improved, especially in dive set-ups. In a statement released later on, Team EnVyUs and Dallas Fuel owner and CEO Mike "Hastr0" Rufail tried to explain the situation.

"Unfortunately, [Rascal's] commitment to the team did not meet our expectations and his unwillingness to communicate with the team while playing in recent matches became a large distraction," Hastr0 said.

This only led to more questions from the community as to what exactly had occurred between Rascal and the team.

Hastr0 responded to the community outcry with an AMA of his own, where he discussed the decision, along with the status of other Fuel players that the community had asked about, including main tank Christian "cocco" Jonsson. Like Whinston, he also discussed the challenge of promising transparency under the Overwatch League microscope.

"Just because we don't come out and discuss alternative solutions we have tried with our team publicly doesn't mean we haven't made serious effort to fix issues," Hastr0 said. "I promise you, we have. We read a lot of comments from our social accounts and on Reddit/Discord. I can tell you that there is a lot of misconception and that comes with the territory. It is unreasonable to expect a response from us on all of those instances as there are so many."

Before Hastr0's AMA, however, other players -- former and current pros -- rushed to comment on the situation. LA Gladiators' Baek "Fissure" Chan-hyung gave his perspective on what it was like for him to move from the all-South Korean lineup of the London Spitfire to the Gladiators. Vague tweets by various Fuel members only stoked the discussion. Former main tank FĂ©lix "xQc" Lengyel chimed in on his stream, discussing his former teammates and some of the internal issues they had as a unit.

A day later, Rascal himself streamed his thoughts on the dismissal.

"I feel very apologetic to my teammates," he said. "In Kongdoo, I think I was a good teammate, but in Dallas, I don't think I can say that I was a very good teammate. So I want to say sorry to them."

The Fuel's loss to the San Francisco Shock on Wednesday was not close, prompting another round of fervent community commentary. After the match, flex/off-tank Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangchod gave some insight on the team's communication issues. At first, Mickie seemed a bit down, but as soon as he started talking about the Fuel and his own troubles speaking English, he brightened up and became his usual, effervescent self. He added a different perspective to the Fuel's recent troubles.

"I asked [the team] at first, 'Can you say my name first before you speak?'" Mickie said of his early days on EnVyUs. "Especially in-game because you have to focus on the game. I didn't understand at all. At all."

As a holdover from the EnVyUs days and as a foreign-born player from Thailand, Mickie has a unique, inside look at the situation that has a lot to do with the Fuel's communication, and the difficulty of speaking a second language. Though he studied English in school for 15 years, he rarely spoke it outside the classroom and had enormous difficulties speaking to the team.

Mickie mentioned that DPS player Hwang "EFFECT" Hyeon went through a similar issue when he first joined the team last year.

"Now [EFFECT] is getting a lot better. He can easily understand most of the stuff but still has problems speaking. It happened to Rascal too. When you never speak English every day, even if you study it in school, it's just way different. When you're in game, everything needs to be rushed. Decisions need to be made immediately so all of that is in the moment."

Mickie is a player who prides himself on being able to do whatever he can for his team, even if it means learning an entirely different position or sitting on the bench.

"Right now it's really tough. It's the hardest time in my career," Mickie admitted. Still, he finished on an optimistic note. "I'm pretty sure that if we keep practicing hard in the future we'll come back again."