When the Vancouver Titans announced that they had parted ways with the entirety of their 2019 Overwatch League lineup, what had already seemed inevitable became fact. Rumors had been swirling since various players removed the Titans name from their social media bios. The Titans dismissed the entirety of a successful, playoff-caliber lineup that was the season runner-up in 2019.
Yet, this wasn’t just the Titans’ demise, but the demise of the beloved South Korean RunAway roster that the Titans organization had scooped up as its own for its inaugural season lineup.
I am not a RunAway fan, but I have a RunAway story.
Sometime in Stage 3 of the 2019 Overwatch League season, once the Vancouver Titans had finally found a dedicated Korean-to-English interpreter, the players of the Titans went to their respective interviews with English media. I interviewed Seo “SeoMinSoo” Min-soo about his Zarya play. It was a short interview, and when we walked out into the hallway, the rest of the Titans were seated on the floor. A few of the members were slumped against each other, shoulder-to-shoulder in exhaustion. SeoMinSoo joined the group, plopping down onto the carpet, leaning his back against the wall.
Usually, when Overwatch League players are done with press interviews, they will immediately make their way back downstairs, to the team rooms on the first floor of the Blizzard Arena. The members of the Titans stayed and hung out with each other, joking between checking Twitter and KakaoTalk. They waited until the last player was done with interviews and then headed down to the Titans team room together.
One of my friends, a longtime RunAway fan and a writer for the Overwatch League website, made a joke about how co-dependent the players were. It was born of a necessary chip on the players’ shoulders; they needed to be a strong family to weather a variety of storms, including a lack of funding and sponsorship.
That wasn’t the Canucks-owned Vancouver Titans. The Vancouver Titans were a scary, dominant team from South Korea who had come to raze the rest of the Overwatch League. They were cocky and larger than life, like then-main tank Park “Bumper” Sang-beom’s Reinhardt play, and kicked off their rookie season with an unprecedented 19-series regular-season win streak.
No, the scene in the hallway, that was pure RunAway. RunAway, the team that had to play from their homes and PC bangs without a dedicated team house. RunAway, the family of founding couple Yoon “Runner” Dae-hoon and Lee “Flowervin” Hyun-ah. RunAway, the team that was more known for defying their circumstances than winning championships. That was the team seated in the Blizzard Arena hallway, not the Vancouver Titans.
— Wolf Schröder (@proxywolf) May 6, 2020
It’s impossible not to look at the narrative behind this team. As an esports writer, I helped create it, after all. From an outsider’s perspective, it never seemed like the Titans organization knew quite what to do with RunAway, or who it wanted them to be. The Seoul Dynasty, to a lesser extent, went through a similar marketing crisis in the league’s inaugural season after inheriting the Lunatic-Hai fan base by virtue of signing the majority of Overwatch APEX’s Lunatic-Hai lineup. Whenever a famous or popular existing organization entered the Overwatch League, the franchise was immediately presented with a marketing problem: how much to lean on the existing narrative of whatever team had been picked up, and how to create another narrative with the new franchise name.
All Overwatch League franchises were bought with the understanding that a new organization would be created, even if the franchise had an existing name in esports. These were shiny and new franchises, both fresh and sterile. The Vancouver Titans never found their footing in that setting. They didn’t lean into the existing RunAway brand — which is somewhat understandable given the fact that they were an expansion team trying to establish their own identity — but Vancouver also never found a marketable identity beyond “a team that wins.”
This is a problem that many esports teams have, but for the former RunAway lineup and the then-current Vancouver Titans, it was a more glaring and obvious issue.
When the Titans signed the RunAway lineup, Flowervin was front and center in the team’s Twitter photo, holding up a Titans jersey. She attended their first matches at the Blizzard Arena in February 2019, and more fans in the crowd were wearing RunAway signature pink sweatshirts than Titans jerseys.
Those who hadn’t followed RunAway and didn’t know their story, though, knew little about the team other than its pedigree. Titans were an untouchable juggernaut for the first stage and lost only three total series in the entirety of the regular season. However, without a dedicated Korean-to-English interpreter for the first few stages, the Titans’ Western media appearances were limited. Unlike the New York Excelsior, who immediately went to work in Season 1 marketing their all-South Korean lineup through translated shoulder content and countless press interviews after similarly dominant onstage performances, the Titans gave the community had little to go by outside of the team’s wins.
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In situations like this, I always return to the myriad anecdotes from South Korean players making the transition to the United States in the league’s inaugural season. Adjusting to a new culture can be a minefield, even with an interpreter. The Titans had pre-existing in-game synergy, but they still had to acclimate to a foreign country. I cannot imagine what the Titans’ situation was like without a dedicated interpreter and management support; I can only infer based on what I saw from the outside. And what I saw from the outside showed some cracks in a foundation that, in a difficult time worldwide, fell apart.
It’s not surprising that the RunAway-Titans tenure ended in a spectacular implosion, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. The reaction of former flex tank Choi “JJANU” Hyeon-woo, who tweeted “I am free~~~” after the news of his release, spoke volumes about what must have been going on internally. Support Ryu “Ryujehong” Je-hong, who had been picked up by the Titans this past offseason, shared similar sentiments, saying “Dont worry ^_^ I am FREE So Happy” in his own Twitter post.
Whatever the relationship and communication was between the players and the organization, it certainly wasn’t good.
I first interviewed the Titans before their Overwatch League debut. Before their 19-series win streak. Before the broadcasters and community started asking questions about not when they would lose, but if, and how it could possibly happen, which became their narrative. Before the eventual cracks in the foundation and, about a year later, the whole thing falling apart.
“Everyone knows that RunAway was a great team and still is a great team,” Bumper said. “We still love RunAway, but Vancouver Titans is another team. We have the same people, the same players, but it’s a different identity. We’re just trying to establish that and work hard to make a name for Vancouver Titans.”
That name and identity never came to fruition.
When I think of RunAway, my mind is somehow always going to return to that Blizzard Arena hallway, where the 2019 Vancouver Titans sat and waited for each other as they moved, even out of game, as a unit. As for the Titans, I don’t know what their narrative is or even what it ever was.